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Closing the Empathy Gap: Lead Like a Teacher Sneak Peek

lead like a teacher

The following book excerpt is reprinted from Lead Like a Teacher: How to Elevate Expertise in Your School by Miriam Plotinsky. Copyright © 2023 by Miriam Plotinsky. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

To write this book, I spoke with teachers and leaders all over the country, and patterns began to emerge. Unfortunately, the most glaring was this: More often than one would suppose, teachers and administrators have a mutual distrust, disrespect, and disregard for one another’s work. Not surprisingly, these negative feelings often grow into dislike, making collaboration impossible. Some educators speak of this reality as a foregone conclusion, a fixed set of conditions that cannot be reversed. It should also come as no surprise that the same people who express this animosity cannot clearly define the work of those they hold in contempt; without mutual respect, there can be no compassion, empathy, or understanding. When teachers and leaders do not seek to understand one another, that becomes one of the largest and untapped barriers to school progress.        

However, hope is far from lost. Many of the educators I spoke to had nothing but praise for their colleagues. Administrators spoke of teachers who gave every inch of themselves to the students they serve, and teachers identified leaders who encouraged their ideas to improve learning and supported initiatives that made a difference in kids’ lives. Most noticeable was the satisfaction teachers felt for administrators who brought them into decision-making and let them share the responsibility of school leadership. It became increasingly clear that when leaders and teachers work together consistently and with a shared desire to help students achieve, they are close to unstoppable.

My dual lens of both teaching and leading drives the framework of this book and offers a new and exciting way to look at secondary leadership. This book is written for school leaders, but it is written from my own vantage point as an educator who has navigated a singular role that lies somewhere between teaching and leading for many years. While I never pretend to fully understand the life of a secondary administrator, I do know a lot about leadership, particularly in the instructional realm. My hope is that the voice of teachers comes through clearly in this book, but that it is tempered with knowledge about the reality of challenges that leaders face. Without understanding, there can be no progress. To that end, pushing any vestiges of Impostor Syndrome aside, I offer solutions and tools for improving how leaders frame their work, from the smaller details to the bigger picture. First, let’s explore some commonly held teacher perceptions that affect school leadership, for better or worse.

The Teacher Lens


Jasmine, a middle school special education teacher, is checking her mailbox in the main office. As she pulls out the usual stack of junk mail, she eyes the line for the copy machine. There are three people waiting to use the copier, and Jasmine decides to wait and try again after school. 

She turns to leave and runs into Henry, a former colleague and now one of the assistant principals. “Hi, Jasmine. Is this your planning period?”

“How quickly you forget,” Jasmine jokes. “Yes, though I have to get back. Fourth period starts in ten minutes and I have to get myself together.” 

“Well, I won’t keep you,” Henry says. “Maybe one of these days we’ll catch up.” 

She shakes her head. “I don’t know about that. Do you have the time, now that you’ve crossed to The Dark Side?”

In an instant, Jasmine looks at Henry’s face and realizes she may have gone too far. She hastens to apologize. “I’m so sorry, Henry. I was just kidding around.”

“Well, that’s really hurtful,” Henry says. “I hope that’s not what you really think.”

Before she can respond, he turns and heads out of the office. Jasmine sighs. This is not going to be a good day.

People walk a line between wanting to know what others think of them and realizing that it’s probably best to be left in the dark. Even if a school leader is generally popular and loved, unqualified approval from teachers is hard to come by. For one thing, school culture can be designed to separate teachers and leaders into two distinct groups. Think about the average staff meeting. Do leaders sit among teachers, or do they locate themselves in a different area of the room? Even if an “us vs. them” culture is unspoken (and in schools, it usually is), evidence of dissonance is easy to spot just by walking into the building. If administrators spend a lot of time in their offices or if they cluster in the hallway for frequent “huddles,” teachers get a clear message to back off and retreat to their classrooms or team spaces.

Part of creating a more functional school climate and culture depends on closing what I call the “empathy gap,” which is a mutual lack of compassion and understanding between teachers and leaders. To achieve a more ideal state, first recognizing what others may be feeling is an important first step, painful though it may be. Figure 1.1 explores some common areas of dissonance between teachers and leaders with generalized but frequent lines of thinking.

Figure 1.1

Teacher Lens

Leader Lens

Administrators have no idea what I do all day.

Teachers are so uncooperative and set in their ways.

Nobody listens to me or respects my opinions.

I wish teachers would respect my opinion more. I used to be a teacher!

I don’t have the time to go to this meeting and hear about one more thing they expect from me.

We need to change the way we do this work. Across the board, students are not successful. This is a crisis.

I’m doing the best I can, but my principal doesn’t get it. Nobody can force kids to come to class and do the work.

Why do four teachers in the same content area and grade level have such different results?

Administrators really need to go back into the classroom and get a reality check.

How can we best improve outcomes for our underserved student populations?

My planning time is precious and I need it. Do not make me give it up for any reason.

Time for professional development is non-negotiable.

All leaders care about is PR and appearances.

How can we get beyond surface-level conversations and make real change?

Nobody cares about what we think. Teachers are not asked for genuine input.

Why can’t teachers be more open-minded about the work we’re trying to do?

I am so tired of being micromanaged. Just let me do my job!

I am so tired of people not doing what I ask them to do.

I wish leaders would hear me more.

I wish teachers would listen to me more.

Not all schools have de facto dissonance between teachers and leaders, but it is the rule more than the exception. Culturally speaking, people are conditioned to be suspicious of their supervisors. In a bureaucratic structure, this wariness intensifies. School systems are often mired in red tape, and as visible mouthpieces, administrators get the most flak for supporting norms they may not have created. Even when proposed actions directly affect school success and are not mandated at a higher level, school leaders often encounter skepticism from teachers, much of which is undeserved. However, when people expect to be jaded, it can be a struggle to change their outlook. That is why maintaining the perspective of a leader while looking through the lens of a teacher is vitally important to creating a more functional school environment.

The Illusion of Importance

In my role as an instructional specialist, I work with district officials on a regular basis. One of the most effective and inspiring leaders I’ve encountered spends many days in schools observing classes and meetings. She also talks to everyone, not just administrators. I once noted how inspirational it was to see a high-ranking district official taking an interest in all individuals in the school building, and she told me, “Nobody is important. It’s all smoke and mirrors. We just have different perspectives, that’s all.”

Her point of view was both refreshing and unusual. When educators cross the bridge from teacher to leader, they often bring a veneer of bravado with them that is off-putting to teachers. Administrators might dress to impress, juggle more digital devices, or rush around buildings with clear purpose. The air of importance that emanates from leaders is partly genuine, but also somewhat inauthentic. Anyone who helms a school building needs to clearly send the message of competence; being in charge equates to a certain level of formality and elevation. However, for the purpose of remaining connected to teachers, it also makes sense to keep egos in check and remember that when nobody is more important than anyone else, the success of a school hinges on everyone. All educators collaborate to help students succeed from their own specific spheres of influence, and the leaders who are most successful consider teachers to be just as important (or more so) in the journey to building an effective school in which students thrive. 

Image: Courtesy of W.W. Norton and Company

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less and Lead Like a Teacher. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS