Teacher to Administrator – the perks and pitfalls of moving into the office

Image by Karolina Grabowska from Pixabay

At some point in their career, many teachers ask themselves if they should move into school administration. For me that question came soon after I moved to the U.S. and realized that in an ESL field dominated by part-time teaching appointments it was going to be challenging to make a career as a teacher. I also perceived that others had a passion for classroom teaching, pure and simple, that I couldn’t match. Having worked in another industry previously, I also felt restricted by the strict scheduling of my time when teaching. It just didn’t suit me that well, and when the opportunity came, I began making the move ‘into the office.’

If you are considering making that move, perhaps these questions and answers will help inform your decision…

What kind of schedule do you want?

As a teacher your daily schedule is fixed. You know when your classes are, and you know where you need to be and at what time. It’s a highly structured work life.

Administrators generally have much more control over their time (other than the slew of meetings they have to attend). Depending on your institution, vacation time is structured differently too. University-based teachers tend to have more vacation, but are restricted as to when they can take it. Administrators may have less time off, but more flexibility.

In both cases though, the ability to really unplug varies. Teachers may spend much of their vacation time thinking about and planning for the next term’s classes; administrators tend to have to be reachable even on vacation, and may have to attend meetings remotely even while they are supposed to be taking a break.

Either way, the way your time is structured will change if you move from the classroom to the office.

What’s going to happen to your teaching skills?

Being a great teacher is a constant process of practicing, trying new techniques and materials, refining routines, reflecting on what went well and what didn’t, and making efforts to become more effective. Teaching is like learning a foreign language in that it requires regular practice. If you get out of practice, you get rusty.

If you make a move into administration, you’ll have to ask if you are going to continue to keep one foot in the classroom or not. Some think that academic administrators should continue to teach, so that they can fully appreciate the experience of teachers and the consequences of the decisions they make. That’s a nice ideal, but teaching and administering are two completely different jobs, and there is a danger that you will not be able to give your full self to either.

In my first job as a school administrator I was a teacher five mornings a week, and a housing director five afternoons. In the classroom students would ask me – or more often complain to me – about their housing. In the afternoon when I was working on housing, my students would visit me with questions about their classwork. This led to long hours for me and the potential for early burnout, as well as the sense that I wasn’t doing either job really well.

It can be hard to leave the classroom behind, but it’s a tough balancing act to keep teaching and office work going at a high level.

Do you care about a career path?

Teachers and administrators may have different mindsets when it comes to their careers. Many teachers just want to teach. Some end up doing similar work year after year; others push themselves to become more effective teachers through professional development and teaching different kinds of classes.

Either way, there isn’t traditionally what you would call a career path for teachers, especially in ESL. Some institutions might have ‘junior lecturers’ and ‘senior lecturers,’ and of course there are part-time and full-time teachers. But in the end, teachers tend to remain teachers, and many teachers are fine with that.

The administrator mindset tends to want to see career progress – increasing levels of responsibility, higher level job titles, broader influence in the organization. If you are planning to move from teaching to administration, it’s a good idea to reflect on what kind of career you want, and what you want to be doing ten or twenty years from now.

How will other teachers view you?

In some institutions, teachers and administration enjoy a constructive and positive relationship. In others though, there may be a level  of mutual suspicion and mistrust resulting from differing perceptions about how decisions should be made, less-than-perfect communication, and a failure to understand and appreciate the demands of each other’s work. If you move from teaching to  administration, some teachers might view you as having switched teams; or feel you’ve gone over to the dark side.

You may not be able to avoid this because while many in the organization call for transparency in decision-making, you may be required to maintain discretion (for example to protect individuals’ personal information), not publicly disagree about higher-level decisions with which you personally don’t agree, and be accountable to individuals or entities that teachers rarely encounter, such as accreditors, boards of directors, the Department of Homeland Security, and upper-level management. Sometimes what teachers may feel is best for the students seems contrary to what is demanded by one of these entities. Too bad – as an administrator you have to comply with demands wherever they come from.

On the positive side, as a former teacher you might be seen by teachers as someone who ‘understands us.’ Either way, you should be aware that perceptions of you may change with your move to the back office (or the corner office).

Finally – do you have the skill set and the inclination?

While some of the soft skills of teaching transfer well to administration – planning, organization, and effective communication, among others – teaching and administering are fundamentally different jobs, each requiring a refined set of skills. Do you enjoy working with spreadsheets, budgets, student records? Are you ready to handle complaints from students, teachers, and staff? You will need to ask yourself if you have those skills or are able and willing to develop them. And of course, working in an office is very different from working in a classroom. Will you be happy with significantly less contact with students?

So, is administration for you?

Educating our students requires many different roles and functions, from classroom teacher to academic administrator and student services provider. We are all educators, no matter our job. Education can be a rewarding field to work in regardless of your role. I hope you will find the right niche for your talents, skills, and inclinations.

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