A major part of being a principal is making decisions.
In any given week, you will make hundreds of choices. Some are big, but most are small. Nevertheless, your administrative decisions impact your families, students, and primarily, your teachers. As principal, you get to decide what kind of leader you want to be.
In my experience as a principal, the choice usually materializes in one of three ways:
- The Authoritarian: You tell people what to do, when to do it, and how to do it, no questions asked.
- The Nice Guy: You like being agreeable to everyone and everything. You’re a “yes” person who is quick to change your mind based on the input you receive.
- The Delegator: You feel decision making is better left to the team. You’ll guide the ship while others do the work.
Truth be told, I have worked with all three types of these leaders. And I have a better suggestion.
If you want to be a highly effective school leader, choose to be a collaborative administrator who embraces shared decision making by empowering others. This approach begins with giving teachers voice.
Giving Teachers Voice? What Does That Mean?
Giving teachers voice means you actively seek their input and feedback.
Collaborative admins intentionally invite teachers to take part in decision making in areas that directly impact them. For example, you might ask teachers to help determine instructional practices, select instructional materials, make recommendations for schedules, or decide how to use spaces in the building.
In addition, teachers are encouraged to be part of discussions (like job interviews) where they have an active role in providing feedback that you use to make a final decision.
The Benefits of Empowering Your Faculty
When principals give teachers a voice, they feel valued. By seeking their opinion and involving them in making decisions, you will help teachers feel empowered and develop a sense of ownership. With ownership comes “buy-in” and a higher likelihood that teachers will support school-wide initiatives.
As teachers feel more included, they’ll develop a sense of collaboration with you and will be more likely to advocate for your decisions (rather than criticize or resist them). Through their involvement, they will be more informed and more likely to echo the message you’re trying to reinforce about a given cause. These combined efforts lead to more unified approaches to learning and, ultimately, better student outcomes.
Creating a collaborative atmosphere takes time. Start with conversations with your team leads or a specific committee (e.g., school improvement committee or instructional practices committee). Here are some tips for getting everyone’s input in an organized fashion:
- Tell participants that you plan to ask questions that will guide their group discussion and that you are interested in their ideas.
- Pose a prompt and ask participants to write their responses on Post-its or on graphic organizers.
- Explain that you will go around the table and ask everyone to share.
- Make it clear that you will not be giving input but will be acting as a facilitator. You will be the person guiding the process and leading problem-solving steps.
Let the Teachers Do the Talking
“Talk less, smile more. Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.” Take your cue from these words by Lin Manuel-Miranda, and shut up and listen! Leaders love to talk and often monopolize meetings. Don’t! Let the teachers do the talking. Let them express their ideas, ask questions, answer their own questions, and problem-solve.
It’s important to maintain a neutral body posture and tone during these discussions. Be careful not to show approval or disapproval. Encourage people to be honest and to keep students in the forefront of the discussion.
When you want to interject — ask instead. You’ll be amazed by the reaction you get when you say, “Might I ask a question for clarification?” or “May I make a suggestion?” And when you do, say it in an approachable manner, keeping your voice even and supportive. Never correct. Always thank people for their openness and ideas (even when you don’t think they’ve been open). You want to show and express your openness to what they are offering.
Act on Recommendations
Make sure to let teachers know upfront if they will be directly involved in making final recommendations or if they are serving in an advisory role. Also, tell them when you will make the final decision and how you will use their input to make that decision. Being transparent will help build trust.
Then — follow through! The first time you don’t follow teachers’ final recommendations, your credibility diminishes. The more times you do it, mistrust arises, and any future efforts will be futile. Teachers will see that your actions don’t match your words and will be reluctant to participate when you ask for their input in the future.
What about when you simply can’t follow teachers’ recommendations? Tell them why! Whether it’s talking to an individual, a committee, a team, or the entire faculty, be as transparent as possible. After assuring them of your commitment to follow through on their suggestions and concerns, explain why you can’t at this time. For example, you might run into unforeseen barriers such as feedback from the central office, policies or procedures you weren’t aware of, new information that impacts the decision, and so on.
It Takes More Time
It’s so much faster when you can make decisions and take actions based on what you personally think and want to do. It takes a lot more time to seek others’ input and allow them time to process, give feedback, and make suggestions. But the long-term benefits of giving teachers a voice are invaluable. Giving teachers an opportunity to be heard leads to empowerment, teacher leadership, improved staff relations, and confidence that teachers are a true partner in education.
As a school leader, you will still take sole responsibility for multiple decisions every day. But when you can, involve those who have the biggest impact on students. Let your teachers be a vital part of making decisions about how to make the school you share better and more successful. You won’t regret it.