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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

This is the time of year when, for many different reasons, some teachers consider taking positions at other schools. I've received a number of calls from friends and colleagues this spring asking for my advice on this difficult decision. Here's what I always say: It's all about the principal or head of school. Find a site with a great leader and while your struggles might not be over, they'll be significantly reduced. The three qualities I find most indicative of a great school leader are visionary leadership, community builder, and emotional intelligence.

Visionary Leadership

You've probably heard a term like "visionary leadership" used in reference to a site leader. But what does that mean? How do you know if a leader is a visionary? A visionary leader is clear about what he or she believes and knows is best for children -- for their academic, social, and emotional learning. The leader's individual beliefs have developed in collaboration with other stakeholders and articulated into some kind of vision or mission statement. You might ask the site leader as well as staff, students, and parents, "What's really important at this school?" Or "What are you striving to create here?" That's where you'll hear elements of a vision. Also important element is that the experiences of students and outcomes are at the center of this vision. You'll know if you hear a vision if it makes you feel something good: inspired, motivated, excited, and so on.

A visionary leader talks and walks the school's vision. Her actions consistently align with it. Furthermore, she has a plan for how to implement this vision and every day takes actions towards leading all stakeholders towards this vision. The vision is consistently acted up, all initiatives align to it, and the principal is its primary champion.

Community Builder

A head of school who is a community builder knows that he cannot implement the school's vision alone. He knows that high-functioning teams are essential; he knows that a healthy community (for children and staff) will contribute to stability, retention, and investment. He knows that human beings crave connection and deep bonds with other human beings. And he knows how to create these connections and bonds.

You'll know if you're entering a healthy community by the way you are greeted as you arrive on campus -- by security guards, office staff, children and parents. Just register how many smiling faces you see. That'll give you a big insight into the health of communities at the school. Ask teachers and administrators: How is community intentionally built here? What happens when relationships break down? How well (personally and professionally) does the staff know each other? Are there cliques of teachers here? How are relationships across differences (race, age, background, etc.) built? And ask the school leader: What is your vision for community at this site?

Find yourself a healthy community and you'll see your happiness increase, your health improve, and your professional practice reach new levels of excellence.

Emotional Intelligence

The third quality of a great leader is one who is emotionally intelligent. Emotional intelligence (EQ) is the ability to understand and manage your own emotions and recognize, understand and manage the emotions of others. An emotionally intelligent leader is usually calm and grounded, empathetic, and is able to deal with conflict between people. Another important quality of an emotionally intelligent leader is the ability to take care of herself -- to manage her stress, health, relationships, and so on.

You'll recognize an emotionally intelligent leader if you feel listened to and understood. He won't be distracted, seemingly impatient, or offering what might feel like rote responses to your questions. You can also ask a leader questions such as: How do you care for yourself? How do you manage stress? How do you respond to your staff's stress? And you can ask staff about their leader: How does the principal show his frustration or anger? Do you feel that your principal listens well and cares about you? How does your principal deal with conflict amongst staff? How does your principal demonstrate appreciation for you?

Emotional intelligence in a leader has been found to be the number one predictor of an organization's ability to be successful. Although leaders with high EQ are less common, they are out there.

In Memory of Tom Little

It is with great sadness that I write this blog because perhaps the most amazing school leader I have ever known passed away in early May. Tom Little was the Head of School at Park Day School in Oakland, CA, where my son is a student. Tom had been at Park Day School as a teacher and leader for 38 years and the evidence of his impact is apparent to me every time I walk on campus. He fully embodied the three qualities I've suggested make a great leader; he was a visionary leader, a community builder, and a highly emotionally intelligent person.

One moment stands out that exemplifies these qualities. My son transferred to Park Day at the beginning of third grade. We'd moved him from a school where communities were weak, a vision was non-existent, and where I regularly observed the principal screaming at kids. At Park Day's orientation for new students, Tom Little greeted the group of children with these words, "Hello. My name is Tom and I'm your friend." As my eyes welled with tears -- I was so moved by his kindness and humility, by his awareness of how the new students might be feeling -- I whispered to my son, "That's your principal!," because I knew that otherwise he wouldn't connect this gentleman with a site leader. "He's your friend," I repeated, stunned that such simple words could have such a profound impact on me.

