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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How to Give Your School Leader a Grade

When I told my mother some years ago that I was planning on becoming a teacher, she -- a former public school kindergarten teacher -- gave me some of the best advice I've heard yet : She told me I was going to have to become a lot more patient than I'd ever been. (She was definitely right on that one.) She also told me that organization was key and would save me from having to reinvent the wheel each year.

The last jewel my mother gave me that day struck me the most because I was uncertain about it. She told me that if a school didn't have good leadership, leave it, and find one that did. "Wow, that last one's a little harsh, Mom," I thought.

I'm still working on the patience, but all my teaching stuff is housed in a meticulous filing and three ring-binder system I should patent and sell to the government. And after a handful of years teaching in a few schools, I did witness firsthand the power of a single leader to make or break a school. Particularly, it's all about morale.

Today, working as an educational consultant and literacy coach, I continue to see how fundamental leadership is to how well -- or not -- a school runs. While visiting or working at a school site, I have a surefire litmus test that helps me better understand where the school stands: I observe the leaders and see how deeply connected they still are to their teacher hearts.

What does this mean, exactly? Read the following descriptions with your school leaders in mind and see:

Making Connections

Your principal genuinely enjoys and values visiting the classroom. He appears far more often than the once or twice required in order to evaluate you, and stays longer than 15 minutes. He connects with the students, and it's clear that he believes that rolling up his sleeves and working side by side with teachers and students is part of his job description. He understands that he cannot expect from teachers what he does not inspect.

He knows that it takes a staff and students who have strong, trusting relationships to truly propel and maintain a high-functioning school.

Clear, Comprehensible Goals

Your administrator doesn't waver when new educational trends or mandates come down the pipe. Her fundamental philosophy and beliefs about educating children stay the same, and are transparent to all. The choice of road taken for accomplishing tasks may change, but the rationale and purpose do not. Her academic goals for the school in general are crystal clear to other administrators, and to teachers, students, and parents. As we say in this profession, her goals have transparency.

A Colleague, Not a Politician

She listens, makes eye contact, and is fair with the faculty, treating all evenhandedly. Her actions demonstrate that she views teachers and other staff as colleagues. She's a work-with-me professional rather than a work-for-me type. She may have favorites, as teachers often do, but you would never know it.

She's also a leader who isn't so concerned with being popular down at the district office. Nope, she isn't interested in playing politics. She follows through on her word and sticks her neck out for what is right. There are significant, memorable times in your mind when she has quietly put district directives aside for the sake of what's best for students. You think of her as courageous.

Fair Is Fair

When sticky situations come up -- a serious disagreement among faculty, for instance -- your leader calmly listens to all sides, doesn't sidebar with other administrators, and spends some time gathering information before declaring a solution or decision on the matter. If it involves students and parents, he makes sure any and all teachers mentioned are included in talks and mediations. He avoids secret meetings, knowing they hinder more than help a bad situation.

An Instructional Captain

Your principal knows her stuff. She is well versed in various instructional practices, and in current educational research and findings. Because of this, and because of her time in the classroom, she is not fooled by any quick-fix, silver-bullet solutions. She knows slow and steady wins the race.

Instead of being showy with this abundance of educational wisdom, she models it every day -- in her actions toward those she has been chosen to lead.

I know, I know -- this may sound like a really tall order to some of you out there. But, it is out there happening in schools, and those schools don't need to worry about teacher retention and school morale. If you are still having doubts, you might need to listen to my mother. (See point #3 of her advice.)

For those of you who did a lot of nodding while reading this post, what exactly makes your school work so well? How do your leaders contribute to the growth and success of your school? Please share with us.

Comments (20)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

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Judy Spady's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Rebecca,
I like the idea that you asked others to share their positive experiences. I think it's important to understand what works well and build from there. My consulting firm focuses on just that using a process called 'Appreciative Inquiry'.

