When I was in school, I was the quiet kid who sat in the back, praying the teacher wouldn’t call on me to answer a question or read aloud. Then in college, I had to take a public speaking class, and I spent the entire semester full of nerves and would get physically ill whenever I had to deliver a speech. There was no way I would ever be a leader. My goal in life was to be a quiet, little art teacher until I retired.
Everything changed my fourth year of teaching. Our school was chosen to pilot Kentucky’s newly mandated school-based decision-making process, and none of my colleagues were happy about it. As other teachers resisted our new principal, I believed in his vision and joined his efforts. During this time, he saw potential in me, and through his coaching and mentoring, I was motivated to effect change beyond myself and my classroom. A quiet leader was born.
In Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership, Howard Gardner wrote that there are two types of leaders: direct and indirect. Direct leaders are in positions formally designated to influence organizations, while indirect leaders influence people by example and through the excellence of their work. Following Gardner’s work and the mentorship of my boss, I discovered that there is a leader in everyone; leadership skills just have to be discovered, nurtured, and coached.
After 10 years as a teacher leader and 17 years as a principal, I have learned from the best leaders and the worst. Here are nine lessons that all leaders (teachers, team leaders, support staff, and principals) can follow to make a positive impact on their school.
1. Find a Good Mentor
Finding a good mentor is not about finding the most popular person. Instead, research the interpersonal skills and leadership qualities you want to emulate, and find someone who displays those qualities. Choose someone who holds high standards for himself or herself and is able to teach and model best practices for you.
2. Listen, and Listen Some More
This is a hard one! As teachers, we all want to help others, give our expert opinions, and offer advice. We “hear” what others say, but are we really listening? To be an effective leader, you need to listen to what people say but also pay attention to what they don’t say. You must read between the lines, put pieces together, and respond according to your team or staff’s needs.
3. Treat Everyone the Same
This is not as easy as it sounds. Every person deserves respect and dignity, but inevitably, you’ll run into someone with a difficult personality. When this happens, it’s essential to double your efforts to treat him or her just like you would someone with an easygoing personality. In the words of one of my great superintendents, Blake Haselton, “Don’t let someone else’s behavior be an excuse for yours.” This became my mantra as a teacher leader and as a principal, especially when dealing with some of the most challenging people.
When you step into a leadership role, formally or informally, everyone is watching. Thus, it’s essential to rise above any difficult behavior, model civility, and lead.
4. Get Your Hands Dirty
Being a leader doesn’t mean you can sit back and let others do jobs you deem “beneath” you. As a principal, I garnered a lot of respect by helping my custodial staff clean up after an assembly or a big family night event. Whether you’re a teacher or a principal, don’t be afraid to take the time to wipe down tables in the cafeteria, sweep the floor, do bus duty and car duty, shovel snow, or clean up after a sick student. Everyone’s job in the school is valuable, so you have to be willing to do someone else’s job whenever needed.
5. Be Seen
Every article and book on leadership will tell you to “be visible.” For me, being visible was more than being seen in classrooms, hallways, and big sporting events; it also meant being seen in unexpected places. Show up at after-school events and small club meetings to support team members, teachers, and parents. Visit people in the hospital and attend funerals; these small gestures can have the greatest impact on your community. It all matters. At the high school and middle school level, it’s impossible to attend it all, so rotate. Being seen shows that you care.
6. Acknowledge Hard Work
Teachers and support staff work hard. It’s important to acknowledge their work, both individually and publicly. Let them know, every day, how much you appreciate their hard work. As a teacher leader, recognize the work of your colleagues; they will appreciate you and want to follow your lead.
7. Don’t Gossip
We’ve all sat around the lunchroom table or stood in hallways and listened to gossip. It happens whether you’re a teacher, support staff member, or principal. My advice? Just don’t do it! Don’t just refrain from speaking; walk away and don’t even listen to gossip. If you participate in gossip, it’s more of a reflection of you than the person you are gossiping about.
8. Be Humble, Always
Many leaders love the limelight and being the center of attention. Too many times, I’ve watched teachers and principals claim all the credit for a job well done. However, good leaders shine the light on others, not themselves. When those around you do well, the credit will come back around to you; you don’t have to take it for yourself. You are most successful when others are successful because of you.
9. Follow Research, Not Shiny Objects
It is so hard not to follow the most current trends in education—the splashy programs that promise huge results. Don’t fall for the advertisements. Let universal research of best practices be your guide, and you will see far better results than if you change directions with every new program that comes your way.
Take a Deep Dive Into Leadership
Leadership, whether indirect or direct, is a powerful tool that can motivate people to either achieve or rebel. You don’t have to be in a traditional leadership role to be a positive change agent in your school. If you follow these nine lessons, and are wise and fair, you will make an impact beyond yourself and serve others around you.