September 30, 2019 How I Lead

Honest leadership sets up teachers – and students – for success

In the third and final installment of our How I Lead series, we’re focusing on how a principal can cultivate teacher talent in order to develop the next generation of education leaders. 

Situated in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood, Powell Academy boasts an impressive view of Lake Michigan. It’s one of the many reasons Sheila Barlow, who has been the principal at Powell for five years, loves coming to work each day. Another reason: her staff. 

For years, Barlow has been working diligently to cultivate talent within her teachers. That process begins with bringing openness and honesty to the forefront to build legitimate connections with her staff.

“I would say that the relationship is there once they know your story,” Barlow said. “You can’t come off as this perfect person. We all have our own struggles, and teachers have to see that. You need to be vulnerable.”

But that’s easier said than done. Barlow explained that principals are often held to a different standard as school leaders. 

“Teachers still often see principals as these perfectly responsible leaders who are supposed to have all the answers and be the righteous person,” said Barlow. 

Despite that, she works to break down the professional barrier and grow closer with her teachers by showing that she is struggling, growing and learning – just like them.

Building off of that, Barlow stressed the importance of respecting teachers’ home life: “I think this is the biggest profession where we forget our outside world. We take work home all the time, but we have to realize that home is home. When teachers leave school, we want them to be able to go home. They have families.” When principals consider the boundaries between work and personal life, Barlow believes that will generate more trust in relationships.

Barlow also emphasized that she needs to understand her own strengths and areas for growth before she can best motivate her teachers. That way, Barlow explained, she knows where to use her personal skill-set to cultivate talent at Powell, and where to search for assistance from peers and colleagues.

She isn’t afraid to ask other Chicago principals questions; she values their guidance and input. With that network of peer support, they all can share best practices on how to develop leadership among teachers.

Another part of Principal Barlow’s motivation strategy is understanding teachers’ perspectives. For principals, it’s easy to forget what it’s like to be a teacher. Spending as much time as possible in the classroom helps Barlow better support her teachers. 

And there’s an added bonus: You get a better understanding of the inner workings of your school. “That way,” Barlow said, “you are not just an outside person observing, but actually a practitioner who is always still part of the classroom.”

Barlow uses the information she gleans from observing teachers in the classroom to create leadership opportunities that will extend their growth and involvement in the school. 

This strategy is best illustrated in Powell’s unique hiring process for new staff. Barlow values her teachers’ input in candidates and works to provide them with a sense of ownership in the future of the school.

“Teachers love the fact that they can be a part of an interview,” Barlow said. “We have a group discussion about what we want to see, and then after the interview we debrief… Then the candidates immediately see the collaboration and trust in the culture of our school.”

By practicing vulnerability, understanding herself and her staff on a deep and personal level, cultivating teacher leadership, and involving staff in opportunities outside the classroom, Barlow has created a toolkit for success to keep teachers motivated and invested in the school.

The lake view doesn’t hurt either.

Principal Barlow and her school are participating in The Fund’s South Side Education Alliance program during the 2019-20 school year.