Going From Teacher to Leader—Without Losing Your Way - ASCD
Skip to main content
ascd logo

June 1, 2018

Going From Teacher to Leader—Without Losing Your Way

One educator's hard-earned tips on making the transition to an administrator role.


It's no exaggeration to say I never thought I'd leave the classroom. I had no intention of becoming an administrator, only a continuing drive to grow and learn and see where that would take me. But when I read the job description for my current position as the K–12 humanities director in a nearby district, I couldn't help but want to throw my hat in the ring. This job seemed to offer the challenges I was looking to push myself toward next; I'd be leading a team of adults, spanning an entire district in a multitude of content areas, and (since the district is small) my impact could be great, hopefully even greater than the impact I had in the classroom. I could be a part of real change.

When I interviewed for the job, I believed I had no chance of getting it, so there was nothing to lose. But candid conversation, confidence, and knowledge about the possibilities is what I think won me the position. The weeks that passed after that initial interview were stressful. Replacing my teacher's hat with my new leadership hat has been more challenging than I anticipated. In my 16 years as a teacher, I became adept at thinking about how I'd lead differently. But it turns out that when you're the leader, you can't just decide to change something when you feel like it. There's a process for everything—one I seriously took for granted as a teacher. You have to learn new strategies to be an effective leader without burning out.

How I Stay in the Race

Being a new school leader is exciting, rewarding, and challenging—but challenging in a different way from being a classroom teacher. Working with talented adults brings new complications. It's hard to go from a position where you feel masterful at your practice to a role where you know you have a lot to learn—not just about the role itself, but about the culture of your new district. Being this green almost made me feel like I had a target on my back.

I could've easily burned out if I'd approached this new job the way I approached foot races in my youth: run too fast out of the gate, then run out of steam midway through the race. I couldn't let that happen. So, partly through trial by fire, I've come up with some steps for proactively pacing myself to avoid the danger of overexertion (and of frightening my team instead of inspiring them).

Plan Your Week—Then Adjust

The first important lesson I learned was that if you want to get anything done, you have to plan out your week. I live in an office now, not a classroom, so the bells no longer apply to me. Add to that the fact that I don't work in only one building but in several, and you'll realize why a well-plotted calendar is essential. I'm not just scheduling meetings, I'm planning building walkthroughs (alone and with colleagues) and classroom observations. I'm getting into classrooms to co-plan and co-teach. And I'm going to meetings—of all kinds.

My first few weeks on the job, I didn't take time to plan, and I felt like I wasn't doing enough. As a teacher, I always felt accomplished or exhausted at the end of each period and by the end of the day, most of the time, I could identify concrete experiences to reflect on and grow from. In my new role, it felt like I was just going to meetings. Attending meetings wasn't as inspiring as being in the classroom, but it was—and is—essential to acclimating to the expectations of my new district.

Some folks like planning with a paper appointment book; I prefer using my Google calendar combined with another online calendar that my colleagues can also see and schedule meetings through. These calendars interact with each other well. With these tools, I can plan a week's worth of learning and activities and share my calendar with my boss and colleagues. One advantage of an online calendar is the ability to adjust it as other priority items come up—and boy, do they come up! It's all good to plan a week so you can get your many tasks completed, but it's equally important to stay flexible with your time to keep moving forward. I learned quickly that although some non-negotiables—like meetings at the central office—never get moved, other plans often have to be adjusted.

I also heavily use the classroom observation calendar we share as an administrative unit. When I first saw my deadlines for each teacher observation and how many I had to complete, I was overwhelmed. But I decided to take it one deadline at a time. Fortunately, my first round of goal setting and formal observations only involved nine teachers, so I made those meetings a priority. Having the chance early on to sit down with teachers on my team and learn about their professional goals and personal experiences helped me get a pulse on what they wanted feedback about—and begin to build trusting relationships.

After I met the first round of deadlines, I had more flexibility with informal observations, which are done unannounced. I would often plan to do an informal observation, but something else would come up. Since I'd already done the formal observations, I had flexibility to push back these informal ones to suit what was more important right then—like an impromptu walkthrough with a colleague.

Stick with the Kids

One part of being a teacher I miss is the opportunity to be around the kids and teach lessons. Sometimes when I felt closest to burning out as a teacher, one of my students would somehow recognize my vulnerable state and present me the perfect kernel of goodness to keep me going. The same is true for me as a leader. Getting into classrooms, making myself available, and really taking an interest in my teachers and their students yields the necessary pick-me-ups to help me through the more challenging parts of being a leader. So when a teacher shares something good about a strategy we discussed or invites me to celebrate her students' learning, I eagerly accept the invitation to take in the wonders of the classroom.

Recently, a high school Spanish teacher asked me for ideas about teaching a complicated grammar concept that her students were struggling with. We sat down a week before the lesson and brainstormed different ways to approach the topic that would get the students to apply their understanding of the concept and use new vocabulary. We came up with a plan for having them, in small groups, write collaborative stories using that Spanish vocabulary.

To keep things equitable for students of different writing abilities, each child wrote for three minutes to build their group's story. At the end of 14 minutes, students were asked to reflect individually on the experience. The teacher and I then debriefed. I suggested that she take the first draft of the stories and provide specific feedback on where the groups could develop their stories more, as well as see what the writing and students' reflections showed about which learners might need more directed instruction. The next day in class, she could differentiate instruction appropriately. Then the students could assess one another's work based on success criteria she'd shared with them at the start of the lesson.

