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School Leaders – Always Be a Teacher First

Published on: May 30, 2022

male teacher
Photo credit: Pixel-Shot/Adobe Stock

On a recent flight, as I listened to the standard safety demonstration before the plane took off, I was surprised to find myself making correlations with teaching and school. And, as always, thinking about teaching led me to think about the implications of being a school leader and a capable administrator.

I steadfastly believe that to be an effective leader, you must not only understand the most impactful teaching methods but also model these best practices in your administrative responsibilities. First and foremost, you must always be a master teacher and be open to receiving guidance in unexpected ways.

Effective School Leaders Use Visuals.

“Please watch the monitor to hear about our safety features and procedures.”

After that verbal prompt, a five-minute instructional video began playing on the screen. As a variety of individuals discussed the different protocols, diagrams with arrows, highlighted portions of the presentation, and pictures accompanied the verbal descriptions.

Too often, we preach the importance of using visuals, but when it comes to addressing a room full of faculty members, we suddenly think “stand and deliver” is the best way to distribute information or teach adults new research-based strategies to support instruction. This lecture-style approach is neither a best practice for instructing students, nor is it for adults.

When presenting to faculty and staff, make meetings and professional training sessions interactive, and always provide visuals to support verbal information. As almost every classroom teacher knows, most students are visual learners rather than auditory learners. For this reason, incorporate visual aids into your instruction. You can employ these principles, coupled with hands-on training, when teaching both children and adults.

School Leaders Focus on Inclusion.

“Welcome. We are so glad you are here.”

Bienvenidos. Estamos muy contentos de que estés aquí.”

Not only did the plane’s monitor include Spanish translations, but it also incorporated closed captioning for the deaf and hard of hearing. At one point, an American Sign Language interpreter signed the message. Speakers of different ages and positions (attendants, pilots, baggage handlers, etc.) took turns delivering different information.

This is a great reminder to all of us — including leaders and teachers — to recognize an often-overlooked truth: Someone may look like us but may or may not communicate like us. This is just one reason why inclusivity is so important. We must ensure that everyone has equal access to our instruction. Responsibly monitoring our actions, content, and method of communication allows a message to successfully reach our entire audience.

In the classroom, we continually remind teachers about the need to be “all-inclusive.” We (teachers and administrators) must be aware of diversity and proactive when interacting with students with different ethnicities, primary languages, gender identities, learning needs, socioemotional needs, communication needs, and more.

Administrators and principals must model this same level of awareness with staff — especially when it comes to their learning and emotional needs. Just like our students, different staff members have different needs. We, as leaders, must adjust and respond as we help our teachers develop, supporting them based on where they are and what they need to be successful. 

To do this, school leaders and administrators must get to know their teachers, learn about their strengths and needs, and find ways to support those needs using a variety of strategies. For example, some teachers may respond well in large groups, while others may need more individual attention or specific accommodations.

Using Positive Reinforcement.

“Thank you for wearing your mask.”

I must have heard this at least 20 times before we ever got out of the city. As I looked at passengers improperly wearing facial coverings below their noses or around their necks, I understood the need to keep referencing masks.

At one point, the flight attendant said, “Thank you for wearing your masks. And when I thank you, that means I thank you for covering your nose and mouth. We appreciate you wearing your masks properly.”

This is similar to what occurs in a classroom, when teachers prompt behaviors by saying things like, “Thank you for keeping your voices quiet and keeping your eyes on me.” After a prompt like this, we can expect students to stop talking as others turn their attention to the teacher. Positive reinforcement of expected behavior is always more effective and has long-lasting influence. It also reduces the need to correct unwanted behavior, which can steal valuable time within the classroom.

Leaders should note that the power of positive reinforcement also goes a long way with adults. Always express your appreciation for when and how your staff’s actions met expectations or directives. Those who already performed the action will appreciate you noticing. Those who forgot or got distracted will come back and follow the expectation or directive. Then, thank them again for following through. And for the few outliers, you can only hope that their behaviors will change over time. Keep positively reinforcing them to guide them toward improvement.

