The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Why I Want To Be a School Leader

I started my graduate program in education administration this summer. One of my first assignments was to write an essay about why I want to be a school leader. Since others have asked me this before, I thought it would be worth sharing on my blog.

My interest in becoming a school leader, particularly a school principal, is rooted in a desire to have a greater impact on schools and policy than I currently have as a general education teacher in an self-contained classroom. I have watched closely the direction that education has shifted over the past many years, especially since the implementation of No Child Left Behind and now the Common Core State Standards and I want to be a part of the greater narrative. Additionally, I have been involved in leadership development programs in various settings for over half my lifetime and have an interest in further utilizing those skills to work to improve education. I believe the role of a school principal is to be the lead teacher in the building, setting the standard for others and serving as a resource to assist teachers and families educate students.

When I was in the fourth grade, I determined that I would become a fourth grade teacher. I was inspired by my own teacher and continued to pursue this dream over the next eighteen years. Along the way, I met many different principals, some who inspired me to continue to pursue a degree in education and someone who, while not discouraging me, seemed to just pass through without any real impact. For many years, I had expected that I would begin and end my career in the classroom. It wasn’t until I was living in southern California for a short while and met a man who was a part-time classroom teacher and a part-time school administrator in 2003 that I began to entertain the notion of pursuing administration. He told me that I had the personality and mental skills that would serve well as a principal. I began researching the idea further and discussing it with other friends and family members, including my mother who, while serving on a local school board, had had a role in hiring a new administrator. My work as a substitute teacher in Champaign, Mahomet, and Urbana exposed me to several other principals with many different leadership styles that further guided me in this decision. Shortly after being hired to teach fourth grade at Wiley Elementary in Urbana, I shared my interest with my building principal who enthusiastically supported this decision.

While all of these people had a role in influencing my desire to become a principal, the one who has had the greatest impact has been my mother. She has served on the school board for Washington District 52 for thirteen of the past fifteen years. As a school board member, she has worked as the board secretary and the board president. During the board’s candidate search for a new superintendent, she would share with me many of the traits she was looking for in a new administrator and encouraged me to develop those same traits in my life and my professional roles. She also worked closely with the board and the superintendent in hiring new principals at both the elementary and middle schools. As I shared my own experiences as a teacher, including non-classroom responsibilities and professional development, she observed that they could serve to help me be an effective administrator.

As a substitute teacher in three districts over the course of three years, I met dozens of school administrators. There was a principal at an elementary school who made a point of always visiting the classroom while I was preparing in the morning and again midway through the day to check on things and offer any assistance. He could frequently be found in the hallways, talking to students and teachers, making his presence known without being obtrusive. Visitors could always identify him by his dress and grooming, which set the standard for professionalism in his building. This, to me, set the standard for an effective positive school leader. By contrast, there was another elementary principal who did none of these things. I spent more time in this building than any other during my substituting career and yet the principal never once visited my classroom or spoke to me in the hall. The only time I saw her was when I was checking in at the front office and she could be seen in her office through the window. (Her door was always shut.) When I brought this up to some of the teachers who worked in the building full-time, I learned that the only time the principal was not in her office was when she was giving a tour of the building, overseeing a school-wide activity, or making a formal observation of a teacher. Guests who visited the school could not identify her as an administrator because they had never met her before and the principal often wore casual clothing to work.

Contrasting these two principals has helped set the foundation for my personal philosophy of leadership, particularly in a school setting, and why I want to go into administration. A leader must always set the example for others. When I owned and operated a small custodial business, I had a policy that I would never ask my employees to do anything I myself would not be willing to do. Because we were a small business, I was often working on the job with my crews, scrubbing toilets, taking out the trash, vacuuming, and carrying out any of the other duties clients had asked us to do. During the day I would be visiting clients and preparing bids for new contracts and learned the value of dressing the part. As simple as it seems, I believe that how I dress impacts the way I lead because it impacts the way others think about me as a leader. A school leader should be one who adopts the famous “Fish Philosophy” of Seattle’s Pike Place Fish Market: play, be there, make their day, and choose your attitude. I believe that school administrators need to spend more of their time out of the office than in, that they need to set a positive tone for the building, the teachers, and themselves, encouraging open communication, trust, and innovation and that they need to find ways to have fun, whether it is riding a unicycle during school assemblies, getting duct-taped to a wall, or shaving his head after students reach a goal. In considering all of this, my main reason for wanting to be a school leader is to have a bigger positive impact on students, families, teachers, and education in general than I currently have as a classroom teacher.

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