On a personal note, my question for you is what can parents/community do when the leadership is almost opposite of the things you described? We have a principle who is extremely defensive before you even walk in to meet with her. She has those secret meetings behind others' backs just so she is 'one up on you'. She says there are no issues that the school needs to improve on. She is great at covering up for her staff at the expense of the children's needs, And she flat out refused to fix grades that were wrong even after I showed her that they weren't correct!

What should someone do in this situation where they can't easily follow your Mom's advice and walk? It is the only school in our town and it's not economically nor socially feasible to go to surrounding areas. It seems that the only option is to put up with the lack of leadership or to homeschool.

I'm working to implement the process my firm uses which I think will help in the long run...but I'd love to hear some other thoughts on how to deal with bad leadership in the short term.

Thanks,
Judy Spady
Peak Transformations

Mike Nollan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was in a similar situation that Judy is talking about. Teacher leaders became very important to the running of the school. We had to learn to be diplomatic to progress and improve, but it worked. Not ideal, but workable.

Sandra's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Rebecca,

I know so many leaders who would benefit from your article. It takes strong interpersonal skills and an ability to listen to lead a school, close achievement gaps, and tailor instruction to meet the needs of students.I miss administration and look forward to getting back into it. The principal I worked under was EVERYTHING you stated in your article and I miss her dearly. She was a leader who naturally had the key characteristics you mentioned. I will save and refer to your article from time to time so that I do not lose focus on what solid leadership looks like.

Rebecca Alber's picture
Rebecca Alber
Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
Blogger

Hi Judy,

Diplomacy is very important and can go a long way. I do agree with the reader who suggested this. It helps many of us cope in certain sticky situations.

It's also important to remember that parents have more power than they sometimes know, and if a leader isn't the best fit for their children's school, they can rally together and take their concerns to the school board, or to the superintendent.

Thank you for your comments and good luck!

Rebecca Alber

Rebecca Alber's picture
Rebecca Alber
Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
Blogger

Sandra,

I'm so glad to hear that you had the good fortune to work with such an administrator. They are out there! Good luck with all your upcoming endeavors.

Best,

Rebecca Alber

Gerith Evan Chavez's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The leader/leadership that has been discussed in this article describes perfectly the new principal at Belen High School. Mr. Jim Danner, I applaud you, your talents and your dedication. Thank you for what you've brought to our high school and to our community!
Sincerely,
G. Evan Chavez, Parent

Kirsten Olson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Rebecca,

This post connected with my heart! You outline some of the fundamental principles of school leadership so well, and to me most poignantly, to the importance of staying in what makes us vulnerable, what drew us to the work, what its paradoxes are, staying open to the difficulties of it. Thank you so much. I happen to have trained with Parker Palmer (author of the Courage To Teach) about conducting "circles" where teachers have space to connect with their teacher hearts--I am so glad you've brought this need to the center. Up front.

I am appreciative.

Rebecca Alber's picture
Rebecca Alber
Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
Blogger

Hi Kirsten,

Wonderful to hear that you connected with the post. Thank you for bringing up Parker Palmer's invaluable book as well!

All the best,

Rebecca

Maria Kontogiannis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Your mother was definitely right about being patient, organized, and having a great leader. I have been teaching for five years and I have learned that these tips are essential in order to have a successful teaching experience. Your comments about what it takes to have a great leader are inspirational. I am lucky to work in a school district where my principal works with the teachers to achieve common goals for the school, connects with the students, and runs an organized and fun school environment. I think that all leaders would benefit from reading your article.
Thank you!

Tami Glaze's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that a strong leader determines the climate of not only a school, but each classroom as well. I am very thankful to have a principal who puts children's learning first and treats all teachers as professionals. She is very approachable and listens to all sides when faced with a difficult decision. Our faculty and students feel confident that our school is in good hands. Good leadership does trickle down to the classroom as teachers are treated as professionals, the actions follow. So many great teachers I know are in difficult teaching situations due to lack of positive leadership. I feel extremely lucky to be in an ideal situation to be able to flourish as a teacher knowing my administrator fully supports me and my students.

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