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The Journey Back: Administrators Return to the Classroom

They have taken the path from the classroom to the principalship or beyond, then gone back! As school leaders, they realized for a variety of reasons that the lure of teaching surpassed their desire to sit at the helm. Education World's Michele Israel learned about teaching as a lifelong passion from a few of these school leaders who are now back in the classroom. Included: Advice for administrators who might be considering a return to the classroom.

It seems a logical progression, from classroom teacher to administrator. For many educators, a leadership role is the final rung on a long career ladder. For others, the draw of the classroom remains. Whether prompted by retirement, being tired of leadership's challenges, or a job loss, some administrators have returned to the classroom.

"For a while, as an administrator, I was looking ahead toward retirement. Not now! I am in no rush at all."

--- John Grady

Frustrated with the bureaucratic challenges he faced as a principal, John Grady went back to teaching. "I loved being a principal; it was just impossible to keep everyone happy," Grady told Education World. "I really enjoy working directly with the kids, and the ever-increasing duties of an administrator provided less time to do that," he added. Grady now teaches U.S. History at Elm Street Middle School in Nashua, New Hampshire.

Jeff Pietila also tired of the challenges he faced during his principalship. Increased job expectations, inadequate pay, and difficult parents stressed him out. "I needed a break," sighed Pitetila. Now a social studies, science, and reading teacher, and the athletic director at Preston Hall Middle School in Waitsburg, Washington, Pietila affirmed that, for now, he is "absolutely happier" in the classroom.

Gretchen Fleming regenerated her teaching career after a failed tax levy eliminated her assistant superintendency. Teaching became an option. "After observing several teachers in a school where I was told I could teach, my excitement grew. I kept imagining trying all of the strategies I studied, observed, and learned," explained Fleming. She turned down another administrative position to teach language arts in Parkway South High School in Manchester, Missouri. At the moment, reflected Fleming, "My heart says to stay in the classroom."

Larry Ballwahn returned to the classroom after 35 years in administration. "As a career-long teacher supervisor, I felt I had learned something about teaching. My main concern with public education is that schools lack the capacity to educate society's most needy students," explained Ballwahn. "When the opportunity arrived to merge those two interests, I decided to take the challenge." Before his recent retirement, Ballwahn taught at-risk students in grades 7-12 at Juneau County Charter School in Necedah, Wisconsin.

Priscilla Ann Huston recognized early in her career that effective educational leadership required periodic classroom experiences. Thus, after eight years as an elementary school principal, she now teaches 4th grade at Olander Elementary School in Fort Collins, Colorado.

"Being a teacher is what's real," Huston told Education World. "You watch individuals and witness the day-to-day metamorphosis of the children in your care. I have been able to reconnect with the reasons I became an educator in the first place."


Academic standards, differentiated classrooms, accountability, and a harsher socio-economic landscape are among the demands that administrators returning to the classroom confront. Those struggles, they say, are offset by positives such as technological progress and younger, more eager teachers. Returnees learn to take the good with the bad.

"I attempt to run a differentiated classroom," said John Grady. "Having been out of the classroom for 17 years, I find that I put in a great deal of planning time. But, I really enjoy it!" He added that technology is a resource treasure that boosts his instructional capacity.

"But, I still get frustrated with colleagues who look upon teaching as just a job and not a profession," bemoaned Grady.

Differentiated instruction requires teachers to focus on children's individual needs, said Gretchen Fleming. "I have spent hours discussing with colleagues how to reach each student with different strategies, content, and evaluation tools, while trapped in a system similar in structure to 30 years ago," she explained. But, she added, she finds exciting teachers who are always willing try new things to meet those demands.

"It's the prevalence of the drug culture, the openness regarding sexual activity, and the proclivity toward crude language" that most affect students, emphasized Larry Ballwahn, who added that family structure and economic situations do not place children first.

Jeff Pietila echoed Ballwahn's concerns and noted that state and federal mandates are further eating into already reduced resources. Pietila said that a plus is that "teachers today are better educated and more dedicated and professional than they were when I started. And, schools are doing an excellent job when given the appropriate resources."

Priscilla Ann Huston explained that assessment requires greater teacher skill, especially when it comes to the state test. Increasing content area standards demand much more time than teachers have in a day. Both issues are ones she will address in future administrative positions. 


Principals and other school administrators who have returned to the classroom say preparation and thought are important when considering a return to the classroom. But mostly, they admit, the love of teaching drove their decisions.

"Come on in," encouraged Jeff Pietila. "This is what you went to school to do, and you might have forgotten the pleasure it gave youand can give you again."

John Grady's advice to principals considering a move is to just do it, even "if only for one year. It reinvigorates you as an educator. For a while, as an administrator, I was looking ahead toward retirement. Not now! I am in no rush at all."

"Know thyself," cautioned Larry Ballwahn, to make sure the decision is right. "For many reasons, it is sometimes hard to retrace or retract the steps we've already made [in our professional lives.]"

Priscilla Ann Huston summed up the value of teaching: "After almost 30 years, I still feel that being an educator is the most important profession there is. You may feel it a risk to reach for a year or two. Or, you may find the benefits far outweigh the risks if you have the chance to teach children again."


Gretchen Fleming recently reflected on her shift from leadership to teaching in Leading from Any Chair (Principal Leadership, May 2004). "Returning to the classroom was a good decision," she wrote. "My joy of teaching increases daily. Each morning, my smile going to school is as large as my smile coming home."

Larry Ballwahn wrote a column, An 'Old Doc' Finds a Stern Test in Today's Classroom (The School Administrator Web Edition, January 2003), in which he reported on the challenges his special needs students present and face. "Human beings just don't worry about the future when their current needs aren't even close to being met," he wrote. "These young people face a tough reality."


Advice from a
Principal Who Did It!

Principal Gretchen Fleming is back in the classroom. She encourages other school leaders to do it and offers the following practical tips:
--- Observe teachers and visit classes in the school where you will teach.
--- Meet with teachers before the year begins.
--- Attend summer workshops to refresh and build skills.
--- Request a mentor.
--- Familiarize yourself in advance with academic and testing schedules.
--- Meet with a school administrator to discuss mutual expectations.
--- Be in the hallway between classes to get a feel for the students and the atmosphere.
--- Focus on students rather than on committee work during the first year, if possible.
--- Gain your colleagues' trust; get them to recognize your true interest in teaching and that you are, for now, not an administrator.
--- Listen, listen, listen!
--- Be prepared for daily surprises of sheer joy!



Article last updated on 05/072017