Great Teachers Don't Always Want to Become Principals

Is there a way for teachers to make more money and advance in their careers without leaving the classroom?
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Who wouldn't want to be just like Principal Rooney in Ferris Bueller's Day Off? (Paramount Pictures)

Sam is high-school government teacher in Washington D.C. who wanted to take on a leadership role in her school. Last year, she earned a master’s degree and an administration license in order to pursue a position as a principal or a dean. Now, though, she has doubts about leaving the classroom.

“I’m not sure that I want to be a principal,” she tells me. “I think that ideally I would still want to work with kids in some capacity…I don’t perceive leaving the classroom for a while, but I do want to have some other leadership opportunities before that.”

Sam’s dilemma—the seemingly conflicting desires of wanting to advance in her career while remaining a classroom teacher—is one that many teachers face. Many teachers want to lead inside and outside of their classrooms, but often it seems the only way to do that is to become a dean or a principal. While these positions typically provide more money and greater flexibility, they ultimately move teachers further away from the students. In 2013, MetLife surveyed teachers and found that nearly 25 percent of teachers were interested in a hybrid role of teaching and some sort of leadership position, and that 84 percent of them were either “not very” or “not at all” interested in becoming a principal.

Some schools and education-related organizations are responding to this problem by promoting a new career path, called “teacher leadership.” Teacher leadership can mean a lot of things, but one helpful description comes from The Aspen Institute, which defines it as “specific roles and responsibilities that recognize the talents of the most effective teachers and deploy them in service of student learning, adult learning and collaboration, and school system improvement.”

One program that tries to develop teacher leaders is the National Academy of Advanced Teacher Education Master Teacher Program. It draws from selective pools of excellent teachers to develop their skills and keep them in the classroom. This program typically works as a two-year professional development program, where teachers attend two-week long summer sessions and three-day long school-year sessions to attain approximately 350 hours of learning over the course of their commitment. It focuses 60 percent of its development on teacher instructional practice and 40 percent of it on work outside the classroom with other colleagues. 

I joined the Master Teacher Program because I wanted to be better at the craft of teaching,” said Andrew, a fifth-year teacher who’s part of the Master Teacher Program. “I still don't really consider myself a ‘master teacher,’ but the program was an opportunity to be a part of some quality training that I sorely needed. I certainly would like to be seen as a leader at my school.  I think I [continue] teaching because I don't feel like I need a title to be a leader. I can be a persuasive leader in my building without having an official title or position.”

Achievement First, a charter network founded in New Haven, is also trying to promote teacher leadership. It develops teachers in five stages, with greater financial compensation at each stage. I spoke with one of their veteran teachers, Taylor about their teaching career options.

“The teacher career pathway is a system of evaluating teachers to keep teachers in the classroom and to make classroom teaching a career that people can aspire to,” he says. He says that he believes the classroom is “the most important place to be,” despite its challenges and frustrations.

In theory, the system provides a way for teachers to advance through their career and become masters of their craft. Yet, there are drawbacks.

“It’s inherently competitive,” Taylor. says. “I’ve seen the anxiety that it actually produces in the classroom, and these are good teachers that are now so worried about the observations that they’re going to have that they’re sweating, and they’re actually not producing the best lesson plans.... That does not foster leadership, when you’re constantly being evaluated and evaluated.”

He adds that after moving up several stages many teachers still see the next step as administration—an assumption that he thinks is unfortunate. “Why does [leadership] have to mean a dean or a principal? We have to change our mindset about what school leadership is.”

Teach Plus is another teacher leadership organization that’s working to change the mindset about school and teacher leadership. Founded in 2007, it recruits teachers who have been in the profession for three to ten years and are committed to staying in urban schools for at least three more years (and nearly all of their teachers do.)

Celine Coggins, the CEO of Teach Plus, says that many teachers “don’t have much interest in administration at all…The key tension is [they] want to be recognized as successful….We really want to change that paradigm and say, if you’re a highly effective teacher and you want to be able to have influence beyond your classroom, let’s pay you to take the time to be able to do that well.”

Millennials are more likely to look for different career options every few years than their generational predecessors.

The “teacher leadership” track isn’t for everyone. Nathan also entered the Master Teacher Program to hone his teaching skills and develop as a leader, but he grew bored of the classroom. “I found teaching a little bit monotonous,” he said. He is now the dean of student support of his school.

Teaching, he says, “wasn’t challenging [after a while],” and he wanted more responsibility and more opportunities to make decisions for the school; though he felt the tension to stay in the classroom, he was ready to move up. He makes a point of many young teachers, too. “Generationally, we are conditioned to go to the next best thing.”

Other teachers and principals I spoke with echoed this sentiment, and research shows that millennials are more likely to look for different career options every few years than their generational predecessors.

“I think it's becoming more common for people my age (and younger, especially) to move quickly from job to job,” says Arianna, a former teacher who will be opening the doors to her new school next fall as the school director. “I can't fault that … but I also believe that teaching is a skill, not an art, and that, as with any skill, people get better at it with analysis and practice.” This analysis and practice will be a large part of her school’s model—though she notes that leadership takes different forms with one common thread: It’s always developing.

Teachers, Arianna says, must “have time to develop before they leave the classroom.  Part of that comes from treating teaching as an admirable profession…part also comes from asking those great teachers to engage in serious self-analysis; they have to be able to break down their own practice before teaching it to others.”

Just like students, teachers “want to be recognized for their successes, and … all teachers, even novice ones, can share their successes with each other - that's a form of leadership,” says Arianna.  “As [teachers] grow, there will be some who can certainly teach and coach others. It’s really important to keep those great teachers in the classroom, at least part of the day, so they're continuing to develop their own skills even as they develop others.”

There are many types of leadership. Teachers can lead and foster growth in each other as well as in their students—all in the same job. 

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Liz Riggs is a writer based in Nashville, Tennessee.

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