I’ve been an instructional leader for 4 years now and while much of my success is dependent on my ability to plan, monitor, and implement an instructional program, I believe the most significant contributing factor to my personal success as a leader has been my ability to build positive relationships with my colleagues based on trust and respect. Every positive outcome, completed project, shift in organizational culture, or adoption of a new practice for which I have been the lead has stemmed from my investments in those two areas. Through trial and error I have learned that leadership is about people before it is about outcomes.
When I first became an instructional coach, I was driven by outcomes, goals, and initiatives. I was more concerned with what I wanted to accomplish, the mechanisms I would use to reach my goals, and the instruments I would use to monitor the implementation of my goals than I was about the people who would be responsible for actually doing the work. In short, I was an asshole. My teachers didn’t care for me. They talked about me behind my back (I’m sure some of them still do this), skipped my meetings, ignored my requests for information, and ignored my suggestions. My first semester as an instructional leader was a failure because I didn’t value my people, they didn’t trust me, and we didn’t respect each other as professionals. I think a lot of new Principals, Assistant Principals, Department Heads, and Instructional Coaches who did not have the benefit of matriculating through a performance based leadership program or who lacked access to a mentor go through the same thing. Some, unfortunately, never grow out of the habit of valuing goals and processes more than their people.
Thankfully, the first group of teachers with whom I had the luxury to work were forgiving. I spent the summer licking my wounds, reflecting on my heavy handed approach to my work, enrolling in a performance based educational leadership program, and doing a lot of soul searching about the kind of leader I wanted to become. I began to understand that my job only exists to serve teachers who serve students. I realized that in order to do this work I needed to know what mattered to my teachers, what their needs were (both personal and professional), and I had to get to know them beyond their professional practice. Basically, I had to stop being a title and start being a person. My second semster as an instructional leader was much better than my first and with each of my subsequent semesters I’ve become better at the job because I put my people ahead of everything else, which brings me to the issue of trust and respect.
I was the new kid on the block again during the 2014-2015 school year. I filled one of two slots that had been vacated by two beloved and respected instructional leaders at an elementary school in Northwest Atlanta. I came in with plenty of ideas and goals. However, what I didn’t realize was that the current relationship between the administrative team and staff was adversarial to say the least. And I was on the side of the enemy. Rather than throwing all of my energy into accomplishing the goals I had written down on paper, I began to focus my energy on supporting the teachers and meeting their needs. I learned that a significant need of my teachers was support with regard to student discipline. This technically did not fall under the umbrella of my responsibilities, but I did what I could to make their work experiences less stressful. I filled whatever gaps their were between what I wanted to accomplish and what they needed. I became a critical friend, and with some of my teachers, a real friend. My actions, rather than my words, goals, or work artifacts became my calling card. I became someone my teachers trusted and respected. And I believe that a direct result of me building a foundation of trust and respect, my teachers were/are much more open to trying some of the things I suggested with regard to curriculum and instruction.
Now, everyone at the job isn’t in love with me, and I’m certainly not in love with everyone either. However, I do believe that everyone knows that I will support them in their work, that I respect them as individuals, and while we may not always agree about the best solution to a given problem we are all working toward the same set of goals. I have a lot more to learn about what it means to be an effective instructional leader, but I think that what I’ve learned so far about creating a foundation of professional trust and respect will take me far in my career.
As always, pardon the typos. This is as much for me as it is for you. I hope you enjoyed reading.