At some point, many teachers entertain the idea of becoming educational administrators. Some decide to apply for openings and get them. For others, their schools might need them to step into vacant roles upon request. Whatever the case, transitioning from being a good teacher to being a good manager is not automatic. This is because the workplace realities of a teacher are very different from the realities of a manager.
Teachers spend many years honing the different areas of their craft–classroom management, unit planning, materials development, assessment, parent communications, classroom design, curriculum design and so on. They develop a skill set that makes them very effective in classrooms on a daily basis with groups of children, parents and colleagues.
Teachers are doers. They are in the habit of taking on big loads and carrying those loads more-or-less themselves to ensure that what needs to happen in their classrooms actually happens. Top priority is ensuring that their students learn. For teachers, students are the main stakeholders, and their learning is the main objective. For teachers, everything is viewed through the lens of teaching and learning and social-emotional development. It’s a different story for managers.
Managers are focused on staff and departmental / school operations. The focus is no longer directly on teaching and learning. That is the teachers’ job. Managers balance the operational needs of the organization with the needs of the people for whom they are responsible–teachers, students, parents, other staff. Whereas teachers make decisions based on what is pedagogically sound, managers make decisions based on what appears to produce the most favourable (or least negative) outcome. Sometimes, this goes against what teachers might want.
For example, instead of spending money on musical instruments, a manager might decide to use that money to replace leaky pipes in an area of the school where people usually never go because delaying might mean a greater expense and health and safety issues later. Teaching and learning would not be enhanced. Teachers would not be happy, but it may be ‘the best’ action nonetheless. The second part of this scenario would be how to explain it to teachers and perhaps parents, hopefully with a view to having them understand and not get upset, but if they did get upset, then the manager would have yet another layer to deal with. A big picture decision that makes sense to a manager can be very contentious for people whose lived realities are more focused.
Teachers who become managers may think that they will spend the bulk of their time building the programs that have been in need of development for so long. Program coordinators may get to do that, but any managerial position above the coordinator level is more often concerned with managing problems and enabling people.
Problems aren’t a distraction from the job. They are the job. Other people do great work and build great things. Managers enable them to do that. That is a manager’s contribution. Pursuing constructive opportunities–like writing new policies and implementing innovations–tends to happen between problem and people management.
Teachers who are new to management often have this learning curve:
- They focus on their own work and on doing things themselves. Teachers new to management often need to shift from an “I” mindset to a “we” mindset, focusing much less on themselves and much more on their teams. The work of the team is the priority, not the work of the manager.
- It takes new managers a while to figure out that a big part of their job is about helping people identify and solve problems. Problems are not some type of undesirable offshoot of work. Problems are the work.
- Teachers who transition to managers must learn to think more in business terms than classroom terms (while not losing their awareness of the classroom). A school has many staff who are classroom specialists. It has very few who are business specialists. A school needs both, and an educational administrator gives priority to the business side because he/she knows that teachers are taking care of the academic side.
What can colleagues do to help teachers who are new to management become good educational administrators?
- Be tolerant of mistakes for the first year or so. They are going to happen. Management is a learn-by-doing occupation. It is okay to bring your concerns to the attention of a new manager because doing so should help them improve (if they are at all reflective), but cut them some slack at the same time.
- Be accepting of the need for new managers to shift their mindset to focus on operational needs rather than solely the needs of students and classrooms. Students are the ultimate priority, of course, but for managers, their focus moves more to background support of teaching and learning. They are no longer on the front line. Staff, facilities, finances, etc. become main priorities for managers. If managers do their jobs well, it means that teachers can do their jobs better, too. Everybody should have a better experience.
- Accept that a teacher who has become a manager has increased decision making authority. Try not to let this change become a source of conflict based on the way things used to be.
There are many things that an educational administrator does. Top two on that list are enabling teachers and staff to do great work–knowing that it will benefit students, their families and colleagues–and helping people to solve problems. Teachers who become managers must quickly learn to not focus on themselves and their own private work but on their teams and the state of affairs for their entire departments / schools. Colleagues can help teachers to make the transition to managers by being tolerant of their early mistakes, by appreciating that managers must think beyond the classroom to the big picture of operations and by accepting increased decision making authority of new managers (i.e., a change in workplace dynamics).
Becoming an educational administrator is an exciting opportunity. It is worth bearing in mind that new managers need as much support as teachers do, just in a different way.