Caring, engaging, learning, and leading [guest post]

As an administrator I feel that my job is to create, foster, and sustain a culture of learning that focuses on the success of each and every student.  Paramount to this objective is the daily instruction that takes place in the classroom. The teacher, and his/her ability to promote student learning and achievement, is the single most important factor that will influence a child’s success in the classroom and beyond.

First and foremost, I want teachers who genuinely care about kids. If you don’t like being around adolescents for more than six hours, on average, each day then how will you be able to effectively teach and meet all of their diverse needs?  Connected to this is enthusiasm.  In the classroom, if a teacher is unenthusiastic about the lesson and the content then how can they expect their students to be excited about learning?  Passion and enthusiasm are qualities that I look for when interviewing prospective teaching candidates as well as during observations and classroom walk-throughs.   These attributes are contagious and together are two of the most important tools that a teacher can utilize to reach even the most challenging students.

From an instructional standpoint I want teachers to develop lessons that actively engage all students.  This can be accomplished in many different ways, but I firmly believe that the teachers who make the content meaningful and relevant to students never have a problem with engagement.   The learning environment should include examples of student work, consistent enforcement of rules, and excessive positive reinforcement.  Innovation is something that has become a more prevalent focus in my school.  To accomplish this, I want and need teachers that are not afraid of taking risks and failing once in a while.  What I don’t want is the same lessons and instructional techniques being used year in and year out.  It is imperative that teachers need to be accepting of new ideas and that they implement strategies that are either research-based or have been successful elsewhere.

TrappedInstilling a desire in our students to become life-long learners is not only a main objective of every educator’s job, but also something that has to be consistently modeled.  Teachers should actively pursue opportunities for growth without administrators getting on their case.  Consistent improvement is the only way teachers can stay abreast of all of the many changes in instructional techniques, educational technology, and ways in which students learn.  The concept of growing on the weekends and during the summer should also be embraced.  Routinely using the excuse “I don’t have time to do that” is unacceptable in my eyes.  As educators, we must make the time to get better because our students and their future depend on it.

Finally, I want teachers who will demonstrate and embrace a capacity to lead.  I am all about collaboration and making shared decisions that will benefit all students.  The success of initiatives such as Professional Learning Communities (PLC’s) are dependent on teacher leaders acting as facilitators who ensure that all the work being done focuses on student achievement.  Teacher leaders are also essential in terms of developing meaningful in-house professional development, modeling professionalism, and assisting administrators to create and sustain vibrant learning cultures.  They act as agents of change and empower other teachers to embrace this movement. Administrators need teacher leaders in order to support and sustain innovative practices. 

In summary, as an administrator I want teachers who love their job and come to school every day willing and eager to make a difference in the life of a child.  I want teachers who are passionate, enthusiastic, routinely refine their teaching strategies based on research, and are willing to put the time in to better their craft.  I want teachers that will work with me to become better leaders, mentors, and colleagues.

Eric Sheninger is in his fourth year as Principal of New Milford High School. His school is located in New Milford, NJ, which is a suburb of New York City. New Milford has approximately 700 students in grades 9-12.

Image credit: Australian teachers at ISTE Leadership Symposium

5 Responses to “Caring, engaging, learning, and leading [guest post]”

  1. Dear Eric,

    I find your words compelling, and I bet most teachers love working in the positive environment you encourage in your building.

    As an enthusiastic teacher who loves to try (and occasionally fails at) new techniques, I would ask you (and any administrator) to be careful with this sort of phrase:

    This can be accomplished in many different ways, but I firmly believe that the teachers who make the content meaningful and relevant to students never have a problem with engagement.

    My students often have larger issues outside school, and while I would not use this as an excuse for failing to develop relevancy and engagement in my classroom, “never” is too strong a word.

    Some days some students who have had traumatic events outside of class (death of someone close, disruptive family changes, etc.) can carry burdens into school that preclude short term (and sometimes long term)engagement.

    Those of us happily busting our butts in class may be a tad oversensitive, true, but while we are a major determinant of a student’s success, we are not the sole factor.

  2. Oh, and one more thought from your favorite gadfly. You said:

    The teacher, and his/her ability to promote student learning and achievement, is the single most important factor that will influence a child’s success in the classroom and beyond.

    This is widely quoted, but poorly supported, especially the “and beyond” part. I worked with the desperately poor for many, many years. Food, shelter, and safety trump school, no matter how wonderful it is.

  3. Eric,

    Everything you said rings true. The reason I chose to teach is to work with kids, to share in their excitement, introduce them to new things and learn from each other. I absolutely love my job. I integrate technology into classrooms every day and to see how the students and teachers respond to learning in new ways is incredible.

    The one thing that I think is left out is the 300 pound elephant in the room. That elephant is education reform. Right now, there are two battles being fought. One is strictly petty and political. The other, concerning best practices and pedagogy, has to potential to shape and improve education in the years to come. Unfortunately, the critical reforms are being drowned in a political battle that now pits teachers (and administrators) against the public all to the detriment of the students.

    In New Jersey, we are mired in a battle that has everyone up in arms and it is noticeably palpable in the schools. Teachers are professionals but how long can the attacks continue and the negative perception continue before it really affects the quality of education that we deliver?

    There are credible and extremely important reforms that need to be addressed. I, and my colleagues, did not cause a majority of the problems that we see. Many are systemic and others are created because we attempt to politicize and/or turn education into a business. Any business can turn customers away for a variety of reasons. I have never turned a child away and I have worked in some of the poorest areas in my state. I do my best to bring them along to a level higher than where they are when I met them.

    It’s time that we address the issues in education and improve the product we deliver without turning the debate into a political circus. It seems like your work in your school is a prime example of how we can start. We need more leadership like yours. Thank you for your article and vision toward the future.

  4. I feel as though you took your words right out of my head. I want to work with teachers who love their jobs, look forward to coming to work everyday and enjoying the children who surround them.

    When you said “The teacher, and his/her ability to promote student learning and achievement, is the single most important factor that will influence a child’s success in the classroom and beyond” I couldn’t agree more. I realize research supports this and if each person in education were to have that vision we would have fantastic schools. It is all about the relationships we establish with the children, colleagues, parents, and community.

  5. Eric,

    Excellent post… as someone who teaches teachers, I try my best to instill these values/axioms in my students. Unfortunately our “system” is not very good at filtering out those who can’t or won’t ascribe to these values over the long run. I often find myself crying out inside, “for the love of all that is good and true… for the sake of you, our children, and our society, please try another major!”. I’m not sure how well I always mask this internal dialogue. :) I’m thankful there and educational leaders like yourself and many teachers (like my mother) who professionally ply their trade to the best of their abilities and love and care for children almost to a fault.

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