Most principals would agree that we should empower teachers. But what does teacher empowerment really mean? Furthermore, why should we empower teachers? And how do we do it? Below we’ve taken a shot at answering these three questions.
What does teacher empowerment mean?
While educational gurus like Bolin (1989), Lucas, Brown & Makus (1991) and Lee (1991) all use different language to describe teacher empowerment, their definitions all share common tenants:
- Rejecting hierarchy built upon control and fear
- Enabling teachers to have a voice
- Encouraging teachers to use their professional judgment to make major decisions about the curriculum and how it is presented
- Providing teachers with a means to make decisions that have, in traditional systems, been made for them
Why should we empower teachers?
- Teachers are already making decisions
Research suggests that teachers make 30 non-trivial work related decisions every hour in a classroom context where an estimated 1,500 interactions may take place between teacher and pupils each day (Burke, 1992). Not only are teachers making big decisions—and making them often—their decisions are impacting a huge network of people including students, parents, colleagues and administrators.
If teachers are already making high-impact decisions, it only seems logical that we equip them with the tools, freedom and support to make the best decisions they can.
- Empowering teachers will make them more receptive to growth
Teaching is complex for a variety of reasons, but a major one has to do with the fact that, as B.S.V. Dutt suggests, “Knowledge is always incomplete, subject to change, and always open to improvement.”
Should we find that a teacher’s knowledge base is incomplete or in need of improvement, we will have a much easier time helping them grow if we have already established meaningful, trusting relationships with them.
- Empowered teachers are more likely to respond well to the demands of the profession
Teachers have an overwhelming set of demands placed on them. But these demands become far more manageable when teachers know we see them as competent and reliable professionals.
The list of reasons for why we should empower teachers could continue, but let’s move on to how administrators can empower teachers.
How can we empower teachers?
- Listen and react to feedback
Teachers need to know their voice matters. One way to prove that it does is by soliciting their feedback and collaborating with them to solve issues. Collaboration is not always easy, nor is it always “efficient” in the short term—but the results usually speak for themselves.
- Create a unified vision
Most businesses have a slogan or a vision statement that sums up—for both customers and employees—who the company is and the values they stand for.
Although the message of a school might seem straightforward, your community will benefit from taking a critical look at what makes your school unique. One of the best ways to ensure that you and your teachers share a common goal is by collaborating on a vision statement. Of course, you can do this on your own, but your teachers are more likely to buy-in if they are involved in the creative process.
- Empower teachers to think differently
It is important to establish a set of clear goals and responsibilities, but always remember that common goals can be achieved—and surpassed—when teachers are empowered to think differently, bring forward new ideas and even take a different approach that fails. When we fail, we (hopefully) learn. When we learn, we grow.
- Look for quiet leaders
Think back to the time you spent in the classroom. If your experience was anything like mine, I noticed that it was often the quiet students who were the best leaders.
While many students had a tendency to speak impulsively during heated in-class discussions, some of the quiet ones hung back, reflected and waited until they had fully developed their thoughts before sharing. With a little encouragement, I found that these students would open up and completely change the trajectory of the discussion.
Reach out to the quiet teachers. They are often some of the best leaders—they just need a little encouragement.
- Bolin, F.S. (1989). Empowering Leadership. Teacher College Record.
- Lucas, S., Brown, G.C., & Markus, F.W. (1991) Principals’ Perceptions of Site-Based Management and Teacher Empowerment. NAASSP Bulletin, 75. (357)
- Lee, W. (1991). Empowering Music Teachers: A Catalyst for Change. Music Educators Journal. 78 (1).
There are several reasons principals should regularly conduct classroom walkthroughs.
- First, they make it clear to teachers that teaching and learning are a priority to us.
- Second, the more we know about the instructional decisions of our instructors, the more we know about the health of our schools.
- Third, the more frequent the observations are, the more comfortable our teachers and students will be with the process.
Keep in mind that classroom walkthroughs do not need to be long, invasive or formal for them to be meaningful. If you simplify the observation process and stick to the five steps outlined in Countdown to the Principalship, your observation should really only take about three minutes.
The 3-Minute Classroom Walkthrough in 5 Steps
Observe student engagement
It only takes a split second to observe whether or not students are engaged in their work. Are they listening, writing, interacting with the teacher or other students, or working alone?
