In this guest post, educationalist and former elementary school principal Rita M. Wirtz shares her philosophy for effective school leadership.
Those who can, teach. Once we’ve heard the siren call, there’s no turning back. Purpose, passion and our belief in serving the greater good draw us to be teachers and educators. Teachers are great leaders and my wish for 2022 would be autonomy for all.
My late husband William was a beautiful dancer yet I had issues following him on the dance floor. I think I was so used to leading, I forgot how to follow. Whether on the dance floor, or in the dance of life, it takes two to tango, and a back and forth of sharing and caring makes a big difference.
As a 50 year educator, I’m blessed to have taught with thousands of teachers. Teachers traditionally lift each other up and create cultures of learning and celebration for students in their care.
That’s what a good school is - a culture of care and support. We need each other for the greater good, serving and leaning into one another for support. School life is one great dance, where we share our creative efforts and create moments of wonder and joy.
Leadership is about learning together, creating a sense of purposeful community and encouraging bonds of trust.
After all the adversity of recent years, there has never been a more perfect time to focus on teachers as great leaders, reflecting on our own instructional practices and sharing what works.
Leaders are working through massive challenges and daunting times. Our plates are always overflowing, but we can keep them aloft if we work smart.
Leadership practices for 2022
Leaders, keep your ears open. Hear the dance. Hear the music. Listen to the children. Let’s reflect on what we can do to inspire excellence this year.
1. Plan holistically.During the pandemic, we've all had to be comprehensive in our planning. What does an effective, school look, feel and sound like? Who’s involved and who does it serve?
2. Work lean, learning from the business world. Who gets what resources, how and why? Who decides this?
3. Practice out of the box and in the box thinking. Stay true to yourself, but take risks!
4. Share decision-making. Everyone has a stake in the school running well. This means teachers, support staff, and everybody else who works there - they all need a voice.
5. Help teachers work on themselves. Teachers should also have a voice in determining their own professional development. What do teachers want and need to know and where can they find it?
6. Re-think Teacher Evaluation. What’s working and what doesn’t work? Sharing leadership offers teachers opportunity to consider what’s working and make mid-course corrections.
7. Everyone needs a friend or a mentor. Partnership is power, so try pairing veterans with newbies.
8. Streamline your operations. Keep paperwork, emails and meetings on point and focused. Lighten the load by focusing on what is important
9. Promote a culture of reading and learning. Create world-class scholars through high expectations and modeling, meeting and expanding student interests. Consider all children as “gifted". Stress learning gains, not losses, and accelerate learning.
11. Be change agents. Prepare to rethink your school’s old normal. Get through the current chaos while respecting your need to rest and rejuvenate. Leave school work at school. Set your boundaries.
12. Maximise achievement by moving beyond just engaging pupils to getting them into a ‘flow state’. Group and regroup pupils based on skill acquisition, not “ability grouping”.
14. Reflect on your journey. Where are we now? What’s next? Are we meeting designated goals and benchmarks that make sense and are doable during a pandemic?
Organisational insights from researchers with empirical support, including Senge, Deming, Garmston and others, point to the critical role of shared decision-making in a high achieving school. Start with the nucleus and empower your teachers.
Vision and mission
All headteachers have a vision of what could be. At the moment, schools are forced to “work lean.” So how do we divide existing resources while meeting and exceeding that vision? Great headteachers practice MBWA, Management By Walking Around, to handle mundane but necessary managerial tasks and to keep their ears to the ground.
Right now, instructional leadership is tough to do when the demands of keeping schools open are so great.
A headmaster is a teachers’ teacher, and the ultimate decision-maker on tough issues. Most importantly, school leaders inspire and motivate staff to maximize productivity, ensure all children are meeting potential and create a culture, climate and morale of excellence, tenacity and a can-do attitude.
One person can’t do all this alone. Everybody needs to pitch in. By visioneering, all stakeholders feel their voices are heard.
I’m leery of teachers ‘buying into anything’ unless there is a need or interest, a strong coach and time to reflect on a new practice or strategy. I really don’t think this is best time to implement any new curricula or big programmes unless they're related to working collaboratively in teams.
This is why I’m so enthusiastic about mentoring arrangements. Current teacher shortages and the perennial problem of burnout are enormously concerning. Mentors and mentees can help guide, stabilise and invigorate each other.
Pupils need to have a stake in designing their own learning, with teachers as guides. Ask yourself: how is our school helping facilitate this? How does homework fit in? Are we breaching the digital divide? How do we level the playing field for children? How do we differentiate for children with so many various needs? Whatever your solution, it has to be executed with grace and dignity. All kids learn differently, but each with a spark of creative genius that it's our job to cultivate. That’s why we teach.
Reflections on the journey
Finally, we need to ask ourselves: where are we as individual learners and school leaders? We need to stay humble and keep working on bringing out the best of our talents.
Best wishes for the year ahead,