Supporting Teachers’ Growth in the Classroom: A Guide for School Leaders

One of the many responsibilities of educational leaders is to ensure that teachers adhere to their school district’s mission, goals, policies, and board-approved curricula. However, it can sometimes feel like a monumental task to direct the work of passionate, creative intellectuals (who are leaders in their own right) without making them feel stifled or infantilized.

In my experience as a teacher and coach, I have noticed a few strategies that can help teachers grow and thrive, while also increasing the likelihood that they will remain in the profession.

Embrace servant leadership

Educational leaders often ensure teacher compliance with district policies and programs by carefully tracking lesson plans, conducting regular classroom observations, and providing targeted professional development.

The paradox here is that while leaders make these decisions, it is the teachers who are responsible for implementation; and too often, teachers are not even involved in the decision-making process. A question worth pondering is whether teachers are the true leaders in these initiatives who need support, rather than being positioned as the subjects of monitoring and evaluation.

Here’s where it can be enlightening to consider the philosophy of servant leadership, where leaders listen to their teams, lead with humility, and prioritize the greater good. Educational leaders who embody servant leadership always prioritize teacher input when making programming and scheduling decisions. They also refrain from seeking compliance and control, and instead ask questions like “What is going well?” “What challenges are you facing?” “What solutions do you propose?” And, most importantly, they follow up with the question, “How can I support you?”

Teachers are more likely to follow mandates and guidelines when they have a voice in the decision-making process and feel empowered to design innovative approaches based on their knowledge of what works for their students. Howard Behar, former president of Starbucks, offers a phrase that educational leaders should remember: “The person who sweeps the floor should choose the broom.” Teachers should not only be involved in “choosing the broom,” but they should also have the ability to reflect, adjust, and provide feedback to leadership if they find “the broom” to be insufficient.

In the absence of this level of autonomy, the self-restraint required for teachers to ignore their instincts, suppress their good ideas, and silence their voices is one of the many reasons why teachers leave the profession.

Encourage inquiry over answers

While there are times when it is the leader’s role to provide answers, teachers often seek guidance and support from leaders as sounding boards and collaborative partners, rather than expecting them to have all the answers. This is particularly true when resolving conflicts.

Leaders can demonstrate respect and build trust by supporting those they lead in finding their own answers. They can brainstorm potential solutions together and ask questions such as “Can you provide more information?” “What approaches have worked in the past?” “What do you think would happen if…?” The goal is to find a resolution that aligns with their values and meets students’ needs.

Offering advice can also be helpful, as long as leaders accompany it with a follow-up question that shows they do not claim to have all the answers. For example, if you suggest, “One possibility might be…” or “What I would do is…” you can then ask, “How does that resonate with you?” or “What are your thoughts on that?” Liz Wiseman and Greg McKeown write about what they call a “multiplier” mindset, which encourages leaders to “use their intelligence to amplify the smarts and capabilities of the people around them.” This type of advice serves as a catalyst to inspire those you lead to develop their own ideas.

Admittedly, this approach requires intentionality and self-control, but it becomes easier when you understand that the most effective solutions are often the ones people generate themselves. Leaders who ask more questions also empower teachers to tap into their professional expertise and utilize their energy instead of silencing their voices in deference to leadership.

This kind of partnership and mutual respect has the potential to energize and inspire teachers, thereby strengthening their commitment to the profession.

Embrace best instructional practices

Teachers often wonder, “Where is the social and emotional learning (SEL) for us?” or “Where is our opportunity for choice and a voice?” It is important for leaders to address these valid concerns and model best instructional practices, just as teachers are expected to do for their students.

For example, faculty meetings and professional development sessions should not only exemplify best classroom practices, but should also provide teachers with immediate resources they can use in their own classrooms.

As a leadership team, you can start by clarifying the district’s goals and asking yourselves questions such as “What practices do we expect teachers to implement to achieve these goals?” “How are we modeling these practices?” “How are we creating opportunities for teachers to engage with these practices?” and “What specific strategies or resources are teachers gaining from this meeting?”

You can use the answers to these questions to create a guide that informs the design of professional learning experiences for teachers, and they will certainly appreciate and take notice of the shift.

Teachers are often drawn to the profession not for monetary rewards or prestige, but for the chance to make a meaningful impact on students’ lives and exercise their intellectual freedom. By embracing these underlying values as guiding principles in decision-making, leaders can significantly increase teacher retention.

Moreover, this approach benefits everyone involved, as researcher and thought leader Brené Brown asserts, “Daring leaders fight for the inclusion of all people, opinions, and perspectives because that makes us all better and stronger.”

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