We have all seen in the last week or two how important leadership can be in a society like our own where there are so many divergent opinions and how it sometimes necessary to be out in front of an issue as President Obama has been on gay marriage. I was talking to my wife yesterday about the importance of leaders being unafraid to take a risk. In particular, I find it fascinating that Barack Obama is displaying the leadership style now that he should have displayed in the first 100 days of his Presidency. He is much more focused, vigilant and supportive of his own policies than he has been during his seven years in office. This kind of confidence goes a long way in changing and leading a nation.
This got me thinking about the need for leadership in schools and the importance of principals who have a clear vision and are also unafraid to take risks. Since i have started teaching 20 years ago, I have had the advantage of seeing three different principals and their unique leadership styles. The Wallace Foundation wrote a comprehensive report in 2013 citing these 5 areas as most critical for the success of schools:
Shaping a vision of academic success for all students.
Creating a climate hospitable to education.
Cultivating leadership in others.
Managing people, data and processes to foster
While some of these ideas seem obvious, it is important to note that many principals don’t do all of these 5 things and in fact can get in the way of these criteria by over focusing on things that do not matter. School teachers need a leader who can foster all 5 of these areas while protecting them from the things that are outside of the purvue or control of the classroom or school.
The most successful principals I have seen are the ones who start with creating an environment hospitable for education. What that means to me is, we should never lose focus and keep in mind it is all about the children. No matter what a school does it’s first and foremost question should be,”What is best for children”. Not what is best for the adults, easier, cheaper, most expedient, bu rather what would be right for our students. You would be amazed how many times this is not the case in schools. I had a principal who wouldn’t let anything at all interfere with classroom instruction, not even the intercom during the day.While this may seem extreme, you’d be surprised by how much time could be lost in a classroom due to interruptions, bureaucratic needs and other adults coming into a classroom to interrupt the flow of instruction. Teaching and learning should matter the most in a school. There shouldn’t be any meetings scheduled during the day, phone calls, calls over the intercom that aren’t absolutely critical. Education is our one and only job first all else needs to wait. Teachers can check email later, and unless it is an emergency it can wait! Since most schools only are in session 180 days a year, for 6 hours a day or less, time is critical for success. This doesn’t mean we can’t have fun or have special events, it merely means everything should be connected to teaching and learning. We were allowed to have classroom parties and other events as long as they were curriculum based.
This leads right into the second area I see as most important, shaping a vision of academic success in students. The principal must believe that all students can and will learn in every action, reaction and disciplinary discussion. Students and staff need to see a leader that believes and expects all students to be learning. We all learn from our mistakes, as long as principals foster the idea that we can grow and learn from this mistake children will begin to see that as well.
I had one principal who used to say “we all need to take turns being the lead goose.” This idea of cultivating school leadership is also essential for success. Every teacher can be a leader and every student can be as well. Using individual skills and strengths, everyone can become a stake-holder. In staff meetings different teachers can take a role, lead a discussion,share a skill, lead an activity, share some data. In our classrooms, students can lead the morning meeting, point to the words in our daily letter, add items to the daily calendar, present their learning using technology, or dance movement or art. When everyone takes a turn being a leader then everyone can empathize with others who are taking on that role. We all can learn from leading and presenting to an audience also it takes a strong leader to share power with others, to be confident in where letting go of the reigns a little bit can lead.
Improving instruction in schools is perhaps the hardest part of being a principal, but in our district we consider the principals to be “instructional leaders”. They often do learning walks together, to see whats happening in our classrooms and provide feedback that is non-evaluative but is more about reinforcing what we are already doing well. This type of leader in the classroom approach is much appreciated by teachers.We need positive feedback just like the children to know what works, what doesn’t and what we can do to improve. We also use the data, school wide assessments to guide our PLC and staff meetings to improve what we are all doing in the classrooms. We bring in presenters, read books, observe videos, have workshops all related to our school goals and to improve instruction.
If a principal makes a concerted effort to work on these 5 areas over time they will see marked improvement not only in school wide assessments but in staff and student morale, culture and a sense of community where learning is pivotal in the minds of all.