“Congratulations on your promotion, on becoming the dean! You’re in charge now!” a parent yells from his car in the midst of dismissal. My stomach is in knots as the words “in charge” echo across the parking lot. I pause, pondering the best way to respond. I force a smile in gratitude. “I am still a teacher, and grateful to be part of a strong team,” I quickly say, before getting in my car. Every time a parent or colleague congratulates me, I feel those knots.
After grieving a complete turnover in leadership last spring—waving goodbye to our head of school, our high school director, our middle school director and our school psychologist—our outgoing head of school decided that instead of hiring externally to fill the traditional leadership positions, we should try a new approach. He suggested that we experiment with creating a few new hybrid teacher-leader roles to see how that felt, and at the end of the year the new leadership team could assess how well it worked and decide whether to keep the new structure or make a change.
I’ve worked in a number of schools, so I know that turnover is often a warning signal. But I finally found a school to call home and I’m invested in making it the best school it can be. So I submitted an application for one of the hybrid roles. I interviewed, and was offered the opportunity to continue teaching English and add academic dean to my position. When I was offered the job, I was hesitant, but I accepted the offer. Like a true educator, I answered the call despite my nerves.
Why I Didn’t Want to Be a School Leader
When I was a student, I never saw my administrators smile. In elementary school, my principal was infamous for knocking on classroom doors and calling kids into her office. They’d always return with red eyes and puffy cheeks. In middle school, our administrators were officers patrolling the halls, writing detention slips to any student who was in the hallway after the last bell rang. My high school principal was new to our school district, a white man leading a Black school and a Black staff, and he always seemed to be in a constant state of stress. I was sure of one thing: There was nothing joyous about being in school leadership. And it seemed like my own teachers agreed. I leaned in, eavesdropping to hear the way my teachers showed disdain for their superiors.
When I became a teacher, these feelings remained. While my career has been turbulent—I’ve worked in six schools in seven years—one truth has remained constant: the last thing I ever wanted to be called was “an administrator.” Not a principal, not a director, not a dean. Similar to my experiences as a student, it was often my administrators who made me feel small and powerless.
So much of my experience as a teacher has been shaped by my relationships with school leaders. I’ve often felt that I work at the will of my administrators. In the first few years of my teaching career, I struggled to find my footing because I couldn’t find the balance between being the teacher I wanted to be and pleasing my administrators—the ones who controlled whether I kept my job or was fired. The ones who were supposed to support me throughout the year. “You can’t disagree with me as a first-year teacher,” one administrator told me. “You need a few more years of experience before you can have autonomy in the classroom. Follow what the district mandated,” said another.
In my early years of teaching, I remember saying to a colleague, “I didn’t quit my school, my community or my students. I quit my principal.” The only way I could hold on tight to my dream of being a teacher was to quit my principals. Year after year. I wasn’t the only one.
There was always a line drawn in the sand: school administrators on one side and classroom teachers on the other. When I was offered the dean of students position, it took me several days to accept because I was terrified of becoming part of the problem. I did not want to create the same feeling for my colleagues that I had experienced myself. I needed to make an intentional decision. I decided to take on the new role, but I committed to doing it differently. As a new administrator, I’m determined to avoid perpetuating a hierarchy between teachers and administrators.
Many school leadership models reflect a typical corporate ladder. Administrators usually have offices, higher wages and the most decision-making power in the building. To achieve this sense of “success,” there is one unilateral path for teachers: climb the ladder, work up towards school administration and leave teaching behind. But teachers should not have to become administrators to have decision-making power in schools.
As I considered taking on the new role, I thought a lot about the ladder and how I believed there should be another way. I reflected on my experience with school leaders and found myself thinking about the best administrator I ever had. It was Principal Williams, a Black man leading a small school for boys in the Southeast D.C., where I taught during my third year of teaching.
What made him so unique? Maybe it was his humility. He didn’t claim to have all the answers. Maybe it was the trust he put in me as a new teacher on his team. When I asked him which curriculum we used, he said, “I trust you to collaborate with the team and build it. I have some resources here to help us ensure that we create a scope-and-sequence for the literacy skills our students need. But we have to create it.” Maybe it was how frequently he said “we.”
Principal Williams had to answer to the school board, to our school’s executive director and to parents, but when it came down to decision-making, everything was up for discussion. I could walk into his office for anything. I felt motivated to become more involved in the school community because he made room for me.
He was flattening the hierarchy.
Principal Williams was a walking example of a progressive principal—one who amplifies the power of teacher leadership. But this isn’t standard. The role of a principal is complicated, muddled with contradictory expectations from various stakeholders and it has a fascinating history, shaped by the shifting responsibilities of the principalship, the evolution of power and authority held by the position, and by those who occupied it. Research shows the role became increasingly dominated by white men in the second half of the 20th century (although women principals made up the majority by 2018, according to the National Center for Education Statistics). A whole other story deserves to be told about this.
At one point in history, teachers were seen as the primary leader in a school building. Over time, teacher-leaders emerged, taking ownership over school operations, attendance and authority over teachers. But as time ushered a larger population of students and schools grew to support them, society became obsessed with managerial leadership and accountability. The principal emerged as the “middle man” between the interests of the broader school district and the day-to-day needs of teachers and student learning, which became competing priorities. Principals’ responsibilities became distant from classroom instruction.
