Squandering teacher talents bites schools where it hurts

At a time when our nation is struggling to improve education, in most schools we daily squander our biggest resource: teachers. Experienced teachers have the ability and knowledge to significantly improve the schools they work in and should be given leadership roles in developing curriculum, training new teachers, helping to evaluate programs, and leading teams. Unfortunately, this rarely happens. Why?

To be honest, I don’t completely understand why, however my gut tells me that this partly has to do with some administrators being inadequately prepared for the complexities of leading schools;  partly to do with a mismatch in roles; partly to do with the disdain our culture holds for the teaching profession.

The people who become administrators in schools in this country seem generally  to fall into one of two camps – those who are ambitious for status and money and power and leave the classroom to get these rewards; those who were never in the classroom and went straight for external rewards without learning what it means to be a teacher and part of a living, breathing school. I personally hold nothing against those who are ambitious to see some job growth in the course of their careers and so move into administration. As things stand, there is not a meaningful way to rise through the teaching ranks as one gathers wisdom and skills. Why shouldn’t people who devote their lives to service to the nation see substantial rewards for their hard work? The trouble is that we lose a lot of talented people whose true vocation is teaching when they leave to become administrators. It’s a shame we can’t keep these people in the classroom and still fête them with financial and status rewards.

Another concern is that far too few administrators seem truly meant for the positions they hold. They aren’t passionate about school leadership. Their tables aren’t piled with journals and books about education. They don’t seem to be living their work deeply. They appear to be approaching their work more like jobs than callings. The superintendents who hire building administrators need to insist that the role of leading a school should not primarily be bureaucratic in nature,  but rather one filled by people who are intrinsically driven to try everything they possibly can to make schools the most effective learning environments they can be.  School board members also need to understand this distinction and help make it possible for the superintendent to stay focused on education.

From the vantage point of teachers, most administrators seem woefully overwhelmed, and oddly oblivious to the help available to them from teachers if they would only ask. They either try to do everything themselves, which is impossible and leads to most important things in schools not getting done at all – or done in a chaotic, half-baked manner – or they force mandates down the throats of teachers. Neither of these approaches work. The only approach that can work in an institution as complex and people-centered as schools is to build relationships between people and then delegate key tasks to proven teacher leaders. I wonder if perhaps more training is needed so that those truly passionate about school leadership develop the skills for relationship building and leadership sharing –  and so that those not meant for these roles realize this themselves and move on.

Unfunded and unmanageable federal and state mandates further muddy the waters by bogging administrators down. They feel unable to see the trees for the forest of paperwork and regulations piled on their desks. However if administrators force their way through the forest to the crux of the matter, they will see that the power of teachers can be harnessed for the important work that needs to be done in curriculum development, training new teachers, helping to evaluate programs, and leading teams. Many experienced teachers want to do these things and they are able to do them well. We should reward these teachers and give them what it takes to keep them happily in the classroom.

Administrators should take the time to create systems in their schools that use the power of teachers to improve education for children. Superintendents should be sure to find the building administrators who can think outside the box.

Kathreen Harrison

About Kathreen Harrison

Kathreen Harrison is a public school teacher in Maine. She has a master’s degree from Bank Street College of Education and a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College. She has worked in a variety of schools in New York and Maine in a number of capacities – French teacher, gifted and talented teacher, elementary school teacher, and curriculum coordinator for island schools. She has lived in Maine for 20 years and has a particular interest in school reform.