There are a multitude of academic and personal benefits in choosing to be a teaching principal, writes DR EDWARD GROUGHAN, Principal of the Australian International School, Singapore.
Understandably, there are numerous reasons that prevent school leaders from continuing as classroom teachers. This brief article is not about such justifications. Rather, I suggest, there are 11 reasons that support school leaders teaching. The intention, in identifying reasons to teach, is an encouragement for school leaders to place their influence where it may have the most profound effect.
Each of the 11 reasons to support school leaders teaching involve curriculum, pedagogy, collegial relations, resources, community and, most compellingly, students’ educational outcomes. Inevitably, there will be benefits beyond this list and it is a reasonable argument that school leaders may gain a measure of respect for their preparedness to be genuinely contributing to the fundamental purpose of a school: optimising student learning outcomes.
If, as Leithwood, Harris and Hopkins suggest in their 2008 research, that “school leadership is second only to classroom teaching as an influence on pupil learning”, then there is a compounding argument that a school leader teaching in a classroom combines the two most impactful influences on student learning.
Disappointingly, the norm for most schools is that principals, and, increasingly, more and more senior leaders in schools, are ‘outside’ the classroom. The potential creation of an ‘ivory tower’ elite, far removed from the core business of learning and teaching is a valid concern. As the art and science of teaching in our contemporary age rapidly advances, in line with technological and neuro-science revelations on learning, an arm’s length leader, has questionable understanding of front-line learning needs.
A return to Eden
If principals are looking at new ways to lead teaching and learning in their schools, here are the 11 reasons they should consider teaching as a strategy for effective educational leadership:
1. Surety in the knowledge of current teaching practices: The bane of many schools is that there are as many variations of pedagogical delivery as there are teachers. This diversity is juxtaposed with the technological skills, facilitation and content know-how of any given teacher. Accepting that, in diversity, learning is exposed to a continuum of teaching styles and so learning may be enhanced is all well and good, yet the over-arching importance for school leaders is to know their colleagues, not only as people, but how they teach and how they engage with their students. Being a practicing teacher has immediate advantages in exposing the idiosyncrasies of colleagues, just as a school leader wrestles with their own delivery and style when also teaching. The inversion of gained understanding is a powerful force in binding schools through the shared challenges arising from teaching.
2. Intimate involvement in teaching processes: As a member of a faculty, a school leader is involved in the nuances of designing or interpreting curriculum. The ensuing construction of scope and sequencing for intended curriculum delivery, and subsequent criteria to determine student knowledge and understanding, leading to reporting methods, are implicit in the every-day work of teachers. The advantage for school leaders in acquiring detailed insight to the reporting processes offers invaluable insights to appraising student outcomes.
3. Enhanced engagement with colleagues: Finding common, professional ground within conversations on student attainment - whether academic, pastoral or in co-curricular pursuits - establishes relationships on a school’s foundational endeavour. The shared objectives of a teacher and school leader offer mutually cohesive conversations. Similarly, a principal’s advocacy in exchanges with support staff is enhanced when the objectives for support of the learning and teaching program are the basis of deliberation.
4. Opportunity to work with colleagues: Involvement with colleagues in your specialist teaching area brings the objectives for teaching alive. As Fullan stated in his 2011 presentation in Melbourne, “practise equals practice". My extension interpretation is that leaders who are meant to talk on student outcomes need to ‘practise what they preach’. There is no more effective demonstration of learning as a priority for the school than for the principal to also be a teacher.
5. Acute understanding of the school’s curriculum needs: Budgetary compromise is the bane of any aspiring school leadership team. Where are the resources to be best allocated? How does our financial position fit with our strategic objectives? What are our priorities for learning and how are we to achieve them? These are the kind of questions that should, perpetually, circle back to curriculum needs. In the compressed constraints of a school’s budget, maintaining a focus on the pre-eminence of the curriculum as a means to create quality student outcomes requires discipline and a deep understanding by the principal of resource priorities.