Observe the lesson and learning objectives
Assessing what is being taught and determining whether or not the objective of the lesson is aligned with curriculum and ethical standards is where you should spend most of the next couple of minutes.
Observe teachers’ instructional strategies
Now that you understand the curricular focus, you are ready to look at the teacher’s instructional strategies. Is s/he using Socratic questioning or giving feedback? Are students working alone or in groups, are they taking notes, problem solving, etc.?
Always complete the first three steps and do your best to withhold judgment; you are simply gathering data and looking for patterns in classroom instruction.
If time permits, conclude your walkthrough with the following two steps:
Does the lesson connect?
During this step, you should be looking to see if you can make any connections between this lesson and previous learning objectives. Ideally, every lesson should build upon the preceding lesson.
Observe safety and health Issues
Are there any noticeable safety or health issues that need to be addressed?
If you decide to make brief classroom walkthroughs a regular part of your routine, you’ll want to inform your staff first. Here are five things you might mention to your teachers:
- How often you will be stopping by their classrooms and how long you will be there.
- What the visits are not: Explain that three-minute walkthroughs are not a part of the formal evaluation process, nor will they be used to judge or critique teachers.
- What the visits are: Teaching and learning are the two most important things that happen in schools—walkthroughs are simply a way to honor their importance.
Many of us have taught at schools where there were months, maybe even years, when the principal did not step foot into the classroom. What this suggests to many teachers is that what they do is not important to the principal. Explain to your teachers that this is not the message you wish to send.
- That you have a lot to learn from teachers: One of the best ways to learn about learning in schools is for you to be in classrooms regularly. You may be in charge, but that doesn’t mean you have all the answers.
- What teachers should expect from the walkthrough: Explain to teachers that when you stop in, you will only be there for three minutes—unless the teacher indicates that s/he would like you to stay longer. During this time, explain that you will be observing three things: student engagement, content and the methods used to teach the content.
- That teachers are welcome to talk to you after the visit if they want specific feedback.
There’s a lot to love about contemporary American culture: It’s brimming with life, moving, changing and, ostensibly, always improving. But we’ve noticed something else about our culture: More often, its motion tends to be directed outward rather than inward.
Instead of mulling over our thoughts privately, we declare them to the world through open platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Popular culture and self-help gurus encourage us to “think on our feet,” join in and be gregarious risk-takers—but who is urging us to be quiet, contemplative, and introspective?
We live in an extroverted world and while we do believe that leaders must, by the very nature of the role, distinguish themselves if they want to influence others, we question the idea that leaders must lead through extroversion.
If you are a principal—and an extroverted one at that—here are a few reasons to consider the merits of quiet leadership.
The Power of Being a Quiet Principal
- Principals have the power to influence a school’s success, but rarely do they ride in on a white horse, bark a few orders and lead the institution to victory. No, they must first gain the trust of their colleagues, students, faculty and parents.
Influence comes with trust—and trust comes when we listen, give respect and build stable relationships.
A commonplace belief is that influence is an event, the result of first impressions, the clothes we have on, our demeanor and magnetism. We would argue that it’s actually the inverse: Influence is a process. If we think we’ll win over others by commanding the room, chances are that we’re not only going to alienate our colleagues, we’re also going to miss out on a lot of opportunities to learn from them.
- Our schools are diverse and so are the students, teachers and parents that are part of them. While many of us are accustomed to the dominant culture—one that moves and expresses itself outwardly— many cultures find this abrasive. Those with a quiet confidence are more likely to win over cultures that are less aggressive and prefer a reflective, low-key approach to leadership.
- Thanks to burgeoning technology, our culture has become accustomed to immediacy. And while we love and cannot deny the benefits of having it at our fingertips, we find that technology is not always conducive to that careful thought required of principals.
Here’s an example: On a daily basis, we receive dozens of emails from parents, teachers and staff. Some responses require only a short sentence, but others aren’t so simple and take time for us to quietly reflect before responding. When this happens, many of us feel like we have to make a snap judgment and dash off quick responses, but quiet leadership values reflection over quick action—and often the results speak for themselves.
