Everyone says, leaders are not born; they are made. I’m a literal person, so I don’t always understand clichés such as this. But what does that mean anyway? I used to think that leaders were just that. BORN. Born with the innate power to command attention, gain the proverbial “floor,” and influence people. If leaders are not born, then what does, “natural born leader,” mean anyway? Some people DO just seem to have it all together. They just demand a certain level of respect from others and get it all done effortlessly.
Doesn’t sound like you?
Me neither. I am a shy person, a typical introvert that observes before speaking. I don’t walk into a room and automatically command attention. I work for it. I am not the over-the-top teacher that has a tee-shirt for every occasion nor the one with the best decorated door, but I still lead my staff. I still have a classroom of students engaged and ready to learn. And although my spirit week decorations are sub-par, I know that I can rock my classroom. And you can too.
Sometimes as special educators we are put into classrooms where we are forced to lead a team of paraprofessionals or other staff members. When most of us think of “leading” we cringe because we think leading means we must be the best at something. We must be the most, best, or greatest to be taken seriously. We must be the most knowledgeable if we want people to listen to us, right?
This perpetual mindset fuels many of us to retreat. It allows for the loudest, most boisterous teacher with a tee-shirt for every mood to rule the roost. Through no fault of their own, they may make of feel inferior. This mindset also paves the way for an uncomfortable situation for some of us. When we were studying to become a teacher, we were told the importance of collaboration, teamwork, etc, but we were never taught how to LEAD.
So some of us were thrown into a leadership position without the necessary skills for success. But that’s okay! Frequently we are placed into a classroom with other staff members. As the main teacher in the classroom, you will be expected to be the leader.
But what if you are not a “natural leader?”
What if you are a wallflower and prefer the background? What if you are great at planning, prep, and teaching your students, but struggle with leading the adults in your classroom?
It’s okay! Lots of us struggle with knowing what to say and do with the adult staff members in our classroom.
You may want to instruct them of your classroom’s needs, but feel guilty if you “tell them what to do.”
For those of us that have a hard time with leading our classroom, I have 15 ways to lead the staff in your classroom. (In this post, I will refer to staff members in your classroom that you are meant to lead as “your staff.” This is in no way meant to degrade nor demean the staff members in your classroom, but is used for the sake of clarity).
1. Be Honest:
A good leader is honest. Trust is so crucial in an educational setting. If your staff cannot trust you, your students will pick up on this tension and perhaps will not trust you as well. And since trust is essential for learning, being honest goes hand in hand with being a great leader. Always be truthful with the classroom’s needs. If you have a staff member ask you how they are doing with a certain student. Be honest. It is a hallmark of good communication and you need to fess up if there is room for improvement.
2. Have Tact:
Now, this one has to follow “Be Honest” because there comes a fine line between being honest and having complete disregard for others’ feelings. Having tact means that you must speak with dignity and respect in mind. You can be honest, and brutally honest when need be, but you must present it is a manner that is not degrading to your staff. Your staff must feel valued every step of the way.
3. Takes Initiative:
If you don’t start, no one will. You need to be the role model. This means you need to start the “ball rolling.” You need to put into action the steps, plans, and projects. Your staff need to see the importance of taking the first step and keeping the momentum going.
4. Has Integrity:
If you want to be a good leader in your classroom you must do what is right and your moral compass must point in a positive direction. Having integrity means putting the team (and your students) first.
5. Be Transparent:
Being transparent means being genuine in your everyday actions. Your staff members should see your actions and clearly see why you do what you do. Your actions should speak louder than words, but there should be a clear correlation between the two.
6. Be Accountable:
Do you say what you mean, mean what you say, and follow through with your promises! Be reliable! You must do what you say you will.
Promise to catch up with the gen ed teacher that is on your student’s back? Go do it!
Tell a parent that you will call them? Go do it!
Promise to sit at lunch with a student? You better go do it!
Being accountable is vital to becoming a leader as it sparks a solid sense of trust in everyone involved. And being accountable is contagious. When your staff see you being accountable, they will pick up on your good habits. It might even translate to your students as well! Win!
7. Be Organized:
If you want anyone to see you as a leader, you need to be organized. Have a place for everything and everything in its place. This is a tough one for many. A special education classroom frequently looks like a tornado went through it. Believe me, I’ve been there, I know… J However, you need to have a plan in place for organization. This may mean having several binders, folders or boxes set up for various materials and curriculum. This will also mean that you need a system for reorganizing either continually throughout the day or time set aside to reorganize the classroom at the end of the day. If you need to, plan time for reorganizing. It will be great life skill practice and if your systems of organization are well-established, your students will probably enjoy picking up and sorting the items in their appropriate places.
8. Be a Listener:
Active listening is essential to becoming a leader. If you are not listening to your staff members’ thoughts and ideas, you are doing yourself a disservice. They are in it every day too. Listen to what they have to say. Constructive criticism is necessary for a working relationship. Your staff will have ideas much different than your own and this will help create and foster a productive classroom.
9. Be Intentional:
Know what the end goal is and work for it. There is no extra time nor energy for stumbling through. Everything you teach and do should have the end goal of benefiting your students.
10. Give Praise:
Just like your students, your staff members need (and deserve) praise. Praise when praise is due. (It’s due a lot!) As a habit, I thank my staff every day after the kids go home. To keep it from being redundant, I tell them that I really do appreciate all that they do and explain at least one instance throughout the day that they handled very well.
11. Be Supportive:
Be there for your staff. Be caring and help them with their needs. Although we all try to keep home at home, sometimes it does leak into the school day. I know that sometimes, if I had a hard morning, I may be extra cranky when I get to school. Try and be understanding of everyone’s personal business and be genuinely supportive if they explain to you about something that they are going through.
12. Leverage Assets:
A great leader knows the strengths and weaknesses of both their students and staff. An effective leader uses that knowledge to the students’ collective benefit. Have a staff member that is adept in math? Pair them with the opportunity to help the students that struggle in math or accompany them to a math class.
Collaboration is key in many aspects of special ed. Be willing to collaborate and use the great minds in your classroom. Bounce ideas off each other.
14. Be Compassionate:
I like to think about being compassionate as caring with passion. It goes a bit beyond just supporting your staff, it is the empathetic way that you handle situations involving them.
Nothing can get done without communication. Don’t let these lines close off. Talk out problems before they get a chance to fester and cause resentment. Consistent and effective communication will work wonders for showing your leadership skills.
For most of us, becoming a leader takes work. These 15 strategies will get you going in the right direction. Try them and let me know how it goes!