An open letter to school administrators

School administrators have a choice in how they see and treat teachers—and that choice profoundly affects how schools operate. If we see teachers as “those that can’t do,” then administrators will remain overwhelmed with responsibilities and teachers will continue to feel underutilized and under appreciated. But if we see teachers as highly intelligent, caring, committed professionals, our responsibilities can shift to inspiring, empowering, and assisting teachers as they “do” the critical work of helping to lead their schools.

 

This blog post was co-authored by Adam Tilove and Andrea Katzman of Jewish Community Day School of Rhode Island.

Recently, the authors of this article—a head of school and a classroom teacher—were lucky enough to attend the first ever Teacher-Powered Schools Conference to explore ways in which we could re-envision the relationship between teachers and administrators and the work that we need to accomplish together. The conference was inspired by a simple idea: trust teachers to make meaningful decisions, not just within their own classroom, but also for their schools.

The Teacher-Powered Schools Conference incorporated ideas from the broader networked business world in which organizations are beginning to operate in a non-hierarchical model. Consider the work of Frederic LaLoux, a management consultant and author of Reinventing Organizations. He has examined many companies—some small and some large, now operating entirely without “bosses”—businesses which he characterizes as “teal.” Unfortunately, LaLoux classifies most schools as being fairly primitive “amber” organizations: highly hierarchical, formal, and static. The Teacher-Powered Schools movement offers a new model to consider—one that is collaborative, dynamic, and empowering to all stakeholders.

We left the conference feeling inspired and energized. It was exhilarating to be around so many educators who are deeply committed to their craft, their students, and their schools. During our time at the conference, we learned so much, and we want to share a few of our ‘ah-ha’ thoughts with you.

First, despite the data that shows that our society overwhelmingly trusts teachers to make meaningful decisions about education and our schools (and evidence that teachers want to be empowered to do so), this was the inaugural Teacher-Powered Schools National Conference—the first of its kind! With just over 200 participants, the conference was a success, yet its supporters also represent a tiny fraction of the estimated 3.6 million teachers in the United States.

The second thing we found striking was that Adam (head of school for our school) was one of only three administrators at the conference. By and large, the conference was populated by teachers who were eager to take on more responsibility, but felt stymied by their principals, superintendents, or simply the system. Yes, the name “teacher-powered schools” describes schools with highly trusted and active teacher-leaders, but its vision does not necessarily diminish the role of administrators.

We want to suggest several reasons why school administrators should be paying attention to this movement and supporting its growth in their own schools:

  1. It models good education. If we believe that excellence in education requires that teachers be the “guide on the side, not the sage on the stage,” shouldn’t principals also embrace a similar vision? If we believe in student-centered classrooms, in which the teacher fosters student choices and ownership of material, shouldn’t our school leaders foster “teacher-centered schools” in which teachers help set the course of action and determine the pace of change? For example, what might it look like to model in our staff meetings the kind of authentic and empowering educational experience we want for our students?
  2. It builds meaningful partnerships. Too often, teachers and administrators see themselves as being at odds with one another. Teachers frequently complain that administrators have unfair expectations, or are too far removed from the classroom to understand what’s really going on. Administrators often feel pressured on all sides—by their higher-ups, by teachers, and by families and students. What if teachers and administrators found ways to truly understand and support one another? What powerful effect would this have on job satisfaction, workplace longevity, and student learning?
  3. It decisively benefits teachers and administrators. Administrators are often overwhelmed by the number and range of their duties and responsibilities. In small, independent schools, such as ours, there is often only one lead administrator responsible for everything from fundraising to admissions, facility maintenance to reviewing the curriculum, evaluating teachers to…you get the picture. Schools are complex systems (even the small ones), and administrators are often scrambling to put out fires rather than taking care of other long-term responsibilities; yet, we often squander our greatest resource—the teachers! Not only are teachers willing and able to do many of the jobs of leading a school, they do the work exceptionally well. For example, in our school, where the head of school is also the principal, we struggle to provide enough direct supervising, coaching, and evaluation. We are embarking on creating a peer mentoring system in which teachers collaboratively create protocols, set goals, observe one another, and give each other kind, honest, and critical feedback. By doing so, everyone benefits. Teachers deepen their relationships and receive the additional feedback and supervision they crave; administrators—like Adam— are free to do the essential fundraising, board development, and admissions work so necessary for our school to grow and thrive.

School administrators have a choice in how they see and treat teachers—and that choice profoundly affects how schools operate. If we see teachers as “those that can’t do,” then administrators will remain overwhelmed with responsibilities and teachers will continue to feel underutilized and under appreciated.

But if we see teachers as highly intelligent, caring, committed professionals, our responsibilities can shift to inspiring, empowering, and assisting teachers as they “do” the critical work of helping to lead their schools. The Teacher-Powered Schools movement is helping to lead the charge to move schools from the 19th century hierarchical model to the 21st century networked model. We hope we will meet you at next year’s conference!