Administrators can make or break school culture. Here’s how to spot the best (Opinion)
Talking about school quality tends to focus on teachers – what they do to affect student achievement, how they succeed or how they fail. But district and building administrators also have a huge influence in the education equation, a factor that is often overlooked.
Over a 25-year career, I have worked in four schools as an elementary school teacher, reading specialist and literacy coach. I have been led by 12 different managers and countless district administrators who have crossed the spectrum from fantastic to problematic.
Administrators have a huge influence on the working conditions of teachers and the success of students. When teachers work under a poor leader, morale sinks and negativity permeates the school or district culture. When districts and schools are populated by positive and dynamic leaders, students are the ultimate beneficiaries. Teachers thrive and grow under great leaders and, in turn, student instruction is enhanced.
Over the years, I have noticed the recurring characteristics of difficult administrators and strong administrators. I learned to recognize the motivations and characteristics of those in power and, where possible, seek out a work environment where leaders create working conditions rooted in growing teacher capacity and a positive climate. Hopefully this list can help other teachers point out problematic behavior when they see it and articulate the qualities they would like to see in the school leadership.
(All vignettes shared in italics below are from real-life experiences I’ve had during my teaching career. In some examples, pronouns or positions have been changed.)
Four Types of Difficult Admins
The unrealistic and out of touch administrator: This leader has forgotten what it is to teach in a classroom. She layers new initiatives and expectations without worrying about how they all work together.
My manager was rolling out a program that was going to be difficult to implement due to other work going on, a problem she ignored. Frustrated teachers struggled to meet the new expectations and the program did not have the expected impact.
The “I know it all” administrator: This leader thinks he has all the answers, even on topics about which he has little or no relevant knowledge. He usually does not consult others and often ends up making bad decisions.
My new director had no experience at the elementary level. Despite his lack of relevant knowledge, he announced that daily writing prompts would be administered school-wide to improve students’ writing. He did not know that our staff had recently revamped the writing program to meet the needs of the students.
The Bully administrator: This person seems to enjoy making life difficult for staff. She targets those who are willing to speak up when her decisions are questionable or have unintended consequences. She makes judgments about the staff based on rumors and the opinions of a select few.
A principal I worked with was threatened by those with extensive pedagogical knowledge. In exchange for unconditional loyalty, she gave a few staff members every opportunity for leadership and undue influence in school-wide decisions. When other staff members tried to speak out, she called them into private meetings to discuss their “transgressions” and make veiled threats.
The “It’s for the kids” administrator: This person often justifies their decisions by implying or stating that they are based on what is best for the students. The message is sent that alternative viewpoints have little or no value, leading teachers to feel that their input is not welcome.
The district administrator shared his new weekly paperwork requirement. This was confusing because similar records were already kept, which added a layer of time-consuming duplication. When asked why it was necessary, he replied, “It’s for the kids,” a phrase he often used to justify decisions that had little to do with kids.
Four qualities of high-impact directors
As problematic as the above behaviors are among school leaders, the characteristics below are those that support teachers and create a positive school culture.
The administrator takes into account the opinions of teachers: The leader evaluates staff feedback and is ready to make adjustments if something is not working.
Our principal met with teachers to discuss ways to use a new source of funding. The group members shared many ideas, all of which had merit. When the principal finally made her decision, everyone felt like their opinions had been heard and valued in the process.
The administrator plans in advance: Before implementing a new initiative, the leader considers what might present challenges. He consults with staff members who have relevant knowledge to consider angles he might not have considered.
District leaders have launched a great initiative. My director has taken a measured approach to implementation, bringing teachers together to plan how to roll it out gradually, in a way that builds on our current work. As a result, morale remained high among staff members and there was a high level of membership.
The administrator is empathetic: The leader understands how demanding the work of teaching can be. She is an active listener who cares about staff members both professionally and personally.
Our principal took the time to listen and ask questions of a struggling teacher. She discovered that in addition to having a difficult class, the teacher’s husband had just left her. Taking the time to understand why the teacher was hesitant led to better problem solving on how to move forward.
The administrator develops talent: The leader values all staff members and recognizes the strengths they bring to the table. It works to build the leadership capacity and expertise of all staff.
The principal asked several teachers to take on the task of planning and presenting professional development to staff, which they had never done before. It gave them the support they needed to develop a quality presentation and in doing so, the teachers involved developed new leadership skills.
Cultivate positive leadership
How can schools nurture and develop leaders who have positive traits while identifying leadership situations where things went wrong?
Much of the responsibility rests with the district. School systems should provide substantial and meaningful training for new administrators, including the opportunity to hear from teachers about the leadership qualities they value.
But teachers also have the power to shape leadership decisions. Network with school or district teachers to communicate how important it is for teachers to be involved in decision-making. Advocate for anonymous surveys of teachers’ working conditions, so that staff can give honest and constructive feedback without fear of repercussions. Ask the district to offer all departing staff members the opportunity to have a confidential exit interview, so that leadership issues can be uncovered that may not otherwise be revealed.
When struggling administrators do something positive, teachers need to recognize the success. If directors are open to improvement and growth, they benefit from getting feedback so they know when their leadership has been well received.
When there are difficult situations or conflicts between administrators and staff, be united in unity with other teachers. Too often, only a small handful of teachers are willing to speak up. It is very easy for an administrator to dismiss concerns when this happens. Teachers should harness the power of numbers.