We often talk about the importance of empathy in schools.
Usually, that conversation revolves around empathy between teachers and students or students and their peers.
But another key to success is the ability of school leadership to empathize with the myriad challenges staff and faculty face in classrooms every day. For teachers and school leaders, a mutual understanding of the obstacles faced in school often leads to better decision-making and outcomes.
Even for principals who started their careers as classroom teachers, a very different set of duties and priorities can sometimes cause them to lose touch with the practical challenges of the classroom.
Just this weekend I talked with a teacher friend who said he’s experienced this shift firsthand. It’s the nature of the career ladder in schools, he said. New principals and administrators, even those with solid teaching backgrounds, often place their focus on administrative priorities, which contributes to a loss of perspective and empathy for day-to-day classroom issues.
But what if there was a way for school leaders to keep their feet solidly planted in the academic and administrative worlds?
In a recent report for Education Week, Denisa R. Superville spotlighted Garret County Public Schools (GCPS) in western Maryland. Half of the 3,700-student school district’s elementary principals also devote at least a few hours a day to classroom instruction.
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The decision to have principals double as teachers was largely practical. Teaching principals teach at schools that have less than 150 students. This enables smaller schools to keep class sizes down without adding additional teacher salaries. These teaching principals also help fulltime educators cover lessons in split classrooms, where multiple subjects are taught at the same time to groups of students.
GCPS Superintendent Barbara Baker tells Education Week that the teaching principal program helps school leaders stay connected with what’s going on in their classrooms:
“The biggest positive is the fact that [principals] are getting a feel for what it’s like to be a principal while keeping the ties to the classroom and being right there in the trenches with the rest of their teachers while they are leading their schools.”
Keep in mind: Teaching principals are an exception, not the norm—only ten percent of principals nationwide double as teachers in some capacity, according to Education Week.
As Mark Shellinger, a former teaching principal and school superintendent and the president of the National SAM Innovation Project, which helps train principals to focus on instruction, tells Education Week:
“In no way am I suggesting that it’s a bad thing for a principal to teach a class. If we really want results in schools, if we really want kids to succeed, then the teachers have to be nourished, teachers have to be honored and the art of teaching as well as the science has to be something the principal respects and invests in.”
A recent study from the Center on Education Policy found that nearly half of all teachers felt their opinions weren’t considered in school decision-making. That shows just how important it is for school leaders to not only relate to teachers, but to actively listen to them, and bring them into the school decision-making process.
Having principals teach in your classrooms might not be practical in your district, but giving faculty a voice in school-based decisions likely is.
How do you ensure school leaders in your district are actively listening to teachers? How do you encourage strong employee engagement in your schools? Tell us in the comments.