Leading or Getting Out of the Way?

Talking with a teacher yesterday, she was telling me how much she loved her school. She also told me that she had an exemplary principal who she would follow to whatever school he may go to. I asked her why she thought he was such a strong principal and she had something that I have heard a lot from teachers:

“He stays out of our way.”

Following up on that statement, I asked her what is the vision for the school. She had no idea.

Now I believe that as professionals, we have to really give our teachers the opportunity to be innovative and do things that suit their own personality in the classroom. On the other hand though, as a principal, do we not have to have a vision for our school? I was really interested in seeing Brian Nichols post on Connected Principals today regarding having a clear vision in school as I believe that is essential for bringing schools together. If we continuously talk about collaboration being essential to organizational growth, do we not have to have a clear vision for the path that we want our team to be on?

Chris Atkinson spoke about the “Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership“, and “inspire a shared vision” was one of the main points. As a principal, I believe that when we build strong and caring relationships, we can create a community of learners that encourages creativity and innovation for our entire school, not just our students.

Caring. Community. Creativity.

We have had our entire staff, along with parents, work on our education planning for our school, with student input. Bringing in stakeholders is necessary if we are going to have this shared vision.

It is essential that if we continue to improve our schools, but working in pockets and isolating from one another, so we can do our “own thing” is not the way to do this. Teachers need freedom to be professionals, but our schools also need a collaborative vision where we are pulling from the collective wisdom of our organizations.

Clearing the path for our staff is essential, but shouldn’t we all be on the same road?


  1. Teachers like principals who “stay out of their way” as it lets them direct the classroom as they see fit. The problem with this approach / attitude is that it allows individual teachers a “free reign” in their classroom – which allows for the possibility of not having to justify educational practices or techniques. Such teachers often find the principal with a “vision” for the school challenges them to rethink some of these practices. It is really an extension of the staffroom slogan – a popular teacher isn’t necessarily a good one (and vice versa). Sometimes being effective means taking some people out of their comfort zone – literally leading them elsewhere.

    February 23, 2011
  2. George,

    The beautiful part of having a set of clearly defined, specific vision statements for principals is that you can SAFELY push decision-making out into the hands of your teachers. When any staff member rolls through your door and starts a sentence with the words, “Can I….” your answer is automatically, “Which of our school’s vision statements would this choice support?”

    If this becomes a regular pattern of interaction in your building, teachers will start making choices that are tied directly to your vision statements—-and therefore, to the behaviors necessary for moving your school forward—before they even approach you because they know what your question is going to be.

    The best principal that I ever worked for told me that he’d support me in any choice that I made as long as I could show how it connected to our school’s vision statements. It was an awesome place to work—especially as an accomplished teacher—-because I felt like I could finally invest time and energy into being innovative because I knew that I’d be supported as long as my innovation was happening in areas that were clearly connected to our school’s vision statements.

    Now here’s the hitch: I think that schools generally fail to develop vision statements properly. Instead of being incredibly specific about sets of desired actions that they’d like to see in all of the major categories connected to a building’s work—-grading, budgeting, hiring, use of technology, parent communication, student-centered instruction—-we tend to write a few warm and fuzzy statements that aren’t detailed and call it a vision.

    That’s a major #visionfail because ANYONE—-including the resistant curmudgeon working on the eighth grade hall in your building—-can make justifications for their decisions based on warm and fuzzy statements.

    Here’s an example: Let’s say that your vision statement is something vague like, “We will ensure student success” and a teacher rolled into your office and said, “George—I’m going to start giving kids zeros for every assignment that is turned in late. I’m also not going to provide any remediation or enrichment activities for kids. If they don’t learn the content or complete the tasks the first time, that’s their problem.”

    Your response—in the best of worlds—would be, “How do those choices support our school’s vision of ensuring student success?”

    Your curmudgeon would probably say, “In order to be successful, students need to learn to be responsible about completing their tasks on time. That kind of work behavior matters in today’s world”—–and you know something, there’s a measure of truth in her comments. At the very least, it would be hard to argue her logic. Maybe not impossible—-but hard.

    If you wrote very clear vision statements about what “ensuring student success” looked like in grading practices, though, you would have to have the argument because you would probably have written statements that looked something like this:

    Ensuring student success means that we will:

    (1). Design multiple methods for struggling students to demonstrate mastery of content.
    (2). Require every child to complete every assignment, even if that means their schedule has to be changed to create more time during the school day for missing tasks to be completed.
    (3). Provide exemplars for every assignment that students, parents and teachers can use to gauge their performance against expected standards.

    Does any of this make sense?

    I’m a HUGE believer in the important role that vision setting should play in successful schools (http://bit.ly/9nAHnV) but I think that schools generally do a really poor job crafting vision statements that are actually useful and productive.

    Rock on,

    February 26, 2011
  3. Bill Ivey said:

    Bill, you make some great points. My own school has a short and sweet mission statement that does enable that “As long as it meets our mission, go for it!” attitude. Students and parents, too, not just teachers and administrators, refer ot it. I think it is helping us define ourselves and keep ourselves focused. Too fuzzy? Maybe that’s unavoidable.

    I’ll add that NMSA’s “This We Believe” also focuses on the importance of a shared vision.

    February 26, 2011

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