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Teaching Is Leadership

March 5, 2019

By Rich Nourie, Head of School

When I began my career in teaching, school leadership was not even a remote interest for me. I was drawn by a deep interest in child development, a love of mathematics that blossomed even more for me as a teacher than it had for me as a student, and the joy of having middle school students at the center of my life (seriously!).

After 25 years now in leadership roles, I see clearly that teaching is leadership and is also an excellent foundation for leadership outside of the classroom.

A misconception common when thinking about both teachers and leaders is to confuse the persona for the work itself, to believe that personal traits and qualities define the role.

Indeed, it’s how I thought about teaching when I started. You start by playing the role. I wanted to be an amalgam of my favorite teachers – kind and encouraging like this person, funny like that favorite teacher, smart and engaging like another.

But excellent teachers make a shift in their first year or so. They go from watching themselves teach to watching their students learn. As teachers become fully engaged with the developing ideas and skills of our students, with thinking creatively about the learning environment and dynamics of the classroom, we undergo true growth. It’s when our personas disappear and our students, in all of their variety and differences, come into view that the real work of teaching begins.

Teachers and leaders alike are grown from the lessons they learn, the skills and wisdom they acquire, as they are immersed in the work of helping classrooms, communities and people flourish. Here are some of the lessons I learned in the classroom that I think are great lessons for leaders as well:

Most people are not like you. As a beginning teacher, I thought that teaching meant transferring my well-developed ideas about math to my students so that my understanding would become their understanding. This misconception dissipates very quickly as you begin to see the wide diversity in any group of students, in their past experiences and prior knowledge, in their ways of thinking, in how they feel about the subject, in how they experience the social dynamic of the classroom and in myriad other variables. Learning to plan for, communicate with, engage in and create a sense of common purpose and mutual commitment to the enterprise is the hard and authentic work of excellent classroom teaching and a foundation for all successful leadership.

There is little actual power in positional authority. Assertion of power or the threat of poor grades is completely insufficient to create a productive, thriving classroom.

Authority must be conferred by the students themselves and therefore genuine in its roots. It is earned by trustworthiness, thoughtful navigation of issues and problems, real care for students and their success, investment in one’s discipline and demonstrating an investment in the work and in the students that inspires real respect. The same is true for institutional leadership; you have to do the work to build genuine authority and trust.

Teaching, like leadership, is responsive, iterative and experiential at heart. Teaching is setting students in motion and then reflecting each day on the next best steps, all in the context of long-term goals. Each day in the classroom gives you direction and valuable information about what is needed to be effective tomorrow and in the long run. And the constellation of kids in your classroom is not generic but specific at any particular moment, just like a larger community or institution.

The work has to span the full spectrum, from an overarching vision to the everyday details of planning and preparation. Teaching and leadership share the same deep sense of purpose, as well as a clear sense of direction. Great teachers know that beyond simply teaching useful skills, they are drawing students into a more expansive sense of themselves and their ways of knowing the world around them. They are attuned to that purpose as much as they attend carefully to all the details of managing classes day to day, from planning to record-keeping to organizing. The breadth of the work is good preparation for larger leadership roles.

Finally, both teaching and leading are deeply enriched by a grounding in spirit. This is work of the heart and work that draws deeply on one’s inner resources of compassion, patience, essential goodness and wisdom. A grounding in spirit helps engender the long view, keep perspective and more clearly see the potential in both individuals and communities. We are so fortunate to have Quaker faith and practice as a foundation for our work in Friends schools.

I am grateful for the lessons of leadership I learned in the classroom and for the everyday leadership of our faculty in and beyond the classroom at AFS.

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