When was the last time you heard someone say, “And where were the parents?” or “What’s going on with parents these days?” You may have even said this yourself a few times.
We may not always understand parents, but we never doubt that the majority of them want what’s best for their child. And even when parents are difficult, we know how important it is to maintain positive relationships with them.
Since challenging parents are never going to completely go away, we’d like to share a few tips—courtesy of educational leadership experts Todd Whitaker and Douglas J. Fiore—to help you better navigate these relationships.
Connecting with Parents: 5 Tips for Principals
Call parents—all of them
You’ve already hosted back-to-school night, but extending a personal invitation to any major school event is a great way to connect with parents.
Round up the student council, ask for teacher volunteers and host an evening in which the group attempts to call every family and personally invite them to back-to-school night. If you’re thinking that this sounds like a lot of work, you’re right—but the payoff is well worth it.
Dare to give parents your number
At an event where you have a large audience of parents, encourage them to call you in both the office and at home if they need to. We agree, giving out your home phone number sounds a little unorthodox, perhaps even foolish, but here’s Whitaker and Fiore’s rationale:
This approach makes everyone in that auditorium feel that someone cares about them and their child. Years later parents would tell me that they always remembered that. The other benefit was that teachers began doing the same thing.
Irrational parents will always find a way to get your home phone number and will call you regardless. It may come as a surprise, but Whitaker and Fiore explain that they are consistently approached by parents who say, “I was going to call you at home. I know you said we could, but I figured you get so many calls that I decided that I did not want to ever bother you at night.”
Personal phone calls go a long way. Try randomly calling one or two families every week—or touch base with a parent who has expressed concern over a situation in the school a week or two later to ask how things are going.
Reaching out to the community
Education and educators take a consistent beating from the media. It’s discouraging, but one way you can help change this is by contacting local television, public radio and blogs with pieces of good news about your school. If they ignore you, be vigilant and see if you can find contacts through parents.
Use technology to connect more efficiently
Most schools have a monthly edition of the school newsletter. These usually include a column in which the principal shares his/her musings, updates and reminders. This is nice, but it lacks a personal touch for a variety of reasons:
- It’s impersonal (parents can’t hear you)
- It isn’t always timely (most newsletters come once a month)
- Newsletters often get mixed up in parents’ random junk mail
- Parents can’t respond to newsletters unless they call you
- Parents often cannot access this information on a mobile device
As an alternative to the newsletter, try creating two or three minute podcasts, audio recordings that parents receive every Friday in their email box. These podcasts can be conversational: In addition to the usual updates and reminders you might find in a newsletter, feature short interviews with student athletes, coaches, thespian students and teachers. Once you’re done, simply embed the recording onto your Facebook page, website or school blog and email a link to the parents who have requested to receive notifications.
By the time they step into the position, most principals have already spent years—even decades—in the classroom as teachers. This experience certainly comes in handy, but rarely is it enough to keep new principals from being broadsided by new challenges. While experience is often the best teacher, we’d like to help new principals avoid common first-year blunders by sharing 10 tips from 20-year veteran principal, Jan Borelli.
The First Year: 10 Tips for New Principals
Learn to distinguish between alliance and friendship
Indeed, teachers thrive when they have the support of their principal. What they could probably do without, though, is another buddy. An ally, a mentor, and someone who can successfully run the school will always trump the buddy-principal.
Recognize that “let me think about it some more” is a legitimate response
Here’s one of our own tips: You’ll quickly learn that you can never get everything done, but don’t resort to careless, off-the-cuff answers just to get parents and teachers off your back. Difficult decisions often require time and thought. If you need to mull something over, take the necessary time to do so. Ask the parent or teacher to send a reminder email so that you don’t forget to get back with him or her.
Rely on your teacher leaders
You’ll never be able to interact with teachers and staff as candidly as other teachers can. For that reason, you must forage a strong alliance with your teacher leaders. They can be your eyes and ears. Rely on them to converse with other members of the faculty to see what the concerns are in the school.
Don’t change anything the first year
People like the comfort of routine and are sentimental about the school culture that was there before you were. Instead of making drastic changes, spend the first year developing relationships. Know who is who and what is what. As Borelli suggests, “teachers really resent change, so any change better be warranted, accepted and acknowledged by most as needed.”
