By Julia G. Thompson

A Veteran Teacher’s Advice on How to Be the Inspiring School Leader Your Teachers Need

A building administrator has a thankless job almost all of the time. Making sure that a school runs smoothly can be a crushing responsibility. Everyone in the known universe—parents, teachers, students, the community, social media–has plenty of not-so-helpful ideas about exactly what an administrator needs to do. It does not take many hours in the big office to learn that lots of this advice is based on well-meaning but impossibly idealistic goals.

As an educator who is looking forward to beginning my thirty-ninth year of teaching in just a few weeks, I have had plenty of time to think about the things that can make a school run smoothly. I have also been very fortunate to have worked for dedicated administrators who inspired my colleagues and me to strive to be the very best teachers we could be. Here’s what they did that made school days successful and pleasant for everyone in their schools.julia-g-thompson-quote

     See me as a person and not just the teacher in the classroom at the end of the hall. Know where I went to college; comment on my favorite sports teams; ask about my children–whatever it takes to indicate that you see me as a living, breathing fellow human. When an administrator takes the time to stop by every now and then and check in on how things are going, it means the world to a teacher who may have had a bad day.

     Let’s work together. Don’t just issue directives. When administrators take the time to ask our opinions, this makes us feel as if we are part of a team. We know that you have the entire school to watch over and that we only see part of the whole picture. No reasonable teacher expects to have every teacher’s lounge great idea accepted as valid, but it is gratifying to be included in at least some of the decision-making processes.

     Follow through. If you say you are going to do something, please make it happen. Some of the best administrators I have known carry little notebooks or even clipboards to jot notes and stay on top of things. These are the administrators who get things done and who are admired by their staff. They keep their word. They are trusted.

     It’s okay to disagree with me, but please take a minute or two to explain your thoughts when we do. This may not seem to be very important, but consider what happens when you don’t: a teacher who is already stressed feels ignored and marginalized. Soon, this fosters resentment which often spreads to other faculty members. Taking even a couple of minutes to give an explanation makes us feel valued and supported.

     Be the most professional educator in the building. Dress the part. Proofread your emails. Speak well. Stay current on the latest trends, initiatives, and policies in the world of education. Take the high road when there is a conflict. Don’t give in to the temptation to gossip or play favorites or cave in to special interest groups who may not have the best interests of the entire school. Always keep in mind that your staff looks to you for guidance. Think of yourself as the leader we all aspire to be. We certainly think of you this way.

     Be visible and accessible. This does not mean that you have to be in hallways or classrooms all day long, but do leave your office and see what’s going on as often as you can. Go to the cafeteria. Stand in the hallways when students are there. Say “hi” to everyone. If a teacher asks to speak with you, please make the time to accommodate that request. If a teacher sends you an email, please respond either in writing or in person.

     Don’t waste our time in meetings. Faculty meetings are important; we get that. But any meeting after a long day of school should be well-planned, focused, and brisk. After about an hour, we struggle not to tune out.

     Support your teachers. If there is a problem, talk it over with us before acting on it if you can. When you stick by us, we will fall all over ourselves trying to be the staff you need. Very little that goes wrong in a school remains anonymous. When we make mistakes, please let us know personally instead of reminding the entire group of our transgression.

     Treat us as if we are professionals if you want us to be professionals Making us stay late on the day before a long holiday or even Friday afternoons may not be a big deal to you, but it is to us. Assume that we also want what’s best for our students and that the mistakes that we make are not intentional. Assume that we work hard until you find out differently.

     Be someone we can turn to for help. The best administrators I have worked with in my long career have been the ones who helped me resolve problems that seemed almost insurmountable. All of your staff members will have problems throughout the year—that is absolutely inevitable. If you take the time to say, “Okay, let’s figure this out together,” not only will you have a good chance of resolving the problem, but you will have created a loyal team member. And isn’t that the best asset that any building administrator can have?


Julia G. Thompson received her BA in English from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg. She has been a teacher in the public schools of Virginia, Arizona, and North Carolina for more than thirty-five years. Thompson currently teaches in Fairfax County, Virginia, where she is an active speaker and consultant. Author of Discipline Survival Guide for the Secondary Teacher, First-Year Teacher’s Checklist, The First-Year Teacher’s Survival Guide, and The First-Year Teacher’s Survival Guide Professional Development Training Kit, Thompson also provides advice on a variety of subjects through her Web site,; on her blog,; and on Twitter at Her online course, Survival Skills for New Teachers, will be available later this summer.