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?
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.”

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Liz Riggs is a writer based in Nashville, Tennessee.

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