A Yes (Wo)man
I don’t mean this in the traditional sense of kissing up to higher-ups and doing whatever is asked of you to gain favor. Actually it’s the opposite, rather than seeking to impress superiors, administrators should default to yes whenever they get teacher and student ideas proposed to them. Top down leadership never creates an innovation culture. Say yes. No really, just say yes to any teacher requests to improve themselves or innovate learning.
I am not talking about literally saying yes to everything such as trivial requests, like moving a student out of a class, or putting more junk food in the cafeteria. Those types of requests are transparently selfish.
So how do you know when to say yes? When the request is for the benefit of the staff or student body at large. These ideas are not self-indulgent, but improve conditions and culture for the group.
If you can’t say yes because of district policy, say “Why don’t you create a proposal to present this to the board?” and then support them in creating and presenting.
If you can’t say yes because of money, say “let’s try to find funding for that” or “I can see you’re passionate about this, how could we raise money to see this happen?”
If you can’t say yes because of safety, express your concerns and say “how could we accomplish your goal in a safe manner?”
If you can’t say yes because of pedagogical concerns (i.e. request to use limited funds to purchase spy software), have the teacher explain why they want to do this and ask questions to shift their thinking.
If you don’t want to say yes because you are not sure that it is a good idea, say yes and run a pilot.
If you don’t want to say yes because it is out of your comfort zone, say yes and stretch yourself.
Don’t let the fear of what might happen overwhelm the mediocrity that exists. No school or staff has reached perfection so encourage teacher leaders to propose changes for improvement and give permission to attempt and even fail.
My Crazy Request
In my American history class, I wanted to copy an activity that my church had done. One November night, students slept in their cars overnight in the church parking lot to have a small taste of what it is like to be houseless. There were so many reasons why this is a terrible idea to try at school, but my principal didn’t say no.
First she walked me through her concerns of guaranteeing physical safety, liability, how we would monitor that boys and girls stayed separate, bathrooms, and making sure no drugs or alcohol were consumed. After all of that, she still didn’t say no. Instead she said that she would ask the district level administration for permission if I really wanted her to, but that they were sure to no. She reminded me that she could only go to bat for me so many times and “did I really want to use this as one of them?”
I realized that it was an unrealistic idea and withdrew my request. But I left feeling respected by a leader who would stand by me, even when she (correctly) thought my plan was an awful idea. She was a true yes woman!
If a group of your top teachers wants to try just about anything, say yes. They need to know that you respect and support them. Next instead of bringing in new initiatives, bring a problem to a committee of teacher leaders and ask them to brainstorm solutions. Support what they come up with and make it happen.
Have the teachers present it to the staff as a whole, validating their work and encouraging others to contribute. Don’t play favorites. Give a variety of staff the opportunity to lead in different areas.
Pretty soon you will develop a reputation amongst the teachers at your school as supportive and legitimately considering their ideas. They will make more suggestions to you and it will create an environment of teamwork and innovation. Empowered teachers will be high performing teachers who want to stay in your building, rather than transfer somewhere else. Empowered teachers who have voice and choice in the school will create classroom cultures that listen to students’ voice and choice.
Servant administrators choose the bottom of an inverted pyramid that prioritizes students first, teachers second, and themselves last.