Too often, teachers are rapidly elevated from the classroom to school leadership positions, whether to fill an unexpected vacancy, act as an interim administrator or to take on a permanent leadership role. But ushering teachers into administrator roles before they are prepared and without adequate support poses risk of burnout — or worse, opens up the possibility of causing harm to themselves or their school community, out of sheer lack of experience.
In my work at The Teaching Well, where I support teachers and administrators in wellness and sustainability, I hear about this issue regularly, and in the decade I spent working in schools, I saw it happen to colleagues frequently. I also understand the problem deeply on a personal level because it happened to me.
Early in my teaching career, when I was 26 years old, I was offered and accepted a position as a dean at an elementary school in East Oakland, California. The following school year, I was promoted to assistant principal, and a year into that role, I had to cover our principal while she was on maternity leave. None of these promotions came with special training or additional coaching; I wasn’t even told to read any books in preparation. I found myself burning out and I didn’t have the language to advocate for my needs, let alone hold that space for the staff I was responsible for.
It is essential to recognize that the premature placement of teachers into leadership roles comes at a cost. If we’re going to elevate young teachers, the system owes it to them — and to their colleagues and the students they serve — to wrap them with empathy, support and comprehensive training.
When Elevating Teachers, Support Is Key
In the face of recent shortages and staff turnover in schools, I understand why many district leaders quickly move teachers into vacant administrative positions. In fact, I was a district leader who made this recommendation at times. With so many leaders leaving, we are in a hiring crisis and there is no surplus of candidates clamoring for these jobs. What could be a better solution than talent you know personally and can cultivate from within?
A talented teacher is often a natural leader. But there’s a difference between commanding presence with students and leading staff. I know because I’ve lived it.
I was a green educator catapulted into a leadership role. To a certain degree, I was open to the opportunity and maybe I even sought it out. At the time, I was grappling with the decision-making at my school, particularly when it came to serving our Black students, and I wanted to make a change. My proactive nature, my work as a peer observer and my facilitation of a professional learning community at our school is part of what opened up the opportunity to move into an administrator role.
When I became a dean, I was thrust into a demanding position with a tremendous amount of responsibility. I quickly realized that holding space where educators can gather and share in a grade level team meeting isn’t the same as building a strategic professional development scope and sequence. Observing a peer isn’t the same as being able to provide a thorough evaluation. I had never formally supervised anyone, but was required to facilitate difficult conversations regularly. No one told me about the ugly parts of people management, like having to write folks up or design and implement support plans.
Fortunately, relationship-building came easily and when I made mistakes, I did my best to own them. It also helped that I was from the community I was serving, which enabled me to navigate many of the cultural nuances of working in our school. Even with these strengths, my learning curve was steep.
Physically, mentally and emotionally, this was one of the most challenging times of my life. At the time, I was pregnant with my first child and my husband was in law school. Eating balanced meals at work felt impossible. I was fainting regularly and developed insomnia. My inexperience caused ruptures with colleagues that I had to repair. In my role I was often called to support students with intensive needs, sometimes having to physically restrain them while breaking up fights or to prevent self-harm. When I got home, I was tapped out. It was hard to want to hug my partner or have my new baby crawling all over me. I had immense guilt as a parent and partner and overwhelming feelings of failure — and I felt isolated.
My healing work with school leaders today has helped me realize I wasn’t alone. The feelings I had were natural and many in the field experience similar emotions.
Over the years, I’ve worked with school leaders who are excelling and making it work despite unthinkable odds as they’ve unpacked the pressures they feel. I’ve also worked with leaders who have held their role for a few months or years before burning out and leaving as an act of self-preservation. Some have expressed that their reputation was damaged or that they developed an inner narrative of failure. I remind them that they opened their hearts to serve even though no one was serving them — that they are leaders who weren’t led.
We talk about our young people as the future, as liberatory agents, as the ones who will elevate our society. We should invest deeply in those leading our schools, especially new leaders. And when we promote teachers to leadership positions, we owe it to them to provide the support they need to do their jobs effectively.