Effective Administrators Offer Efficient Explanations.

“In case of an emergency, drink and snack service will be suspended.” 

Oh, so I didn’t get my Goldfish crackers because the plane is crashing… Good to know!

Teachers must always be explicit in their directions and teaching. This leads to better understanding and deeper comprehension. Leaders must do the same. ALWAYS give an explanation when giving information to your teachers, especially when it seems like staff may consider it to be an illogical directive. Let them know what you are thinking and the reasons behind your decisions. There is a reason why it is important to be transparent — doing so garners trust and understanding.

Always Give Thanks.

“Thank you for flying with us today.  Thank you for spending time with us.”

Kindness goes a long way in the classroom. Teachers must continually build up students and model good manners regarding the treatment of others. Students deserve kind actions, no matter what their behaviors might be. Teachers’ actions should reveal how they want students to be. Saying thank you and demonstrating appreciation should be ingrained in classroom practice.

Leaders must do the same, especially in trying times. Sometimes we get irritated and don’t think that someone deserves being thanked for anything. Rise above the behaviors of others, especially when they don’t meet expectations or norms. Express your gratitude for your staff’s attempts, efforts, and actions at all times. They will appreciate your thanks, which will simultaneously help build a positive school climate.

Flying Education.

I hope you’re prompted to remember this article every time you fly. Don’t forget to use these effective practices back in the classroom or with your staff. For more advice and strategies on providing excellent leadership for your school, check out these professional development courses from Advancement Courses:

  • A Year in the Life of a School Leader: A Roadmap to Success: Create a plan for a stress-free school year, including how to establish a vision and expectations at the beginning of the year, help teachers stay motivated around the holidays and state testing time, and create data-driven improvement plans over the summer.
  • The Art of Delegation: A School Leader’s Guide: Become a healthier, more successful leader through the power of delegation. Learn when to delegate, what kinds of tasks to delegate, and how to choose and coach the right people to help you lead your school to success.
  • The Seven Domains of Teacher Leadership: Becoming a teacher leader is about much more than taking on a new title. Learn how to make a meaningful impact on your school’s improvement efforts and create a more equitable learning environment for your students.
  • Recruiting, Retaining, and Reengaging Excellent Teachers: Some call the teacher attrition rate a crisis, but it doesn’t have to be at your school. Learn step-by-step strategies for attracting and hiring the best teachers; coaching and helping your teachers reach their professional goals; and promoting a healthy, burnout-free culture.
  • Using Data to Understand Inequities in Schools: Inequities in education are sometimes easy to spot, but more often, inequity is not so apparent. Looking closely at student data points such as demographics, enrollment, attendance, and discipline can often tell a deeper, richer story about inequities that may exist in your school.
  • Networking to Strengthen School Leaders: School leadership can be a lonely job. Learn how to surround yourself with mentors and collaborators who will challenge, encourage, and inspire you to build a stronger school and a healthier, more passion-fueled career.

In addition to these, Advancement Courses offers more than 280 online, self-paced PD courses covering both foundational topics and emerging trends in K–12 education. Courses are available for both graduate and continuing education credit for your salary advancement or recertification needs.

Lisa Sheehan

Lisa Sheehan has an undergraduate degree from Bellarmine University in art education and graduate degrees from the University of Louisville – Master of Education and Specialist in Education. Lisa taught art and in the regular classroom before moving into administration for 17 years. During her time as an administrator, Lisa was an instructional coordinator, gifted and talented coordinator, assistant principal, and building principal at Buckner Elementary School, in Oldham County, Kentucky. Lisa has been an adjunct professor for graduate classes at Bellarmine, undergraduate courses at University of Louisville, and served as a KTIP university resource teacher.

This article first appeared on Advancement Courses.