Many people ask me why, after 23 years of teaching, I haven't become a school administrator. They mistakenly think that the obvious trajectory for a teacher is becoming a principal or director of curriculum. While it may be the way for some teachers, becoming a school administrator should be a carefully weighed choice.
Further reading: Highlighting Your Past Teaching Experience in Interviews
For the Love of Teaching
I became a teacher because I wanted to teach, so I can't imagine leaving the classroom. But for others, the pull to administration is strong.
My friend, Joe, is an outstanding math teacher. He has boundless energy, and students line up for his classes the way we queued up for Bowie tickets in the '70s. Joe can take a student who failed the state math exam and, in a few short months, practically guarantee that same student will become advanced in the subject matter. Yet, a few years ago, Joe wondered whether he should leave the classroom and become a school administrator.
Look at this: Less than $6,500 a year for your teaching degree
Joe felt like there was a certain pressure to enter administration. His bosses told him it was a natural progression, but Joe had reservations about that line of thinking. "It's not like starting out in the stockroom and gradually working your way to CEO," he said. "It's a completely different job." Most administrators I talked to agreed. Experience in the classroom helps with doing teacher evaluations and understanding certain discipline issues, but the job is very different from being a teacher.
Following the Lure
Eventually, Joe decided to take the leap. "Don't let anyone kid you," he said about his decision, "the money lures you. I wanted to own my own home. I had two kids. I also felt like I was really gifted with the ability to communicate with teenagers, and I felt I could make a positive impact as an administrator."
For my friend Dana, who teaches in New York City, the pull to becoming an administrator was different. "A couple years back, I had a class of English language arts kids who were deemed 'very challenging,'" she said. "Over time, I was able to create a safe space within my classroom and get these students to engage in the work, but their learning wasn't consistent because they were constantly getting suspended. I felt powerless because my classroom was a little bubble, and when they left my bubble, they were worse off. It got me thinking about how I could make a bigger impact so students like the ones in my classroom could have a more positive experience. That's when I looked into school leadership."
A Very Different Set of Expectations
Moving to the administrative level was not without its challenges. "Being an administrator at that level is educational triage," said Joe. "You have to make quick decisions with a minimal amount of information, and you're going to hear about it if you're wrong. No matter what you do, someone's not going to agree with the decision you make. You're not with all the kids anymore. You're with discipline issues and 'problem' kids. All day long. You don't have time to check in with the rest of the student body. The job overwhelms you. You answer to a lot of people."
Dana also recognizes the difficulties. "I find it challenging to get teachers to effectively apply the feedback given to them," she said.
Luckily, Dana's in an administrative position that allows her to teach a class, but she believes she'd always find a way to connect with kids, no matter her job. "For example, I'm already working on creating a reading list for an assistant principal book club for next year," she pointed out.
Joe, on the other hand, only worked as a vice principal for a year. "During year two, I was having a conversation with an ex-admin, and she said, 'So how do you like it? If you do it for one more year, you'll be stuck doing it forever.' Then I was at home one day, and we had a snow day. I said, 'I have no work today.' My wife came into the room and said, 'Honey, I've never heard you refer to school as work before.' I thought about it the entire next week. I was only 40 years old and I had 20 years left. I needed to decide: Was I going to teach or work the rest of those 20 years?" Joe chose to return to the classroom, and he said it's the second-best decision he ever made—after becoming a teacher in the first place.
Further reading: 3 Actions That Advance Professional Development for Teachers
Becoming a school administrator definitely has its pros and cons. If you don't think this is your path but still want to be a part of teacher leadership, there are plenty of ways to get involved outside the classroom, like being active in the teachers' union, leading professional learning groups and chair committees, and presenting at conferences. Teachers can and should become involved in running their schools, but whether you do it as part of the school administration is truly your choice.