Participating in the development of this lesson and being with the kids as they worked offered me a chance to help the teacher improve her craft. It also let me spend time watching—and enjoying—students in action. Since my new role doesn't call for me to be in the classroom five periods a day, any chance I get to experience student learning in action keeps me grounded in why I'm in this profession—and, now, how I can better assist our team's efforts to support students' growth. I switched into this role to be able to have a more global impact, not just in my classroom, but in all of them.

Keep Your Balance and Connect

Maintaining work-life balance as a new leader is essential. No one is going to remind you to eat or take a break or phone a friend—and it's really lonely. As a classroom teacher, I had colleagues who could hang out with me on free period or chat in the hallway in passing. Leaders don't have these opportunities as frequently. Teachers don't want to hang out with us, and I understand why; we aren't the same anymore, since there's an unspoken power dynamic in place. I am their boss, and although they may like me as a person, it's not as easy to just be friends.

This is one of the most challenging parts of the role switch for me. I still see myself as a teacher first and I miss being a part of that community. I do, however, make it a point to connect with my colleagues at my current job in whatever way I can, often stopping by a colleague's office to check in on a matter or planning to do walkthroughs in all the buildings with different leaders. This time we spend together allows me to pick their brains, ask lots of questions, and—most important—get perspective. I also keep up with friends from my old job to help me get a broader view of K–12 school happenings.

Administrators need to connect with other administrators because teachers often don't fully understand the strains of being a leader. As a teacher, I certainly didn't appreciate all the interference my administrators had to run for me so I could do what I did in the classroom. I made decisions swiftly and followed through, then reflected and adjusted. School leaders don't have the luxury of acting this way. They have to listen closely to various stakeholders to understand what is happening, ask a lot of questions, and then make the best decisions they can, keeping the students' best interests in mind.

Know What You Don't Know—and Accept Support

I was one of those classroom teachers who always pushed, always took things personally, and always wanted more for my students. As a leader, I'm no different. I'm hardest on myself—and that's where the potential for burnout really comes from. I have great support in my new position. But sometimes I don't know what I don't know because, as someone new to the district, I'm ignorant of particular expectations. When that happens, I know I need to try to not be hard on myself, but just make a mental note of the new learning and see it as another opportunity.

Although I have a job description, the day-to-day expectations for my position are still sometimes a mystery to me. I can't always rely on my experiences in my old school system because the practices and procedures in my current district are often very different. When you live in a system for a long time, it's easy to think that all school systems are the same, but each has a unique personality that we have to get to know, quirks and all. So as I learn the quirks of this system, like how the high school does testing, I've learned many lessons on the fly.

For example, since a testing coordinator always prepared materials for the exams when I taught, I didn't realize I was supposed to run off the essay booklets for the Regents exams (our state's standardized tests). Luckily, we were able to figure out we had a problem early on and rectify it without students getting too anxious. Similarly, I didn't do a good enough job making sure that our English language learner students had every exam they needed in both languages. I've made myself a checklist for preparing for the Regents exams next year, so I won't make any of these mistakes again.

Fortunately, teachers on my team often say things like, "Have you gotten the folders yet? Our last administrator always did." Then I start asking the right questions so I can determine if I'll do it the same way the previous leader did or change something. Being able to acknowledge and accept that I don't always know the set routines and expectations has been an important part of my growth as a leader.

View Mistakes as Opportunities

A huge part of not burning out in my first year on the job has been seeing every mistake or hard situation as a learning opportunity and embracing it rather than internalizing it. Making time to write and reflect about my practice on my blog "Work in Progress" on Education Week Teacher helps me keep seeing my mistakes as just part of learning. And when I recognize a deficit or a struggle, I seek out mentors who can coach me through it. I make myself vulnerable and ask for help.

This year I had a difficult experience when I didn't handle a post-observation conference with one teacher well. I sometimes have a hard time communicating constructive feedback, and I did a bad job in sharing information during this conference. This created an even more challenging situation that set back some of the relationships I was building. I'm going to have to work harder to repair those relationships and be even more judicious with my timing when sharing my challenges. But I learned from this mistake and have started doing several things to make sure it doesn't happen again. Scripting lessons—documenting everything that happens while I observe—ensures that I have evidence and helps make sure the teacher and I share the same experience of the lesson. By doing this, I don't add any of my opinion, just note what is happening as it happens: I quote the teacher, I cite students, and I specifically comment on actions in ways that aren't interpretive but concrete, so the teacher can see what I saw. I now ask a lot of questions and try to learn more about the lesson, without making assumptions, before I observe and debrief.

Because I'm responsible for disciplines other than the one I taught in, I often elicit help from colleagues who are experts in these other areas. Additionally, I've read a few books about having difficult conversations and how to provide feedback in a way that people can hear. These steps have been very helpful.

Maintaining Perspective

Burnout happens when we put an unrealistic amount of responsibility and expectations on ourselves. As a new leader, it's important to maintain your priorities and understand that you can only accomplish so much in a day. It's vital to keep some time for something you love that isn't related to the job. And to be patient with yourself when you don't adhere to your plans.

Try to remember, we're all in this together, regardless of the role we are in. That's the only way we can give kids what they need.

Want to add your own highlights and notes for this article to access later?