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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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An Open Letter to Principals: Five Leadership Strategies for the New Year

As the calendar turns to August, school leaders across the country are meticulously planning for the upcoming year. This process has become more difficult as mounting challenges such as budget cuts and what seems like a relentless attack on the profession of education have taken their toll on staff morale. With this being said, quality leadership becomes even more essential in order to cultivate a school culture whose primary focus is on the learning and achievement of each and every student.

Here are some of my leadership strategies for making change during challenging times. Please feel free to share any other ideas in the comments section below.

Strategy One: Make No Excuses

Success in this endeavor relies on us to take a no-excuse attitude. Ask yourself this: What am I prepared to do to improve all facets of my school? How will I accomplish more with less? Think and reflect upon the ways to accomplish the goals you set as opposed to the challenges, roadblocks, and pushback you will experience. These are all common complications that arise during the change process and should not be used as excuses not to push forward.

We must be the pillars of our respective institutions and focus on solutions rather than problems. Succumbing to the negative rhetoric, abiding by the status quo, and having a bunker mentality will do nothing to initiate needed changes in our building to improve teaching and learning.

Each day we are afforded an opportunity to make a positive difference in the lives of our students through our role as education leaders. Our passion for helping all students learn and assisting staff in their growth should be the driving motivational force to make our schools the best they can be, regardless of the obstacles. Everything is changing -- the world, learners, job market, technology, access to information -- the sad reality though is that schools are not. We need to be catalysts to drive this change!

Tip: Meet with your administrative team and teacher leaders prior to the start of the school year to identify issues where excuses routinely arise. Begin to map out collective responses focusing on positive solutions to these problems.

Strategy Two: Model a Vision for Excellence

Begin by articulating a clear vision to your staff. The consensus has to be that every student can and should learn. Getting your entire staff to embrace this concept is at the heart of effective leadership. I prefer to use the word "embrace" rather than "buy-in" -- a more commonly used word synonymous with change efforts. We should not be trying to sell our staffs on pedagogical techniques and other initiatives that will better prepare our students for success once they graduate.

In order to promote the embracing of new ideas, strategies, and techniques we need to collaboratively work with staff to transform traditional classroom environments into vibrant learning communities where all students are authentically engaged.

Tip: Engage your staff in a brainstorming session during the first faculty meeting in order to develop a collective vision on how to transform the school for the betterment of all students.

Strategy Three: Embrace 21st Century Pedagogy and Curriculum

A vision begins with talk, but will only become reality with action. As society evolves due to advances in technology, we as principals must ensure that instruction follows suit or we run the risk of our schools becoming irrelevant. By irrelevant I am referring to our ability to prepare students with the skills to think critically, solve problems, demonstrate learning through creation, and compete in a global society.

As instructional leaders, it is our primary responsibility to observe and evaluate instruction. With this comes the responsibility to ensure that teachers are provided the freedom to take risks, knowledge of effective practices, resources to make it happen, and flexibility to incorporate innovative teaching strategies. With these parameters in place, principals must then be able to consistently identify, foster, support, and promote 21st century pedagogy.

Inherent within this shift is the need to re-evaluate the curriculum as the real-time web and information age present new challenges to instruction and student engagement. The time is now to lay the foundation to ensure that our students evolve into critical consumers of content, understand the importance of digital citizenship, as well as possess the ability to create, analyze, and interpret an array of media messages.

Tip: Start the year off by gathering key stakeholders to collaboratively revise your curriculum to emphasize essential skills necessary for today's learners to excel beyond your walls.

Strategy Four: Breathe Life Into Professional Development

Most teachers cringe when they hear the words "professional development" and rightfully so. The traditional model utilized by many schools forces educators into structured silos based solely on district and school goals while ignoring staff interests and passions. PD can be inspiring and fun when people are free to follow these interests and develop their own support communities.

Tip: If you thirst for an innovative culture focused on student achievement, begin the process of transitioning to Professional Learning Communities (PLC's). To take it a step further, model and encourage your staff to form their own Personal Learning Network (PLN). Then step back, give up some control, and watch your staff thrive as their passion fuels a transformation of the teaching and learning culture at your school.

 

Strategy Five: Stay Connected

Principals need support -- here are some resources to help you stay connected to others making change:

Change begins with a no-excuse mentality. Don't waste one more minute pondering what could be. There is a revolution going on right now in learning, and it is up to us to lead the way. Please share any leadership strategies that are making a difference in your building.

Comments (9)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Chris Fancher's picture

Thank you Eric for putting this together. I'll be sharing with my principal, district curriculum folks and superintendent. It sums up what I've been trying to tell them all for a while now. We need to change how we are doing things - but it doesn't have to happen over night. If our leaders just start shifting their brains to think within these 5 strategies before they make any critical decisions we will see a shift throughout the district. The momentum from that shift will, in turn, move the state, and (hopefully) the nation.

Herb Rubenstein's picture
Herb Rubenstein
Lead Author, Leadership Development for Educators

I like this article, but I think the author could replace the word "principals" with the word teachers in the title and throughout and it would be an even better article. Principals are not the only leaders in schools. Teachers are leaders and we need to stop writing leadership pieces only for principals and expand our notion of who the leaders in the schools are. I hope that every teacher would read this article, but with the title, they just get excluded and treated as second class citizens in an educational world that needs better leadership from teachers, and certainly from principals, to become more effective. Thanks for writing this article and I hope you write a blog on leadership for teachers.

