May 25

The Teacher in Every Leader

May 25, 2016
Courtney Ward - Principal Fellow
Anne Frank Elementary School

Ten years ago I joined Teach for America and made the best decision of my life: to become a teacher. I spent the summer teaching and learning alongside brand new corps members that would soon be dispatched to classrooms across the country. I will never forget the feeling I had on the last day of institute when I realized the hundreds of thousands of students nationwide that would be impacted by our collective work. It was this idea that kept me inspired for a decade as an elementary teacher and moved me to extend my reach to whole school leadership.

Transitioning to leadership in Philadelphia so closely mirrored my experience as a beginning teacher. The parallels were surreal. I found myself at another summer institute in a new city, learning alongside like-minded people who were passionate about education as a social, historical, and economical equalizing agent in our nation. I was constantly moved by the collective impact we would have as transformational leaders, closing the achievement gap for an exponentially greater number of students. Once again, I walked away inspired, driven, and ready to serve as Principal Fellow at Anne Frank Elementary School.

Just like my first days in the classroom, my first few days at Anne Frank were tough. I was a new face in a sea of hundreds of staff and students who had known each other for many years. Anne Frank is like the other hundreds of neighborhood schools in the city of Philadelphia that embody the history and spirit of their community. We have staff who have worked in the building for nearly 30 years and staff who attended the school as children. We have students whose siblings and parents all matriculated through its doors. I love the deep community roots Anne Frank has in the Northeast, but I also missed my kids from my previous school and the family I had created in my old classroom. I longed for the deep connection I had with the students and families of my former school community.

When my family and friends asked how “my kids” were doing, as they had so many times over the past 10 years, I stalled. Did I have kids anymore? Who were they? There’s over 1,250 students at Anne Frank, and technically they’re all my kids, but not in the same way. I was learning to piece together names and faces and to match these with grade levels and classroom numbers, but I worried that I didn’t know the students. I worried that the close relationships that sustained the success I had led students to as a teacher would not come to fruition as an administrator. And without strong relationships, I was missing that essential entry point to engage in crucial conversations, de-escalate situations, and intrinsically motivate kids to persist through challenging work.

Determined to find my place in the Anne Frank community, I left my computer and my note pad in my office and I got into classrooms – not as an observer or an evaluator, but as a teacher. I modeled Common Core math lessons in third, fourth, and fifth grade classrooms. I taught the third graders in Mrs. Opher’s room my favorite multiplication skip counting songs. I frequented Mrs. Stern’s weekly student-led science experiments on Tuesday afternoons. I co-planned literacy units with Mrs. Bussmann, combing through texts together to tease out Tier II vocabulary words and essential questions. I visited with students during lunch and recess, listening to stories of weekend adventures, birthdays, and time spent with family. I filled in for teachers when they needed a quick bathroom break, reveling in that small amount of time to touch base with students and add to their understanding of the learning goal at hand.

These actions helped me to find my identity in this close-knit school community. I got to know the kids in their element, on a playing field where we were both more comfortable. The kids and I shared experiences that I could draw upon when needed. Before long, I had become a part of the landscape at Anne Frank. Am I still working on names and room numbers? Of course! But I love that I can speak to the success, growth, and academic experience of a great number of our students. 

The principal ballerina of a dance company is still a dancer. The principal violinist of an orchestra certainly still plays the violin. In this same spirit, the principal of a school is still a teacher; still leading in the classroom and building lasting relationships with students that accelerate their academic progress.

In administration, there is a never ending list of things that need to get done. Each day will present its own challenges that must be met. But I did not become a school leader to stay tethered to the front office. My priority remains to focus on students and their achievement and to harken back to the skills I used as a teacher to drive instructional growth. “True leadership happens in the classrooms, hallways, and playgrounds; management happens in our offices. [We must] cut down on the managerial and busy tasks so that we can spend more time doing what we love – teaching and leading” (Wejr 2010).

Leaders must situate themselves to model, instruct, and serve at a level that keeps them in the know with students and staff. Malcolm Gladwell writes, “You don’t start at the top if you want to find the story. You start in the middle, because it’s the people in the middle who do the actual work in the world.”  I believe that teachers are catalysts for student achievement and that teacher development is one of our best tools for impacting student performance. And at the heart of this belief is that, as principals, each of us has within ourselves the skills we channeled as classroom leaders. Remembering what made me an effective teacher has helped me progress towards becoming an effective principal.