As the role evolved and teacher observation became a priority for administrators, a natural rift emerged in many schools—a rift between principals and teachers. As principals gained more responsibility and the pressure intensified, teachers were given less decision-making power, even though they felt that pressure too. But we can revert back to an earlier model—one that amplifies teacher leadership and teacher voice.
What It Feels Like to Work in a School That Is Flattening the Hierarchy
The biggest challenge transitioning from a teacher to a teacher leader was the pressure I put on myself. It wasn’t just a new title. It was a new role, a new schedule, new relationships. When I accepted the hybrid role, taking on the middle school dean position and maintaining my position as an English teacher, which I love, I knew it would be a big change.
To make this manageable, my schedule was set up with fewer classes than it was last year, creating space for my new administrative duties. Last year I taught two grades of English, now I only teach one. Last year, I taught two humanities electives, now I only teach one. My teaching responsibilities have significantly shifted.
When I’m not teaching or planning, I’m meeting with students, either formally or informally. On some days, I help students navigate friendships and other days we talk about life in our shared spaces. I listen to their concerns. There’s not a day that passes when I’m not also conversing with parents, analyzing trends in behavior and student experiences, creating systems and practices to address them and working with my colleagues to offer support to students.
When I teach, I’m comfortable allowing my instruction and the relationships with my students in my classroom measure my success. I’m comfortable being on the ground, shoulder to shoulder with my colleagues, in the thick of it. But, as an administrator my work reaches far beyond my own classroom and students, so my success is measured in other ways. That has increased the weight on my shoulders and the pressure I put on myself.
I’m always thinking about maintaining my relationships with fellow teachers and staff. Will they trust me less because I wear the title of administrator? My inner voice, fueled by imposter syndrome, tells me to show my colleagues that I am working hard, that I’m still on the ground, even in this new role. This often leaves me trying to take on too much.
My friends remind me that this is not a role I can or should do by myself. “You have help,” they say. One of the biggest perks of this hybrid role is that I get the opportunity to talk with more of my colleagues than I did when I was a full-time teacher. That’s important because I’m most successful when I am in conversation with my co-workers, sharing my big visions, seeking feedback and asking for help. And they are always down to dream, to talk, to support. So far, my relationships with my colleagues have strengthened in my new teacher leadership role.
Walking into this role, I was also concerned about being able to build and sustain relationships with my students. Will they still see me as someone who supports them if I am now a dean who facilitates discipline procedures. My new role has me wearing many hats and I’m often flying through the building, whisking past students in the hallway. How could I maintain relationships with students with less face time with them in the classroom? Much of the magic that happens in our building, like many schools, takes place in classrooms.
I have to remind myself regularly that I am still a classroom teacher. But now, I have the benefit of seeing a fuller picture of my students as learners and humans through my conversations and interactions with their other teachers, parents, therapists—and with the increased time I spend in common spaces where students spend their unstructured time. And magic happens here, too. Unfiltered magic.
Being a teacher-leader has made me feel even more invested in my students’ full academic and human journey, and they can sense it.
Not All Schools Can Design Teacher-Leader Roles. But All Schools Can Amplify Teacher and Student Voice.
I understand that not all schools have the opportunity to create more paid roles for teacher leadership in the building. But flattening the hierarchy is not just about new positions. It’s about shifting decision-making power and building trust between administrators and teachers.
One important step is to recognize that school culture isn’t just about teachers cultivating strong relationships with students, it’s also about colleagues developing and sustaining deep, respectful relationships with each other. Schools have to create opportunities for staff to have unstructured time to get to know one another, to vent, to share stories and swap ideas.
Another bold move schools can make is to rethink decision-making. Shifting focus from the decision itself to improving the decision-making process can go a long way. Because the stakes can be high, there is a lot of pressure to make decisions in schools, and quickly. But if we want to flatten the hierarchy in schools, we have to be more intentional about including diverse perspectives in the process and actively pushing back against making decisions without hearing from multiple voices. That takes time. Something that has helped our team is to come to conversations without a solution already in mind so that we can discuss issues openly, honestly and so that we can create more room for democratic decision-making. And in situations that have less space or time for discussion, we are transparent about that.
Finally, as an administrator and teacher, I do not make decisions without running it past students. We can not leave out students in this discussion about decentralizing power in schools. Students should have the authority to authorize checks and balances. Every decision made by adults in the building impacts them, so it should be an expectation that their perspectives are part of the decision-making process. If adults are making all of the decisions and students are on the receiving end, then educators are still gatekeeping power.
Schools are uniquely-positioned community spaces where students and adults, together, can dream big about the world we want to live in and actively collaborate to bring that vision to life. When schools cut out the middle managers they can focus on what truly matters most, a thriving community where everyone’s voice is heard. Schools have a better chance at succeeding when there are less full-time administrators and more teacher-leaders, less top-down decisions and more inclusive conversations.
Cultivating a culture where every voice matters is not the quickest solution, nor is it the easiest, but my hope is that it will have a long-lasting impact at our school. The more that we flatten the hierarchy, focus our attention on building trust and talk more with one another, the better chance we have of creating schools that teachers want to stay at and that students want to learn in.
Go to Publisher: EdSurge Articles
Author: Patrick Harris II