Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Importance of Getting Back in the Classroom

I vividly remember sitting through education classes in college wondering how long it had been since my professors had been in a real classroom (with kids, not college students) teaching real lessons. For me, there existed a disconnect between the professors and me because I knew they were teaching me practices they had used decades ago and hadn't used since. Even as an undergrad I recognized the importance of educational leaders being in the classroom not just for observation but to stay sharp, current and credible.

After teaching for nine years, I became an administrator but I remained in the classroom part time. Once I moved out of the part-time-teacher-and-part-time-administrator role and into the role of full time administrator, I missed the classroom and I missed instruction. The desire to get back in the classroom as a teacher and not just as an observer remains strong today. I'll be making my first foray back into the classroom (for this school year) this week and I'm looking forward to it.

I believe the next generation of educational leaders must never forget the classrooms from which they came and I believe those in non-teaching leadership positions should make an effort to get back into the classroom as often as possible. Educational leaders teaching in classrooms create win-win-win situations for the kids, for the classroom teachers and for themselves.

First, kids are fascinated when the principal, dean or head of school steps into the classroom and teaches. Kids often have no idea that the best administrators once were classroom teachers in a former life. Regardless of the subject, teaching classes allows educational leaders to be seen by students as an expert in a content area, to earn a new level of respect and admiration with the kids and to relate to kids in a new way and in a new setting. It is not uncommon for students to request return visits from administrators who do guest lectures because the students are so intrigued and, therefore, engaged.

Second, teachers can identify with teachers. It is extremely difficult to follow an educational leader if that leader cannot be visualized by teachers as an excellent teacher earlier in his or her educational career. Teaching in the classroom gives educational leaders a chance to earn some credit with teachers. Furthermore, teaching in the classroom gives educational leaders the opportunity to model best practices in the classroom for young, inexperienced or struggling teachers. It's one thing to sit behind a desk and talk about pedagogy but it's quite another to get in the classroom and model pedagogy and classroom management.

Third, non-teaching educational leaders need to get back in the classroom to teach in order to be reminded of what their faculty see and do on a daily basis. Educational leaders need to see firsthand how kids have changed since they, the leaders, left the classroom years ago. Educational leaders need to experience the challenges of reaching today's digital natives who simply are wired differently than kids even ten or fifteen years ago. Educational leaders need to teach so they don't lose sight of what they should be empowering teachers to do day in and day out. Furthermore, teaching in the classroom requires the non-teaching educational leader to brush up on content he or she probably hasn't studied in years. Everyone could use a refresher once in a while.

For those administrators who are bold, daring and willing to get outside their comfort zones, I recommend teaching not only in your content area but also in classrooms outside your content area. Last year, I taught several times in my colleague's AP European History class. What a great experience for me! That was a logical choice for me because of my background in European history. However, because I have a passion for photography, I taught an AP Physics class about light and lenses last year, too. We even created a camera obscura with the class.

I challenge all educational leaders who are no longer teaching to get back in the classroom and teach ASAP.


Shawn said...

How much do you know about digital photo manipulation? I could borrow Nancy Reynold's lab for a day. Just a thought.

ATS Webmaster said...


I am in total agreement with you. I'm currently in an administrative graduate program and my cohort members and I have been having this same discussion. We've been reading about effective leadership and we all agree an effective leader is one that can be found in the classrooms and out of their office. The question I have for you is does the day to day issues of running a school get in the way? and what can we do as new administrators to make sure that doesn't happen? Thanks for your post.

Heather H.

Nathan Barber said...

I believe the day to day adminsitrative work can consume you if you allow it to do so. However, when you have the chance to get back in the classroom, even for just a few hours, put that on your calendar and don't allow anything to conflict with it. I read something once that encouraged administrators to never allow paperwork to gain a higher priority than people-work. Many things that you might work on during the day can be done before school and after; classes can be taught only during the school day.

If you are not a division head yet, ask your division head to support you in retuning periodically to the classroom. You could also ask your division head to set aside classroom time for you much the way he/she would for professional development time.

I'd love to discuss it more if you're interested.

atara said...

Interesting perspective because most people I knew in administration did so to get out of the classroom.

ATS Webmaster said...

Wow I do find that interesting. I'm not in the classroom now and there isn't a day that goes by that I don't miss it. There are definitely things I don't miss but I do miss the actual teaching. I wonder if there is a difference in the styles of administrators based on their reasons for becoming one.

Nathan Barber said...

"I wonder if there is a difference in the styles of administrators based on their reasons for becoming one."

That certainly is an interesting thought. Surely you're on to something with this. If someone hasn't already pursued this as thesis or dissertation material, it sure sounds like a promising idea to pursue.

Thanks for the thought.