When I discuss school leadership I often refer to the Sam Walton and the principle of Managing By Wandering Around. I first read about MBWA in Tom Peter’s management book, “In Search of Excellence“.

Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, was an advocate of MBWA and required his managers to practice it, because “nothing important ever happened in head office”. Walton would make impromptu visits to stores to chat with floor staff, ask them how things were going and what he could do to help.

“Managers don’t do anything productive” Walton explained. “We don’t sell one product or stock one shelf. The actual productive work is done by the store staff and as managers the best thing we can do is to help them, and then get out of their way”.

The belief that a manager’s job is to help those doing the productive work has stayed with me. It’s how I’ve evaluated school administrators.

The first principal I worked for, at The North York Board of Education, personified the MBWA approach. Brian Richardson believed it was his job to help teachers do their job, then get out of their way and let them do it.

He was rarely found in his office, preferring instead to roam the halls, looking for problems before they arose. He’d make sure we had all the desks we needed, speak to students who were having problems before they escalated and empty overflowing trash cans if needed.

For decisions about students he deferred to teachers, as they were the “experts”. He’d give input, but when a decision had to made he’d look at me, let me make it, then nod and say “Let’s do it!”. That responsibility was a little unnerving for a young teacher, but knowing I had his complete support made me more relaxed, confident, and consequently, a better teacher.

Unfortunately not all administrators endorse this approach. Some principals I’ve worked with were micromanagers. They told me what to do in my classroom and weren’t interested in my professional opinion. One principal ordered me to put up anchor charts in my classroom. When I asked “why ?” they explained “Because the superintendent is coming for a visit and she wants to see anchor charts”. This was the end of the discussion.

The erosion of teacher’s professional autonomy continues today. Colleagues tell me their staff meetings are used exclusively for administrator directed “professional development” and rather than communication and discussion. I have no issues with administrators as curriculum leaders. But I’m uncomfortable with the implied message that sometimes comes with this role.

A principal is not simply another educator. They are also a teacher’s immediate supervisor and as such, are responsible for all that entails. How free is a teacher to openly disagree with a curriculum related suggestion from a principal? Do they really want to oppose someone who affects their lives in so many ways?

There are many skillful administrators who can successfully negotiate this tension. They engage teachers as fellow professionals, discuss teaching practice and offer helpful suggestions and give feedback while maintaining a teacher’s professional autonomy.

But there are also many who can’t. They see the school as their domain and their responsibility is to get teachers to do “the right thing”. They don’t understand what Sam Walton understood. Their role is simply to make teacher’s jobs easier.

Experts and pundits agree that improving teacher quality is crucial to improving education. What some have missed is that best way to improve this is by respecting and supporting teachers. By valuing their professional judgement and respecting their right to freely make professional decisions.

Teachers have a responsibility to their students, the families they serve and the larger community. Part of that responsibility includes being able to discuss and explain the choices they make.

But that shouldn’t confuse who is responsible for classroom learning. The teacher has primary responsibility for what goes on in the classroom. If they are to accept that responsibility, administrators must give them the freedom to make those choices. Ultimately, they’re the only ones who can.