Meet with your faculty regularly
If your staff suspects that you dread faculty meetings, they’re probably not going to be very engaged either. Faculty meetings are as useful as we make them. Preplanning, coming with a positive attitude, letting everyone know what is going to be discussed in advance, and respecting people’s time is the best way to make faculty meetings count.
If the parent comes to the principal’s office angry about a teacher
When angry parents demand to speak to you, tell them to contact the teacher first. 99 percent of the time, you’ll never hear from the parent again.
Keep current with professional organizations
Become a member of ASCD, read their monthly publication, attend conferences and find a mentor. Whatever you do, don’t stop learning. As Borelli puts it, “Nothing is worse than a has-been—except a might-have-been.”
Write notes of appreciation regularly
Here’s another one of our own tips: Whenever you are able, send a personally written—preferably, handwritten—note of thanks or appreciation to teachers "caught" caring or pulling off terrific classroom projects. Send at least a dozen of those notes each week. Keep a copy for the teacher's file; later in the school year you will be able to draw on those positive moments as you compose teachers' evaluations.
Know the difference between support and unconditional support
If someone is wrong, find a way to help him or her save face. But never “cover” for inappropriate or unprofessional conduct.
Risky, but not too risky
Principals must be willing to try new things and take risks, but they must always have stopgaps in place that allow them to fail without losing the farm.
Last week we shared five tips to help principals better communicate with students, parents and teachers. We’d like to continue the conversation, but focus specifically on improving communication with students. As you well know, intergenerational communication can be tricky business. Nonetheless, we believe there are simple steps principals—and any educator for that matter—can take to bridge generation gaps.
15 Ways Principals Can Improve Communication with Students
- Be mindful when you speak and write. Words, both good and bad, have a long—sometimes indefinite—shelf life
- Avoid using absolutes like “never” and “always.” Instead, describe what you see, hear and feel
- Don’t be afraid to share your own experiences with students. Self-disclosure is a useful tool for opening up lines of communication
- Never use words to belittle any child’s dreams
- Students often lack the experience to put their problems into perspective. Help them contextualize their struggles without minimizing them
- Keep in mind that students usually communicate better one-on-one or when they are in smaller groups
- Use straight talk instead of jargon, shock talk or phony “studentese”
- Our culture uses a lot of double-talk: We say one thing out of politeness (“No, let me pay for it” or “You really shouldn’t have gotten me that”) but actually mean the opposite. Younger students don’t understand these nuances. Avoid them and just say what you mean
- Students are often unable to articulate how they feel. Help them define their feelings, if necessary
- Eye contact, nodding your head and smiling go a long way
- Be clear about expectations. Don’t expect students to “just get it”
- Nothing unnerves students quite as much as superficial, authoritarian answers like “That’s just the policy.” Provide real answers to their questions
- Make sure your mouth, eyes and body are all saying the same thing
- Step out from behind your desk and remove physical barriers between you and the student when speaking to him or her
- Forget about what a principal is “supposed” to look and act like. Be you.
Many of these tips have been adapted from Robert Ramsey’s book, How to Say the Right Thing Every Time: Communicating Well With Students, Staff, Parents, and the Public.
A good principal must be many things, but first and foremost, s/he must be an effective communicator. Language is powerful; when we use it the right way, our words can instruct, inspire and strengthen our relationships with students, parents and teachers. Conversely, when we misuse language, we can stifle and even derail relationships. To help you have better conversations, we’d like to share five dos and don’ts we gleaned from Robert Ramsey’s book, How to Say the Right Thing Every Time: Communicating Well With Students, Staff, Parents, and the Public.
Have Better Conversations: 5 Dos and Don’ts for Principals
Do be honest—even if hurts in the short term
Educators love the pursuit of knowledge, but most of us were also drawn to the profession because we care about people and want to nurture—not hinder—their growth. Because of this, educators have a tendency to soft-pedal issues and euphemize touchy topics to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings.
There’s a subtle but important difference between using tact and euphemizing. Learn that difference and use it, even if it hurts in the short term.
Don’t rely on jargon
Like most groups, school leaders have their own form of discourse that may seem perfectly normal when they are surrounded by other educators. To parents and students, however, our use of technical, professional and scientific jargon can be extremely alienating.