My son is thriving at this school. He is cared for and known and feels connected to children and staff. My son will benefit for the rest of his life because of his schooling at Park. I also know that I am a stronger coach, educator, and leader because of knowing Tom and witnessing what he helped to create at Park Day School. I have more hope, more inspiration, and more ideas for transforming schools. I will be forever grateful to Tom Little.

What makes for a great school leader? Please share your thoughts and stories in the comments section below.

Comments (8)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Frank Ohnesorgen's picture
Frank Ohnesorgen
Superintendent/Principal at Pond USD

Insuring that students feel welcomed and safe are critical elements for a successful school. I do not want to be perceived as a "friend" to my students, no more than I want to be perceived as a "friend" to my children at home. I am the principal, the school leader and a parent, one of two home leaders.

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer

I came across this Ted Talk about leadership that I thought was powerful: http://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_why_good_leaders_make_you_feel_safe.

One of my favorite quotes in this talk is when the speaker says that "Leadership is a choice, and not a rank." It's not about asserting your power as a leader. A great leader will be selfless and care about their team more than they do themselves..and in turn people will follow you - not out of fear but out of respect.

And this is another great blog post about leadership that I enjoyed:

"Leadership arouses passion. The exercise and even the study of leadership stirs feeling because leadership engages our values." -- Ronald A. Heifetz

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program

I was just pulling together some information about one of our local schools and found this lovely comment from a teacher: The crew of a ship works harder when they know they have a captain who can steer them through the fog."

I really like that idea.

Sherene Kennedy's picture

I have had the opportunity to visit various schools in my career. One thing that stands out to me when I visit a school is the morale of the staff. Schools with great leaders typically have staff and students who are able to be optimistic despite tremendous challenges. In successful schools, the leader guides staff, promotes cohesiveness and encourages staff and students to solve problems constructively. I definitely agree with the qualities mentioned above, especially "community builder." A great leader acts as a mediator when conflicts arise and utilizes staff meetings as a way to build community. It is impossible for students to have a strong sense of community when school staff is unable to get along. Thus, the leader will ensure that the adult community is functioning well, in order, that they can be positive role models for the students. When the staff community is divided, the students will utilize this to their advantage, which will destroy community and the learning environment.

Renee's picture

Frank, I feel sad for you. I am so grateful to have worked under a "friend" to all and to have learned first hand the transformative power of friendship with children. I am a friend to my daughter. Not a buddy or a best friend, but a special kind of friend...her mother. The sort of learning that takes place where emotional safety and personal regard are present is deep, and has the potential to change lives. Kids don't learn as well when their hearts aren't held in the same way that their minds and bodies are. So, if you truly are "insuring students feel welcomed and safe" then you'd have their emotional safety in mind as well. You may say that you do. A person who supports another in these ways is, by definition, a friend.

Christinacyr's picture
ESL Teacher

What makes a great school leader you ask?
I agree with the leadership qualities in which you've made reference to. It's definitely essential that a school leader have vision, be a community builder and have emotional intelligence. I once had the pleasure of working with an exceptional school leader like Tom Little and it forever shaped my teaching. She had the ability of recognizing opportunities for improvement, rolling up her sleeves and taking action. Besides her initiative, her passion for achievement was infectious; the school culture became progressive. I remember her eyes would light up when she talked about the students and her vision. This constructive leader also had courage. In times of challenges, she overcame obstacles and strived for success. The successful teacher leader must also convey confidence. Due to her self-assurance, she was able to successfully lead the school as she was trusted. I would add that school leaders must be open-minded and ensure respect for their colleagues and students. The ability to view things from other perspectives and to respect other opinions and beliefs is definitely a quality. Alice encouraged the examination of teaching practices and supported the carrying out of new strategies. I think it's worth mentioning that the best leaders are effective communicators. Above all, Alice was a lifelong learner; fostering a growth mindset. She taught me many things about life and the pursuit of happiness. I can now officially say that I lead by example and I know what makes a great school leader. Alice retired in 2008 and I willingly attempt to carry on from where she left off.

Lindsay Given's picture

I good school leader will develop a sense of trust among their school team. They will not given their team a set of demands and disappear, but rather become an active member of the team. This sense of collaboration will allow for every team member's ideas to be heard and validated, as they work together to reach a common goal

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