How Principals Can Avoid “Administrator-itis”

My friend and colleague Scott Diamond was once a cancer research scientist. Picture all the wacky stereotypes you have about scientists and you’ll have a good idea of what Scott’s like: creative, eccentric, sharp-witted, full of nerdy charm.

Scott likes to tell stories about the lab he used to run at the University of Kentucky. He had multiple technicians and graduate students who would test his big ideas and report the details. Scott became accustomed to giving directions and waiting impatiently for the results.

One day, he asked a lab tech what was taking her so long. She told him and then did him one better—by making Scott do the tasks he’d assigned to her, himself.

Scott is a passionate scientist—and a thoughtful, gracious man. How could he have forgotten all the small steps it took to complete tasks he’d done a million times before?  The lab tech knew the answer. She told him, “As soon as you leave the bench, you’ll forget that you need things, like time, to get the work done.”

Scott talks emotionally about what he learned that day. He realized that the root of his problem then—and one of our problems in education now—is that too often decision makers forget that the people doing the work need resources to get that work done. The lab tech referred to this phenomenon as “professor-itis.”

Scott’s a high school science teacher now, and he often reflects on what he calls “administrator-itis.” He believes that no matter how well intentioned a principal is, he or she cannot avoid “administrator-itis:” forgetting or failing to comprehend the nitty-gritty details of the work because he or she is too far removed from it.

As the teacher leadership movement gathers momentum, it makes sense to take a minute and consider what this lesson means for teachers, too. I’ve seen how effective teachers can be in developing professional learning for their peers, becoming mentors and coaches, communicating what it means to be a teacher, and moving our profession forward. But I’m sure I’m hardly the first teacher who has thought: “Wouldn’t it be so much easier to do these things without having to teach all day? Shouldn’t I just become an administrator?”

However, our students cannot afford for their most effective teachers to “leave the bench” in order to contribute to the profession. It is the time we spend with students that makes us such effective collaborators, problem solvers, communicators, and passionate advocates for our work.

This year, I’ve taken on a little-known but exciting opportunity. I’m working in a hybrid role: teaching English at my high school in the mornings and serving as teacherpreneur for Kentucky’s Network to Transform Teaching in the afternoons. During the 2014-2015 school year, I will use my “preneurial” skills to create leadership opportunities for Kentucky teachers and support teachers as they pursue National Board Certification.

For me, this is the perfect professional role. When I leave my students in the afternoon to work on behalf of other teachers, I know that my efforts will come right back to benefit kids like them. Through KyNT3’s CTEPS program, I’m collaborating with 18 teachers from across the state to pool our collective wisdom and experience to solve the problems we face daily in our schools and districts. I’m also supporting teachers working through and earning their National Board Certification, something that transformed my own professional growth.

Because of my teacher leadership work, I find myself creating better lessons, having richer discussions with students, and taking a wider view on what is possible in my classroom. I’ve also met hundreds of teachers who are just as capable and eager to advance the profession as me. In my role as a teacherpreneur, I can encourage the same growth in other teacher leaders on a much larger scale.

Teacherpreneurial roles take a variety of forms and are funded in different ways—by districts, state agencies and organizations, and even individual donors. The Center for Teaching Quality is a great resource to learn more about these roles and start creating them.

But there’s also plenty that leaders in education can do today to support teachers as they work to become partners in leading the profession. Administrators can:

  • Ask teachers about the resources and time necessary to complete tasks;
  • Encourage teachers to take control of their professional learning communities;
  • Map the instructional leadership qualities found in their faculty and carve out time for teachers and staff to develop and use those skills;
  • Support teachers’ participation in alternate professional development, such as: engaging with virtual communities; writing, reading, and responding to education blogs; and contributing to Twitter chats, unconferences, ECET2, and other non-traditional professional learning environments; and
  • Learn how hybrid roles allow teachers to enrich their careers by leading without leaving the classroom.

After 24 years in the classroom, I’ve started to think about life after teaching. I ache to leave my profession better than I found it. And there are thousands of teachers just like me who want more: for our students, ourselves, and our profession. Education leaders must break free from “administrator-itis” by creating innovative career pathways for teachers so that we can transform the future for all students in this country, together.

This article originally appeared in The Washington Post: The Answer Sheet. Reprinted with permission from the author.