Consider the difference between the following:
- On this nationally norm-referenced standardized test, your child’s score fell at the seventy-fifth percentile.
- Your child’s score was as high or higher than seventy-five percent of the students the same age across the country who have taken the same test.
Which of the above do you think parents would be most responsive to?
Principals and teachers have a lot more life experience than most students. This experience can be used to teach—or it can be misused to pontificate. Instead of using soapbox lectures, try to teach using Socratic questioning; this will help students see issues through a different lens and push them to draw their own conclusions.
Don’t bend over backward to be politically correct
By taking extreme measures to avoid offending anyone’s sensitivities, educators can end up saying too little, saying the wrong thing, or saying nothing and appearing ridiculous in the process.
This next point is important, but we weren’t sure how to phrase it as a do, so here’s one last don’t.
Don’t be overfamiliar
There’s nothing wrong with being friendly and approachable, but occasionally school personnel make the mistake of becoming too familiar when they communicate with students and parents. As Ramsey points out, these folks may feel that familiarity makes them appear more down to earth, but in actuality, it makes them appear out of bounds. In most cases, kids and adults have enough pals, buddies, or confidants. What they need are teachers, counselors, mentors, and leaders.
Many of our students are proactive, informed and self-driven enough to start planning for their college careers early, but navigating such big life choices can be overwhelming, even for the most organized and self-assured students. There are a variety of ways we can start preparing our students for this next stage in their lives, but one of the best ways is by bringing colleges and universities to them. To help you do this, we’d like to share 10 tips for planning your school’s next college fair.
We've adapted these tips from an original article by the Kentucky Association for College Admission Counseling
Planning for a College Fair: 10 Tips for Principals
If your student body is small, we suggest forming a regional or county-wide partnership with other schools. A partnership will not only ensure a big turnout of students, it may also cut down on your workload and increase the odds of more prestigious colleges and universities attending.
Day, date, and time (start and finish)
Anticipated number of students attending
The grade levels participating
Contact person at the sponsoring school(s) and the appropriate contact information
High schools participating in the program
Directions and a map to the program venue as well as parking information
Return card or form for representatives to RSVP
As you begin planning, gauge the level of student engagement and factor in how many will attend before you determine the length of the event. You want to ensure that each student has enough time to interact with college representatives without feeling rushed or creating backups. That said, an hour and a half should be enough time for a college fair.
We mentioned student engagement in the previous bullet point. While you may be tempted to make attendance necessary, we don’t recommend it. Forcing students to participate may distract those who genuinely want to be there. And while it can’t hurt to give students a list of questions to ask representatives, making it mandatory for them to fill out worksheets or get signatures from representatives can interfere with the process.
Arena Format: Each college is assigned a table. The set-up should provide comfortable space for students to visit with college representatives while allowing for adequate traffic flow. If representatives are located in several rooms, the sponsoring school should provide a list of the institutions’ locations.
Session Format: Each college is assigned an individual room for 20-30 minute information sessions.
Combination Format: Each institution is given the option of choosing their format. Colleges that regularly receive a great deal of arena traffic may choose to hold sessions while colleges with lighter levels of traffic may choose the arena option.
It’s common for colleges to market their institution by giving away gifts—t-shirts, key chains, Frisbees—and hold giveaway drawings. Whether not you allow this is up to you, of course, but giveaways can become distracting and take away from the importance of the event.
We’ve really only scratched the surface here. College fairs are only one way we can start preparing our students for the future. If you’re looking to put together a comprehensive college awareness program, we recommend checking out NACAC’s downloadable guide here.
National Teacher Day isn’t until May, but in our experience, trying to cram all of our appreciation into a single day can feel slightly disingenuous to teachers. Rather than wait for May to roll around, we’re sharing 15 simple ways principals can recognize teachers throughout the year. We owe the principals over at Education World a big thank you for sharing their ideas. Should you find that the tips we’ve listed below aren’t enough, you’ll find 50 more by visiting the original article here.
15 Ways for Principals to Show Teachers Their Appreciation
- Host a "Thank You Breakfast" during Teacher Appreciation Week, or during another time of the year when teachers least expect and most need it.