Andrés León's picture
Andrés León
Fourth grade math and sciences from Canary Islands (Spain)

First, I will say that I agree with the five strategies to be pursued by any Director of a School ("Principal") to your school as a center of excellence.

Secondly, it is true that we (Principal, Teachers, Parents) must change the "chip" don't you?, because the world is globalized and the social networks allow now know education systems to meet and learn from different countries.

And finally, it is true that teachers must lead that change but it is equally true that the principal should be what drives this change necessary.

Thanks Eric, very good article. See you from Spain. :)

Julie Page Ales's picture
Julie Page Ales
Principal at Saratoga Union School District

Thank you Eric -- really enjoyed the article and your schematic -- I truly appreciate the conversation about change in education -- and including teachers in leadership roles. Shared leadership with 21st Century Education practice and vision is the only way to make change in our school districts. We need to make these changes now -- and support our teachers with professional development and time.

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

"By irrelevant I am referring to our ability to prepare students with the skills to think critically, solve problems, demonstrate learning through creation, and compete in a global society."

Compete? How about SURVIVE? I'll wager that I am not the only person thinking about the foregoing scenarios.

I suppose many citizens are choosing to ignore the signs of imminent global economic collapse. I am truly the only teacher in the blogosphere preparing for an inevitability where the very fabric of societies will dissolve into a quagmire of crime and despair. How about those London riots? Think it can't happen here? Think again.

I am preparing for a future of possible martial law, of the suspension of the Constitution, of rampant inflation where paper currency is rendered useless. You history teachers ... remember Germany in the 1920s? Poland and Romania in the early 1990s?

So what are YOU people teaching your students? How to survive in an unprecedented and inevitable global meltdown or how to twiddle thumbs over an iFad from Apple?

There are two kinds of people in the world ... those that see things as they truly are, and those who see things for what they could be like in an idealistic sense.

Realists prepare for the worst and have the best chances of survival during times of crisis. Idealists never do and are the most vulnerable and weak during times of crisis, because they'll spend too much time meditating over why things have gone so horribly wrong.

Is the latter the kind of model you wish to present to your students who are depending on you to prepare them for an uncertain future?

Ann Sisko's picture
Ann Sisko
Emeritus Classroom Teacher (grades 2/3 - 7/8) in South Brunswick, NJ

"In order to promote the embracing of new ideas, strategies, and techniques we need to collaboratively work with staff to transform traditional classroom environments into vibrant learning communities where all students are authentically engaged."

Good article -- it would be wonderful if all educators could read it.

The number one issue that stands in the way of teachers who try to create "vibrant learning communities where all students are authentically engaged" is the response of schools to high stakes testing.

Even in my district, where the powers-that-be have traditionally embraced the kind of leadership and teacher-empowerment that you described (because ultimately it is in the best interest of the kids), they are telling teachers flat out that they have to improve the test scores of their students.

Everybody KNOWS that those high-stakes tests would be meaningful only in the context of helping assess what individual students have learned and what they need to learn. But the tests cannot be used that way, because no individual item analyses are received. Instead, they are used to judge and punish schools, and in some cases teachers and even kids.

In my view, the job of a principal is to support his/her teachers, and to make good things possible. To run interference with those powers-that-be when what they want is at odds with providing the best education possible for students. And to tap into teachers' enthusiasm with the seeds of creative ideas (which may be accepted, rejected, or adapted); help out when asked; and stay informed and available as teachers implement their ideas.

Ann Sisko's picture
Ann Sisko
Emeritus Classroom Teacher (grades 2/3 - 7/8) in South Brunswick, NJ

M.A. Hauck, you may be right -- though I hope with all my heart that you are wrong.

Nonetheless, the ability to understand information, to think about it, to make informed judgments, to determine what is logical, what is useful, what is right -- those skills are essential in both the world of the realist and the world of the idealist.

As in so many things, there needs to be a balance between realism and idealism. One's head may be in the clouds, but one's feet need to be firmly planted on the ground. Without idealism, realists may well feel that they have nothing to live for. Without realism, idealists will not be able to achieve what they hope for.

Janet Moeller-Abercrombie's picture
Janet Moeller-Abercrombie
International Educator, Certified by the NBPTS | Educational Leader, Licens

I notice that many of your tips include meeting with teachers and teacher leaders. From a teacher perspective, I'd urge you to be clear about your objectives before calling the meeting, especially meetings that happen before the school year begins.

I wrote a post noting the importance of such meetings as well as the struggle teachers often have in before-the-kids arrive meetings: http://expateducator.com/2011/08/24/t-3-zooming-in-and-zooming-out/

You're taking your school in the right direction. You'll get more teacher buy-in from faculty if you can empathize with their struggles in giving up classroom prep time, show teachers their specific place in the greater school vision, and thank them for specific contributions to the realization of the vision.

Elona Hartjes's picture
Elona Hartjes
special education teacher

I think stay connected is an important strategy, but I think stay needs to include stay connected with staff and students. Principals need to get out of the office and into classrooms, hallways and cafeteria. In some schools, students do not even know who the principal is. In some schools the principal is too busy to leave the office and talk to teachers and make that all so important human connection. In the classroom, I work hard to develop relationships with my students because it shows I care about my students as people. Teachers need to know that principals care about their teachers. Being a principal is a difficult job; being a teacher is a difficult job. Principals and teachers need to work together, to connect to support one another. Principals cannot be too busy for teachers or students. Without students and teachers, there would be no need for principals.

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