This is potentially a controversial question for some. It shouldn’t be, but, unfortunately, I suspect, it is. It is also a question that has been the basis of some interesting conversations recently with some colleagues.
So, the short answer to ‘why should school leaders continue teaching?’ is: because school leaders should be seen as learners. Lead learners, in fact.
Let me explain this a little more.
In The Principal, Michael Fullan recasts the role of the principal as a lead learner. He seeks to “reposition the role of the principal as overall instructional leader so that it maximizes the learning of the all the teachers and in turn of all the students” (Michael Fullan (2014) The Principal: Three keys to maximising impact, Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, p.7). The book is a compelling argument about the need to redeploy the principal within the school so there is a genuine benefit for all various and related parties: students, faculty and staff, parents, the wider community. Fullan argues that there are three areas within which principals, as they become lead learners, will make an impact: leading learning, becoming a system player and becoming a change agent.
The focus of this particular post is the practical implications associated with becoming “lead learners”. In being a lead learner, Fullan proposes that “the principal’s role is to lead the school’s teachers in a process of learning to improve their teaching, while learning alongside them about what works and what doesn’t” (Fullan 2014: 55). For me, this suggests that one of the things that a principal who is a lead learner should do is to teach. To put it another way, for a school leader to continue teaching, to remain in the classroom, is the best way in which that school leader can come alongside school teachers in the process of learning and help improve the teaching that takes place. The action of coming alongside other teachers and being a direct part of the learning environment is, for me, a practical outworking of Fullan’s words.
Here are three questions that help to clarify my thinking:
- Would student learning benefit from the principal being in the classroom as a teacher?
- Would teaching alongside the very teachers that the school leader seeks to assist be one of the ways in which that school leader can learn about what works and what does not?
- If a school leader is looking to make changes that will have a positive effect on the school they lead, would it not make sense to be in a position to experience what those changes will entail?
- Assuming ‘street credibility’ positively contributes to the changes an individual school leader makes, would being in the classroom assist with obtaining and maintaining that ‘street credibility’?
To remain in the classroom, even if it is to teach a bottom-streamed Year 9 class (in my case, that would be History), shows a willingness to ‘walk one’s own talk’. School leaders talk about a great amount of change and development and what constitutes ‘best practice’. Sometimes, it doesn’t go beyond that; teachers don’t see the school leader living through what he or she has suggested is the best thing to do. So, in remaining in the classroom, teachers would see a colleague struggling with similar issues or concerns, as opposed to a detached administrator whose experiences in the classroom as a teacher are but only a distant memory. Teachers would see a colleague working to enhance his or her teaching to the best it possibly can be, as opposed to an administrator that appears to leave others to demonstrate professional accomplishment in the classroom. Powerfully, colleagues would see a colleague who, despite being an administrator, shouldering the various responsibilities of school leadership, has not lost a love of learning and a love of the classroom. They see a leader who loves to learn.
Perhaps the most important reason for principals to remain in the classroom is that students get to see the principal in action, as a learner. Students see the principal struggling productively with the same material with which they struggle. Students see a model for learning; an experienced (and we can assume an expert, perhaps) spending time in the classroom to make sure that the students get the most out of a subject. Students see the principal work within the same structures they have to in relation to assessments and tests. Thus, the experience of learning becomes shared, contributing to a coherent approach to learning within the whole school as well as an environment in which deep learning can take place.