The important stuff happens in the classroom. It’s in those moments of interaction between teacher and students, through those questions and quiet encouragements, those fumbling attempts to explain and flawless instances of understanding that learning really takes place.
As a principal, and a principal who really loves what I do, I have to admit that there are days I walk through classrooms and think: that teacher is having a more interesting day that me.
That pang of envy is healthy, I think, as it reminds me why I got into this enterprise of education. It also spurs me to stay engaged, to do my best to see myself as that antiquated, but aspirational term: principal teacher.
This year I had opportunities in both the fall and spring to step into classrooms and engage with students using lessons I’d designed. Teaching kids to read closely and analyze language using Sherlock Holmes and Emily Dickinson was inspiring and renewing, and it helped me stay focused on what really matters at a school.
And how much it’s worth it.
How different it might be if every administrator had the opportunity to spend some time teaching every year.
Logistics defy it; I’ve worked in some places as an assistant principal where the closest I got to teaching was covering classes when a sub didn’t show. I’ve also worked, once, at a tiny rural Oregon school where the principal took a group of the shaggiest students from a shop class and taught them nearly every day. He and these students (the same students whose behavior had given them cause to know the inside of his office well) worked together, swinging hammers, sawing wood, and building a large deck outside the cafeteria. His work with the kids, and the connections he made, inspired and continue to inspire me. He is the principal I find myself aspiring to be.
I don’t have the skills to build a deck, nor the time to dedicate every other day to breaking off with a band of students, but I can find ways to teach, and do my best to encourage other administrators to engage in actively helping kids learn.
It doesn’t always have to be in the classroom.
This spring the opportunity to teach took me outside, to a baseball diamond surrounded by six year olds learning to hit off a tee. After a startlingly chaotic first practice, balls flying, outfielders wrestling, metal bats clinking like beer bottles in a cowboy bar, I put my teacher training to work. The second practice saw printed directions for specific drills that I pressed on parent “volunteers” who thought they’d be watching practice from the lawn chairs they set up in right field.
These moms and dads were amazing, and proved to be huge allies in teaching the kids. They also started bringing mitts and wearing caps, and by the end of the season had become true partners in the learning our kids enjoyed.
And learn the kids did, huge leaps forward at throwing and catching, hitting and running the bases. They became a team, learned the game, and they had fun.
I took this experience back to my work at Diegueño, where those generous teachers who shared their students with me gave me the best gift a principal can have: students eager to learn and the opportunity to make a connection.
If I could offer advice to another principal it would be this: teach.
Don’t just talk about being an instructional leader, live it. In whatever way you can, make a point of letting your teachers and students witness you actively engaged in the magic of learning. When they see you, let them see you as a member of that most noble profession. Let them know you as a teacher.