Administrators... as Classroom Teachers?

Some considerations about the engagement of administrators in curriculum and instruction

By: Jason D. DeHart, Ph.D.


As a teacher for almost ten years, I began my school life with apprehension about administrators entering my classroom. Somewhere along the way, probably following tenure, I began to enjoy frequent visits from administrators who just wanted to keep in touch with the life of the classroom. These visits were often friendly and full of humor as I added my administrators into the narrative of whatever writing my class was working on in ELA on any given day.

This experience in my career as an educator led to a few questions: What has been written about administrators remaining part of the classroom? Had my administrators stayed in the classroom a bit longer with me, what would the dynamic have been like?>/p>

To answer this question, I have done some reading and reflecting about this topic. Here, I will share what I have found and use these ideas, along with my experience in the classroom, to make some recommendations.

You Want Me to Do What?

Administrators in larger schools may balk at yet another item on their daily agenda, in addition to dealing with discipline problems, staff meetings, board meetings, parents with needs, problems with crumbling school infrastructure (including leaky ceilings and mold), as well as the demands of teacher evaluations. But connection to the classroom may be valuable for administrators to understand more completely the processes of teaching and to complete their daily routines with ongoing expertise practiced in learning situations with their students.

Acting as a historical voice on the topic, Ralph Tyler wrote, “The improvement of curriculum and instruction is the most important task of the school administrator" (from "Leadership Role of the School Administrator in Curriculum and Instruction," 1953). In our times, this role of curriculum is often shuffled off to another person at the district or school level, and often this person is an instructional coach who is focused on teaching ideas and practices.

While I believe the role of the coach is valuable, it also seems reasonable that administrators would have knowledge of curriculum and instruction and may themselves be continually practicing teachers. Keeping up with changing trends seems to imply being an active part of the teaching work.

Why Not?

Perhaps to no one’s surprise, the research on administrators actually stepping into classroom environments as teachers seems to have a relative paucity. When branching this investigation out into administrator-focused reading groups for professional development as well as administrator-focused professional learning communities, the research also seemed relatively thin.

Former Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch stated that to effectively evaluate teachers and complete observations of classrooms, administrators “must be master teachers themselves.” Researchers Dick Allington and Pat Cunningham also suggested that administrators should be experts in teaching, and reported about one school system in Rochester, New York where administrators remain active in teaching duties. According to this research, some administrators “became co-teachers in classrooms,” while others “worked with a particular group of children before, during, or after school.” Teachers traded responsibilities with administrators in some instances, allowing the teacher to step out of the classroom and participate in a leadership activity elsewhere in the school. This kind of approach might, in some ways, lead teachers into other opportunities and provide open doors for both administrators and teachers to act as a support to one another.

Benefits of this approach included giving administrators the ability “to talk with some greater sense of practice in team sessions,” reduction of the tension between administrators and teachers in their respective roles, communication of the “high value of teaching” by administrators, and insight for principals into the teachers’ perspectives on school issues. In this way, administrators seem to have stepped beyond the role of observing and describing removed experiences of instruction, and actually began to understand the teaching process more deeply and competently. Often, district demands result in mandates, and these mandates pass from the hands of administrators to teachers who either sustain them or comply until the next mandate arrives. Involving the administrator in classroom work might lead to a more practical, “rubber meets the road” sense of what these mandates really mean for middle school students.

In terms of completing meaningful evaluations, administrators might continue the practice of being lifelong learners as they make the most of classroom visits and teaching. This continuing practice may also help with insight into what works and what doesn’t. I’m thinking back to my own evaluations and how the few moments an administrator spent observing the way a lesson worked would often issue into an equally brief and surface-level conversation. It was not until administrators stayed for a while and became part of the classroom conversation that evaluations would travel to deeper levels. Evaluation with a depth of knowledge entails having an administrator who is versed in content areas, beyond dependence on a state or district-created evaluation rubric.

Administrators as Instructional Experts

Stef Palaniuk in “Administrators in the Classroom: Where Else?” (Education, Spring 1987), suggested that elementary principals in particular remain active teachers in classrooms, saying, “increasing amounts of literature have provided encouragement for administrators to become more involved in the day to day operation of the school.” The focus of this research mainly concerned the role of administrators in planning and implementing programs in their schools, with the article calling for more development toward actual instructional involvement on the part of administrators. Perhaps part of this recommendation for administrators at elementary schools is related to the school size itself. The school I taught in had well over 1000 students. It’s quite a task to ask an administrator to step away from managing that kind of environment to add another task—being part of the teaching process. Yet, I found administrators who seemed willing and even relished their brief opportunities to step into the classroom.

For Palaniuk, the chief question in this equation was time. The suggestion was made that principals consider delegating authority so that time could be freed for them to practice teaching, saying, “Competent secretaries are responsible and capable of doing a very effective job of handling the office.” This approach may be most prominent in schools where the roles of secretaries and support staff have been considered carefully, closely defined with concrete expectations, and where one staff member serves as a receptionist, while another staff member serves as a dedicated assistant for administrators. The instructional role of administrators can include curriculum development in addition to teaching responsibilities in a classroom. This instructional involvement may lead to more active engagement and participation in professional learning communities, moving administrators from the role of passive observer to practicing teacher.

Part of the little that I know about leadership is the beauty of handing off some responsibilities in meaningful delegation. Perhaps that’s part of the puzzle here.

Recommendations

In completing some reading and reflection, it seems that only a few voices in the literature specifically addressed maintaining administrators in some form of teaching role. A large part of my thinking about this topic is based on my brief observations with administrators and the powerful role they played when students had the opportunity to hear administrators’ voices—not just as deliverers of discipline but as people who were also interested in reading and schoolwork.

According to Diane Ravitch, increasing testing and standards demands, emphasis on value-added, and pressure from outside sources have caused issues in schools in the past decade under both the No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top Initiatives. Yes, I have lived that truth. Involving administrators in the process of curriculum planning and development, as well as teaching itself, may provide insight for administrators into what quality teaching means in today’s classrooms, with new sets of standards and expectations. The teaching role itself can be variable, as seen in the Rochester example, allowing administrators to take on one of several different roles.

As Stef Palaniuk wrote, “More effective principals take time to discover what is going on in the classroom, while their less effective peers spend most of their working days handling management or administrative tasks” (p. 275). Time may be especially difficult for principals in larger schools; to that end, an initiative of this kind may begin in smaller community schools.

Administrators are important voices in schools and can provide a valuable reference for why reading and schoolwork is important and relevant. So, why not keep the door open to the middle school classroom, even with other demands? It seems reasonable that the roles of administrators and teachers should not be mutually exclusive. We emphasize teams in middle school, after all, and what a better example to set for why teams really work well.


Jason D. DeHart, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of reading education at Appalachian State University. He taught middle grades English for eight years in Cleveland, Tennessee.
dehartjd@appstate.edu


Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2020.

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