- Recognize special contributions by putting "Cookie Coupons" in teachers' mailboxes. Arrange with the cafeteria for teachers to redeem those coupons for a special treat.
- Whenever you are able, send a personally written—preferably, handwritten—note of thanks or appreciation to teachers "caught" caring or pulling off terrific classroom projects. Send at least a dozen of those notes each week. Keep a copy for the teacher's file; later in the school year you will be able to draw on those positive moments as you compose teachers' evaluations.
- At each faculty meeting, hold a lottery drawing for a "free" two-hour break during which time you will cover a teacher's class. The break can be redeemed at any time, but it needs to be arranged at least a week in advance.
- Each month, hold a party to recognize staff members who will celebrate birthdays that month.
- Provide a duty-free week during scheduled state-test times. Arrange to have PTA parents or others cover those duties.
- Purchase fresh flowers for teachers' desks during parent-teacher conference week.
- In your public address announcements remind students to show appreciation for their teachers in all kinds of ways.
- At the end of each grading period—when teachers have spent hours agonizing over student performance—send special notes of appreciation.
- If you have lost part of your school vacation to snow days, provide some special treats on those makeup days to recognize the extra stress that goes with losing valuable R&R time or planning days.
- If it starts snowing a couple hours before school lets out, go outside and scrape or brush off teachers' cars so they can get on the road soon after the bell rings.
- Provide dinner between school and an evening PTA meeting.
- Purchase a special book for the school library to recognize a teacher or honor a special occasion (for example, a retirement, a 20th teaching anniversary, or the completion of a master's degree). You might even give the teacher the choice of what book to purchase. Include inside the book a special bookplate to commemorate the teacher, the landmark occasion, and the date.
- To recognize the start of spring, add fresh flowers to the teacher's room and provide each teacher with a flowering plant to brighten his or her desk. Serve up a snack of spring rolls—homemade, or ordered hot from a local Chinese restaurant—to accompany lunch.
- At each faculty meeting, hold a random drawing for a "lunch of the month." On a specific day, those teachers will get to order-in from the restaurant-of-choice's menu.
Classroom walkthroughs aren’t designed to be punitive and although we never intend for them to create unnecessary anxiety, anxiety is often the result. To help you ease this tension and reframe the way teachers see classroom walkthroughs, we’d like to share eight tips from Engaging Teachers in Classroom Walkthroughs, a recently published book by Donald Kachur, Judith Stout, and Claudia L. Edwards.
8 tips to reframe the way teachers see classroom walkthroughs
Ensure that you have the support of leadership first
Having the support of your teacher leaders and the school leadership team is critical, so start by meeting with them, explore their ideas, and ask for feedback on your own ideas. Their buy-in and enthusiasm for the process will motivate them to inform, educate and inspire their colleagues to become involved in the walkthrough process.
Clearly communicate the purpose of walkthroughs with leadership
As we mentioned above, many teachers are threatened by walkthroughs, so you will need to explicitly communicate their purpose. This will not only quell anxiety, but also help you and your team decide whether to develop a unique walkthrough model or select an existing one.
Address walkthroughs with your teachers carefully and in detail
For your walkthroughs to be effective, it is important that you earn your teachers’ trust. To do so, ensure that every step of the walkthrough process is transparent. Teachers should know the purpose of walkthroughs and understand the process from inception to evaluation.
Prepare a schedule so that teachers know when you are coming
Your teachers should know when you are going to conduct the classroom. No surprise attacks!
Encourage teachers to volunteer as participants in the teacher walkthrough process
This strategy begins the process of building trust, works out the issues in the early implementation, and allows volunteers to influence their peers’ involvement.
Focus on student learning
We’re here for the students—that’s why we must make student learning, not teachers, the primary target of observations during walkthroughs.
Schedule post-observation meetings
Post-observation meetings are an important part of the process, one that you don’t want to rush through in the hallway or ten minutes before a teacher’s class begins. If you can, schedule these meetings after school or during a planning period—or at the very least, give teachers enough time so they can find a substitute or an administrator to cover their class.`
Post-observation meetings should be open and non-judgmental
When you meet with teachers to discuss observation data, refrain from using evaluative or judgmental comments. The real objective is to allow promising practices, ideas and resources from walkthroughs to be shared among the staff.