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A Guide to Early-Career Leadership

The (overlooked) importance of governance in a young educator’s toolbox

March 20, 2017
A Guide to Early-Career Leadership

I don’t need to tell you that being a leader in a K-12 setting is complicated.

In the politically charged workplace of schools, stepping into any kind of administrative role often brings with it the burden of leading colleagues while working closely with the senior leadership team. Having to sit comfortably both between and within these two different (and sadly often combative) groups takes a skilled and diplomatic manager. To do so when you are the youngest teacher in the building heightens these challenges tenfold.

“You’ve got rocks in your head!” my grandfather declared when I told him that, as a third-year teacher, I had accepted my principal’s offer to lead a committee of six teachers in reforming assessment policies and processes schoolwide.

There were times when I thought my grandfather might be right. But for many ambitious young teachers, putting up your hand for leadership can feel necessary, especially as we see talented young professionals leave teaching for more lucrative careers. Without seeking opportunities to lead, we worry that the first day in the classroom might look just like the last day before retirement.

How to Govern (Not Just Lead)

Higher education expert Judith Block McLaughlin posits that when it comes to leadership, the missing piece is often “governance,” which is distinct from “leadership” and “management.” While the leader sets visions and thinks about the "what," and the manager strategizes and takes care of the "how," the governance-oriented leader places the "who" at the forefront of her mind. She considers how to bring on board the people she needs in order to achieve her vision for improvement.

If this is true of the corporate CEO and university president, it is vitally important for the young teacher-leader. Governance marks a critical way to rally others around your cause and generate buy-in from those who may be resistant.

In the end, my committee of six was successful in developing a blueprint for assessment that staff embraced. Leveraging a governance orientation helped me achieve our principal’s goals. What follows are some strategies that provided my team a solid foundation from which to marshal the allegiances of teachers.

  • Understand the brief and the criteria against which you will be measured. Take the time to process the job that has been asked of you. If you still have questions, put them in writing to your principal and arrange to meet in the following days. This may help your principal provide clearer, well-considered responses. Your team may have questions too, so involving them in clarifying the brief ensures that everyone is on the same page from the start. 
  • Prioritize transparency. On my first day in the role, a senior teacher sought me out to say, “Nobody trusts a sneaky squirrel.” The message was clear: transparency is key. Our response? My committee and I took turns making soup for the staff. Teachers relished the opportunity to discuss their practice over a meal. Soup lunches became a critical way for us to gather important information about teacher attitudes and practices while keeping teachers updated on our progress.
  • Value the expertise in your building. Chances are that no matter what your leadership project entails, there will be experienced others who have done it all before. Take the time to find out where that expert knowledge resides, and ensure that those people feel welcome to make a contribution. Spending time in thoughtful and interested discussion signposts that you value others for their work and as individuals.
  • Know what you don’t yet know, and read widely. Value teachers’ professionalism by providing them the opportunity to engage in reading that provokes critical reflection. On your team, take turns selecting articles for discussion. Shared reading provides a cornerstone for developing a mutual understanding and metalanguage. It also removes the onus on you to be the resident expert.
  • Ensure your team knows that you’re invested in them and their success. Celebrate team members’ birthdays. Take the time to bake or host a meal meeting during periods of stress. Try to develop a social relationship in informal settings. It is important to demonstrate that you are grateful for your team’s support, especially since the success of the project is contingent on them.
  • Be the trial subject before you present the work to others. We piloted each of the guiding principles we developed in a unit plan for one of our own classes. We reflected together on the successes and failures of these pilots, making adjustments before presenting the results to the leadership team and staff. Even resistant staff will appreciate your honesty and frank admissions of what didn’t go as planned.

You do not need to have vast leadership experience to be a successful leader. Critically though, the early career leader must understand the importance of governance, knowing where to find experience in the building and understanding how to recruit it to the cause.


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About the Author

David Rawson
David Rawson is a high school languages teacher in Australia with a particular interest in improving assessment and creating school cultures that value teachers as researchers. He is a former Frank Knox Fellow and a Fulbright Scholar. He completed his master's degree in educational leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2017.
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K-12 School Leadership