School Leaders Should Prioritize the Many Over the Few

It usually goes down like this: A school leader and I walk out of her office, headed straight for a classroom, looking to collect data on both teacher and leader progress toward hitting goals. Excited to give real-time feedback to the teacher throughout the lesson. Excited to support student learning. And then, something happens. A parent shows up to talk about their child. An administrative assistant requests that the leader weigh in on a concern from a neighbor. A teacher asks for “two seconds” to discuss an issue. A dean attempts to give an update on that morning’s parent meeting. A student wants to know why he’s on track to have to go to summer school. And so on.

In each of these scenarios, and myriad others, the school leader has a choice. She can attend to the “many” in her building or she can attend to the “few.” The many, in these cases, are the students in the teacher’s class we were heading to: 28 students working on multiplying fractions. The many is also the 75 other students this teacher teaches throughout the day, all of whom will benefit from the teacher receiving precise feedback and intentional coaching.

What makes this tricky is that all the people above—the parent, the neighbor, the teacher, the dean, and the student—all have valid concerns, updates, and requests. However, if the school leader takes the time right then to address them, she’s prioritizing the wrong things. She’s prioritizing the few, and potentially sacrificing the larger school community to attend to the needs of a handful of people.

To be clear, as a former special-education teacher and the father of a boy with autism, I get that some students and families will require more attention, accommodations, and time from school staff. And in these cases, leaders should do whatever it takes to ensure that every student is as successful as possible. But the examples above, and the overwhelming majority of the times that a leader responds to requests like this, they aren’t urgent. They aren’t high-need. And many times, someone else can handle them.

In one of our trainings, we ask school leaders to write job descriptions for themselves. Not necessarily what they do on a daily basis, but one sentence that they believe sums up the most important work they should be doing. The answers are shockingly aligned. Almost across the board, school leaders write something that sounds like this: “To positively impact student achievement through teacher coaching and feedback.”

So how come I once witnessed a principal waiting at the front desk for a plumber who was going to fix a leak in the first-floor boys’ room? Not a geyser. A leak. He waited there for 45 minutes. Even in understaffed or uniquely staffed schools, there are other people who could do this. Even though he wasn’t just the principal—he was also the dean and the director of operations—he still had an administrative assistant who could have directed the plumber to the bathroom, or called him when the plumber arrived. A teacher on a prep, the security guard, or a teacher’s assistant could have all done this. But the principal chose to miss an observation and potential classroom pop-ins to do this instead.

This example seems extreme, because there likely isn’t anyone reading this who believes that was a good use of the leader’s time. But what about the leader who responds to emails during schoolwide transitions? The leader who is prioritizing responding to a handful of people over supporting hundreds of students and dozens of adults? What about the leader who takes meetings, without appointments, with anyone who arrives at the school? Or the leader who gets bogged down in conversations about field trips and school dances at the expense of instructional support?

All over K-12 education, school leaders are making the choice not to do the very thing they self-report that they should be doing, which is supporting teachers and improving student outcomes. Instead, many leaders spend time attending to every little thing that comes up, all the while cancelling coaching meetings, showing up late for observations, and neglecting to give lesson-plan feedback. They’re choosing to do the work that many people in their building can do instead of doing the work that likely, only they can do. Anyone can wait for a plumber, but not everyone can expertly train a teacher.

This doesn’t make sense on the surface until we name that many school leaders are simply looking for quick wins during days largely filled with struggle. Coaching teachers can be difficult. Holding people accountable can be difficult. Being a leader who inspires and affects change can be difficult. Responding to emails is easy. Running copies for the teacher who got in late is easy. Having dozens of low-level conversations throughout the day about things like why one student can’t go on a field trip or where the school dance should be held is easy. And while these easy things may be very important to a handful of people, they likely won’t result in radical change for the larger school community, which is what so many schools desperately need.

—Michael Sonbert

Michael Sonbert is founder of Skyrocket Educator Training. Before Skyrocket, Michael was a teacher, instructional coach, and director of strategic partnerships with Mastery Charter Schools. 

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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