How to be a strong leader while creating a supportive environment
Two weeks before the end of the school year, Beth and other math teachers met in her classroom to discuss the scores students had earned on the statewide end-of-course algebra test a few days prior. The state department of education was going to allow students to retake the test before school ended, so the teachers brainstormed an idea to help the students who had failed the test. Excited about their plan, Beth called the school’s new mathematics instructional coach and told her that they had a strategy they believed would work.
A few minutes later, the coach walked into the classroom with crossed arms and pursed lips. She listened to the math teachers describe their plan, which included using the daily 30-minute intervention period for the strongest teachers to instruct the students who were struggling the most. Before the coach could say anything, the principal—who was in his first year as a leader at the struggling school (and Beth’s third principal in six years there)—walked in and accused the teachers of looking out only for themselves. He angrily stated that he and the coach would develop a plan, and the teachers would do what they were told.
The math teachers were stunned. The principal didn’t even listen to the teachers’ ideas, and he accused them of not even considering what was best for students.
Beth typically worked nine- to 10-hour days and spent hours every weekend planning lessons and grading papers—forsaking time with her own family. She believed her students could learn mathematics at a deep level if only the adults in the building would provide more engaging and challenging assignments. As the mathematics department chair, Beth worked to move the paradigm of the other teachers in her department through collaborative planning and encouraging change, but changes without the support of the principal were tough. She knew not every teacher in the school shared her beliefs, but she believed most of her department did. Most colleagues in the mathematics department were willing to try anything to help struggling students. How could their principal accuse all of them of being so self-centered that they didn’t put students first?
A Far Too Common Trend
Like Beth, many teachers have stories about feeling mistreated by school-level leaders. Some stories are less intense; others are more shocking. In 2008, research in the Journal of Educational Administration titled “The Mistreated Teacher: A National Study” surveyed 172 elementary, middle level, and high school teachers to determine teachers’ perceptions of mistreatment by their principals. Almost 80 percent of respondents reported their principal’s mistreatment caused at least moderate harm to themselves, and nearly half (48.8 percent) rated that harm as “serious” or “extensive.” More than 58 percent noted their principal tried to intimidate them, and 57 percent reported the principal abandoned them in difficult interactions with students and/or parents. More than half of the teachers also noted their principal:
- Failed to recognize them for work-related achievements
- Favored certain teachers
- Ignored them
- Nitpicked about time or micromanaged them
- Made unreasonable demands
- Stonewalled them
In fact, the effects of principal mistreatment can create emotional ramifications for teachers. In a 2017 article titled “Good Cop, Bad Cop: Exploring School Principals’ Emotionally Manipulative Behaviours,” researchers found that teachers experience negative feelings in their interactions with principals when the principals exhibit emotionally manipulative behaviors. Researchers also found that teachers who feel mistreated by their principal are likely to feel stress, experience insecurity, resent the principal’s mistreatment, fear their reputation will be damaged, experience a diminished sense of professionalism, and consider leaving teaching as a profession.
Walking the Line
So, how do school principals walk the fine line between being a strong leader and not being a destructive one? The solution centers around intentionality in actions and speech.
- Create a shared vision by seeking input from teachers and students. Use that vision to guide all decision making, and hold fast to that vision when other initiatives and pressures push in. Teachers will understand if you turn down their desire to attend a conference or purchase classroom materials if they cannot show how the conference or materials connect to the shared vision. Cite this vision when explaining why certain decisions were made. Teachers and students will keep their focus on teaching and learning if they believe the principal’s focus is there.
- When teachers try to problem-solve, assume their intentions are good and focused on students rather than jumping to negative conclusions. Ask clarifying questions. Praise teachers for their efforts even when they fall short. Encourage them to try again. Most teachers give their best every day to their students. Their decisions are centered around students’ learning needs. Be a transformational leader while keeping in mind that change is hard.
- Be a servant leader by considering the needs of teachers and building relationships with them. Get to know teachers on a personal level. They have lives outside of school, and they need their principal to recognize the sacrifices they and their families make. Many teachers spend countless extra hours at school or at home working—grading papers, writing lesson plans, emailing parents, and performing other duties. Teachers want to feel valued and important to the mission of the school. They want to know the work they do is noticed and appreciated by their principal.
- Be a trustworthy leader by being consistent. Let your “no” mean no and your “yes” mean yes. Teachers are always watching to see who the principal’s pet is, just as students watch for the teacher’s pet in the classroom. Be consistent with your decisions. When your “no” becomes “yes, but just for you,” other teachers begin to lose trust in their principal.
Mistreatment by principals can have long-lasting effects on public schools. In this case, Beth considered transferring to another school in the district even before the teachers held the department meeting outlined above. She had put her name on the transfer list because she had not felt supported by the new principal all year. After the meeting, Beth knew she needed to leave. At that moment, she even considered leaving the teaching profession altogether.
Like so many employees, she wanted to feel valued. She wanted her boss to see her as an important member of the team. Within a few weeks of the school year ending, Beth became an instructional coach for a small nonprofit educational organization, where she worked with teachers on shifting their instruction and with coaches and principals on how to best support those teachers. As an educator with innovative ideas and a heart for students, she did not let a destructive leader end her career in education.
As a principal, be sure to show your teachers that their opinions matter. Entertain their suggestions and solicit their feedback. Collaborate with them to formulate plans of action that will improve the whole school. Knowing that the changes are brought about by the whole team can be empowering, and teachers will appreciate your support.
Amanda B. Merritt is a school improvement instructional coach for the Southern Regional Education Board, a nonprofit education advocacy organization headquartered in Atlanta.
Sidebar: Building Ranks™ Connections
Dimension: Collaborative Leadership
When principals empower other school leaders, teachers, staff members, and students to lead, they increase leadership capacity within their schools. When principals work collaboratively, they enable decision making that is informed by diverse perspectives and implementation that is enabled by buy-in, providing stronger learning opportunities for students. As a school leader, you can cultivate collaborative leadership in several ways by employing the following strategies:
- Encouraging staff members and students to step into leadership roles
- Trusting and supporting staff members, students, and parents when they take calculated risks and initiate ideas aligned with the school’s vision, mission, and values
- Creating structures that allow staff members to work together
Collaborative leadership is part of the Leading Learning domain of Building Ranks.