Balancing ‘Impart’ and ‘Impact’: What’s it like to transition from classroom teacher to administrator?
September 21, 2023
September 21, 2023
By Sarah Tanner-Anderson
From an early age, I was conditioned to look for leadership opportunities. You may have been, too: “Be a leader, not a follower,” they would say. If you’re like me, you took that as a call to speak up for those who wouldn’t and to stand up for those who couldn’t. I was the kid who was not afraid of swimming against the current if it meant I was making a difference—something I’ve taken into adulthood.
That said, I never envisioned that I would grow up to become the educational leader I am today. When I was a kid, all I ever wanted to be was a waitress, until I waited tables and quickly realized it was not my life calling. Then, I thought I should channel my inner actress and explore the world of theater! That, unfortunately, didn’t quite work out either. So, I went into teaching, which is essentially service work with a healthy dose of stage acting every day, right? If you were to ask my former teachers who among their students would go on to obtain a doctorate, take on the principalship, or become a college professor or school board member, I wouldn’t have made the list—not even close. Yet, time and experience have gifted me a number of opportunities over the years to both grow in my own leadership and support the leadership development of others.
When I was a middle- and high-school English teacher, department chair, and coach, I always worked to develop and maintain strong, positive relationships with my students, parents, and colleagues. After a decade of teaching, I began to consider ways to extend my reach beyond the confines of the classroom to lead within the broader school community. I worked diligently to earn administration credentials, and my doctoral degree, to bolster my future endeavors in educational leadership whenever the opportunity might arise. My chance came soon thereafter, and what happened next was both surprising and frustrating.
I distinctly remember the excitement I felt when the announcement broke about my first administration position. I would be an assistant principal at a local middle school, and I was thrilled to accept the challenge.
My excitement took a gut-punch, though, when a reporter from the community newspaper commented, “That’s what’s wrong with the field of education. They take good teachers out of the classroom and then make them principals. And what good does the principal do?” It was a compliment, of sorts—that I was known and respected as a “good” teacher—but the stinging insinuation that I wouldn’t be just as good, if not better, as an administrator made me pause. It also made me consider the impact of an administrator: what good does the principal do?
In our field we often find ourselves in conflict: how might I continue to use my experience to support students’ academic, social, behavioral, and emotional growth while not directly interacting with students in a classroom? Or, more directly, how do I (can I?) still make a difference when I leave the classroom? The answer, my friends, hangs in the balance between impart and impact. Ask yourself: what good can you impart to positively impact your school community? I would argue that an administrator’s widespread reach can beget large and lasting influence on student success.
That said, transitioning from educator to administrator should not feel like a sacrifice. You aren’t “leaving” the classroom; rather, you are expanding your opportunities to impart impact in a greater capacity. An aspiring administrator can achieve this by considering three interconnected aspects of effective educational leadership: visibility, availability, and vitality.
The interconnected aspects of leadership–visibility, availability, and vitality–combine to impart impact.
If you’re concerned about losing direct contact with students, make it a priority to stay connected with them. Bus arrivals and dismissals, cafeteria duty, class changes, and club, arts, and athletic events all offer opportunities for you to interact with young people. However, if you’re concerned about that feeling of “leaving” the classroom, then don’t! Find a way every day to pop into classrooms, sit with students, and talk with them about their learning. Research suggests having a pulse on the culture and climate of your building as an administrator is critically important to student success. These visits can serve a dual purpose, too: you can build supportive connections with your teachers while engaging with your students. You might even learn a thing or two! Be engaged in your building’s classrooms, so much so that it doesn’t seem awkward or imposing when you visit. Make it a habit to see and be seen in students’ learning spaces.
Similarly, just being available to your students, faculty, staff, parents, and the community goes a long way in sustaining relationships and positive impact, as John Lambersky writes in the journal Leadership and Policy in Schools. This can be difficult, as your time and subsequent schedule may not always be your own. However, prioritizing the needs of your students and staff often starts with being there for them. Set aside office hours in your calendar, if possible, or coordinate informal events for your students to connect with you, such as breakfasts, snacks, advisory committees, etc. Your presence (visibility) is important, but intentionally upping your engagement (availability) imparts an even greater impact.
Finally, your vitality (and sanity!) rests in your ability to manage the balance. Of course, data won’t analyze itself, emails will continue to land in your inbox, and referrals will still need processing; however, prioritizing student interaction, you might find, may alleviate the stress of so many other areas. If students feel engaged, empowered, seen, and heard, research suggests that academic growth follows. Likewise, if administrators work to build strong relationships with students, staff, and parents, they create sustainable, mutually beneficial connections infused with a moral commitment to student success, says Michael Fullan in his book, Leading in a Culture of Change. Other studies show that building those type of connections can lead to negative behaviors decreasing, attendance increasing, and more opportunities for positive engagement. Often administrators feel so overwhelmed by all the other components of the job that they unintentionally neglect the very people they are called to serve. It may feel counterproductive, but putting people first—particularly your students—will go a long way in ensuring your vitality as a leader.
So, to those amazing educators who have ever thought about taking the plunge into the deep end, into leadership–do it. You have been making an incredible difference in your classrooms, across your grade levels and content areas, and in your communities. And, if you’re like me, someone along the way has probably seen, and likely encouraged, your leadership capacity. I encourage you to be open to the possibility of amplifying your exceptional talents as an educational leader, cultivating greatness in your faculty, staff, and students, and imparting your positive impact throughout the broader educational community. The impact of an engaged administrator willing to impart positive, purposeful experience cannot be underestimated.
Sarah Tanner-Anderson, EdD, is Assistant Dean of the College of Graduate and Professional Studies at Longwood University, as well as Associate Professor and Program Director of Educational Leadership. She’s a former principal, assistant principal, middle- and high-school English teacher, department and grade-level chair, high-school coach, and club sponsor.