Principals are key culture and thought leaders in schools, with the potential to profoundly impact students’ experiences and performance while being well-compensated. So it’s generally no surprise that some ambitious young teachers eye a future takeover of a principal’s office when considering career advancement. Most principals are teachers before moving into administration.
Former teacher and principal Mary Borba says it helps greatly to have experience in the classroom prior to taking on leadership roles in school systems.
“The work of an elementary school leader requires multiple skills, and knowledge about teaching, instructional leadership, organizational management, and the change process is central to a successful principalship,” Borba noted in an editorial for the National Association of Elementary School Principals.
For example, executing teacher observations without teaching experience means feedback and evaluation can lack perspective.
“Meaningful teacher evaluations are not possible when principals have little knowledge about the instructional process and best practices,” Borba said.
It’s also important for teachers looking to transition into leadership roles to understand other challenges.
Jessica Johnson is an Elementary School Principal and District Assessment Coordinator in Wisconsin. She’s also Wisconsin’s 2014 Elementary School Principal of the Year.
“While there are many positives to school administration, one of the pitfalls is the isolation that comes with being an administrator,” Johnson wrote on her blog. “I have previously written and shared in presentations … that [being in the front office] is like being on Admin Island.”
One way to combat isolation is to become a “connected educator," using social media to connect with other leaders from across the country. Hashtags specific to school leadership include #principalpln and #principalsinaction.
“I have to honestly say, that I don’t know how I could do this job without being a connected educator,” Johnson wrote. “I learn so much everyday from other educators across the world on Twitter, Voxer, Blogs, and Pintrest everyday. I am certain that if I were to go back into the classroom, I would be a far more effective teacher today than before I was connected.”
For tech-savvy educators seeking to learn more about administration, a number of websites offer resources and free materials. The the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) website offers a resource page with suggested reading materials, copies of Principal magazine, newsletters, white papers and links to sessions from the NAESP annual conference.
Webinars and online learning possibilities can also help. A number of “principal practice” videos are available for free streaming on the PBS Learning website, funded by the Wallace Foundation. Education World also has a collection of resources called the Principal Files, focused largely on occupational challenges.
But studies show most teachers don’t actually want to leave the classroom.
In 2013, MetLife surveyed teachers about their goals. Their findings? Around 25% of teachers were interested in a blended role of teaching and leadership. An additional 84% of them were either “not very” or “not at all” interested in becoming a principal.
An alternative option for teachers is the pursuit of continued professional development. Specifically, “teacher leadership” studies can help provide intensive training.
The National Academy of Advanced Teacher Education (NAATE) offers a unique two-year Master Teacher Program, defined as a “rigorous program designed to create whole school change through School Leader and Teacher Leader learning and development….” Teach Plus also offers leadership-specific training through a variety of initiatives and fellowships.
A 2013 report by the Aspen Institute, “Finding a New Way: Leveraging Teacher Leadership to Meet Unprecedented Demands,” notes teacher leaders can help colleagues in the classroom.
“They might be called on to conduct teacher evaluations and provide coaching to colleagues, which would ease the burden on principals,” report author Rachel Curtis writes. “A teacher leader might supervise and support groups of teachers and make instructional and staffing decisions, with ultimate responsibility for the achievement of all the students the group of teachers collectively teach.”
Still, educators should be choosy when it comes to settling on a training or initiative. Some programs, like the federal Department of Education’s Teach to Lead initiative, have seen mixed results.
And even with the “master” skills gained from such a program, a teacher is still a teacher afterwards. Acquiring leadership skills doesn’t guarantee a salary increase — far from it, in fact.
“Now that some school systems are tackling what have historically been untouchable compensation structures, pay can be aligned to teacher performance and differentiated roles,” Curtis wrote, noting school systems tend to “graft” new teacher leadership roles and compensation strategies onto old systems, subsequently manifesting in an unsustainable long-term model.
Moving forward, school systems will need to keep pace with their most ambitious educators, to both strengthen teacher retention and strengthen school culture and moral.