6. Exposure to contemporary advances in pedagogies and sciences: School leaders, invariably, have particular, age-specific training. Almost all would agree there are differing needs in pedagogical approaches for different curricula. Firsthand exposure to the range of various, age-appropriate teaching styles across a school enhances a school leader’s capacities in advancing outcomes for all children. Insights into the most adept, subject-specific delivery styles for learning as students advance through the stages of, for example, enquiry-based approaches such as Emilio Reggio or the International Baccalaureate, provide are enriched when the principal is also a teacher.
7. Neuroscience: The advances in defining the neurological mechanisms that underpin human behavioural responses, including learning, are offering educators, especially innovative teachers and schools, exciting possibilities for aiding student learning. Appealingly, in an age of differentiated learning obligations and diverse student enrolment, authorities such as Goswami (2008), suggested “bio markers” could also assist students at educational risk. This increasing awareness of neurological processes in learning, enable teachers to better understand physiological responses to various pedagogical approaches and create successful lessons focused on the needs of individual students. School leaders who are suitably conversant with the science assisting learning acquisition through direct application in their teaching, are adept in making informed decisions about resource allocation, professional development, time allowance or budget allocation, to best advance student learning.
8. Demonstration of capabilities and passion for learning and teaching: There is much education speak about authentic leadership. I like Shamir and Eilam’s take: “Authentic leaders do not fake their leadership. They do not pretend to be leaders just because they are in a leadership position". In essence, ‘the badge’ only gets you so far, is their succinct intonation. If the joys of teaching aren’t welded within the badge, then, through teaching a class, school leaders can, at least, exhibit one characteristic considered vital to leading staff – affirmation for teaching colleagues whose perception is “she is one of us!”.
9. Expression of diversified leadership: Teachers collaborate. Teachers, mostly enjoy working together to create learning materials. Teachers moderate each other’s students’ work. Teachers plan in small groups. Teachers share resources. Teachers like to hear from other teachers about the learning and life journey of students they have taught. Teachers eat lunch together. Teachers even spend time together outside the classroom! As a school leader, involvement in all these extraneous settings to a classroom is possible by having a teaching timetable. The positive effect on relationships through being a teacher in a faculty, or year level, significantly increases the opportunities to fortify collegial relationships and influence change and culture within the school.
10. Opportunities for personal learning: A school leader has many and varied roles beyond those defined in any position description. In any and all of their roles, school leaders have scope to hone their capabilities. The opportunities are endless. One area where the substantial personal growth may be gained is through the continuous learning and acquired expertise of their chosen subject. Teaching a set class affords a ready-made opportunity.
11. A soapbox: School leaders are highly regarded for their perceived knowledge of learning and teaching. The most revered of them present convincing statements on the value of education. The advantages of teaching in a classroom, shown through the previous 10 benefits, arm a school leader with an impressive array of experiences and capabilities to draw upon when addressing those beyond the school, most especially parents. Being in a position to address their community by citing names and intricate knowledge of colleagues whose enterprise and unique teaching skills are making an enormous difference within the school, or noting innovations beyond superficial understanding, or being deeply informed of changing landscapes in technological applications impacting on learning, or articulating sustainable arguments on the strengths and shortcomings of mandated curriculum changes, or simply knowing a greater range of students in the school, are all enhanced by teaching a class. The aggregation of depth in any of the given examples, and any number of other areas, are magnified by teaching, year-in and year-out. The surprise, often expressed by a parent that a school leader teaches, in the accolade, “...and she still has time to teach,” benefits all in the school community.
The 11 benefits for school leaders teaching extends influence far beyond the pivotal act of teaching. This article is an attempt to encourage school leaders to take the plunge and return to their career origins, before a ‘desk job’ overran their professional raison d’etre.
Dr Edward Groughan is principal at AISNSW member school, the Australian International School, Singapore.
This article was first published in May 2019 in the AHISA Journal. With thanks.
Chalkbeat, Want to Be A Good Principal, Teach
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Shamir, B. and Eilam, G. (2005), What’s your Story? A Life-Stories Approach to Authentic Leadership Development, The Leadership Quarterly 16
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