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Administration & Leadership

11 Books To Refresh Your Leadership Library

We asked educators in our community to share the books that most profoundly influenced their leadership approach in recent years. Here are their top picks.

August 18, 2023

From Warren Buffet to Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey, many of the most successful leaders are voracious readers. And yet, among school leaders, reading can get short shrift. “Of all the professional development lessons I’ve learned in the principalship, reading strikes me as one we don’t talk enough about,” writes Kathryn Fishman-Weaver, an author and the executive director of Mizzou Academy. “Are the texts we choose ones that shed light on a wide range of lived experiences, including the cultures and experiences included in our student body?”

We asked our community to weigh in and share which leadership books—recently published titles as well as classics—profoundly influenced their leadership approach in recent years. A few clear crowd favorites emerged, among them Harry and Rosemary Wong’s bestseller, The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher. Several authors—Anthony Muhammad, Brené Brown, Simon Sinek, and Shane Safir—had multiple titles nominated, though we selected just one from each in order to keep the list lean. Finally, several unexpected suggestions showed up in the threads, including The Tao of Pooh, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and Treasure Island

The following books offer a cornucopia of perspectives and cover topics ranging from grading practice to staff dynamics, school culture and climate, to classroom instruction. Here are eleven books that school administrators say will challenge and strengthen your leadership practice.  

The First Days of School: How to Be An Effective Teacher
Harry and Rosemary Wong
A teacher-focused how-to manual originally published in the nineties (now in its fifth edition) may seem like an unusual pick for the top of a leadership books list—but it garnered the most votes by far on our social channels. While it’s considered a “must read” for teachers, it’s also a valuable resource for administrators, educators told us. Chapters examine the evidence-based practices of high-functioning classrooms and offer teacher-tested advice for structuring and organizing classrooms, and holding high expectations for all kids. Though some critics argue that the authors’ approach to classroom management may “stifle spontaneity in classrooms and lead teachers to become overly controlling,” many consider The First Days of School an authoritative resource for all educators—especially leaders who regularly observe and evaluate teachers in action. 

Dare to Lead
Brené Brown
Brown believes leaders face pervasive cultural challenges to organizational success, including a desire to avoid hard conversations, a lack of honest but productive feedback, a fear of taking smart risks or sharing bold ideas, and perfectionism. Her exploration of vulnerability, shame, relationships, and communication echoes some of her other work, and the book’s inspirational and self-improvement focused tone may not be for everyone. Yet leaders looking to create a culture of empowerment may benefit from what Brown offers. Courage and trust are important components of any workplace, and this book offers a lens through which to look at both. 

The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity
George Couros
When a student walks into a classroom, full of questions and curiosity, what happens next? Couros—whose career credentials include classroom teacher, technology facilitator, and school and district administrator—explores what it looks like to create a learning environment where students are encouraged to think differently, innovate, and do more than just perform well when tested. With accessible insights on leadership and learning interspersed with discussion questions, we heard from many educators and school leaders who tackled this text together in their PLCs or as part of their personal professional development. One caveat from a reviewer: “If you are looking for a book that provides all of the answers, this is not the one.” But it may be the book that inspires you to start looking in the right direction. 

Connecting Through Conversation: A Playbook for Talking with Students
Erika Bare and Tiffany Burns
After cataloging conversations that moved the needle with students, authors Bare and Burns—currently serving as an assistant superintendent and principal, respectively—felt they had hard-won insight to contribute on the topic of how to talk to kids in school. The pair channeled their collective 40 years of education experience to develop a student-centered, trauma informed, and culturally responsive framework for communicating with and building durable relationships with students. This book includes a conversation planning guide, sentence stems, and an array of other resources. Connecting Through Conversation, the authors explained in a Q&A, offers insights on how to “use body language, tone, and volume to communicate safety and invite connection,” navigating challenging behaviors, while also ensuring educators prioritize their own physical, emotional, and mental health.

Leaders Eat Last
Simon Sinek
In the U.S. Marines during mealtime, Sinek explains, it’s common for the highest ranking officers to fix their plates last. This not only ensures everyone on the team is fed, but sends an important message: Leaders look after their people first. But Sinek’s people-first approach is only one component of a larger narrative that includes segments on creating a safe environment within your organization—he refers to this as the “Circle of Safety”—and the surprising impacts of what he calls “selfless chemicals” like serotonin and oxytocin on leadership style. 

Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Paulo Freire
A lot has changed since 1968 when this book was first published in Portuguese, but it’s still widely considered a seminal text on education. Freire’s own experiences with poverty in Brazil, as well as his work with marginalized communities—many of which could not read—helped forge his views on knowledge, access, education reform, and class. Heavily academic and at times jargon-filled, this can be a dense philosophical read though its central message is simple: Education at its core, Freire writes, is a symbiotic relationship in which neither the role of the student or the teacher is fixed. Teachers themselves have many things to learn alongside their students; students have lots of things that they can teach. Freire’s pioneering analysis of the “banking” system of education urges educators to examine their pedagogy and practices. 

Street Data
Shane Safir and Jamila Dugan
When checking on the health of a school, administrators often turn to what the authors refer to as satellite data like attendance, graduation rates, and test scores. While this information is important, it doesn’t provide a nuanced enough picture, they argue. For a more equitable and comprehensive approach, the authors examine what they call map data, a sort of “GPS of learning trends and gaps in a school community,” Safir writes in EdWeek. They also look at street data, which provides “real-time, leading indicators on the messy work of school and instructional improvement.” For some schools already deep into their equity journey, this book may not feel particularly new, some reviewers say. What it may introduce, however, are resources and tools to help leaders and school communities understand why data should be utilized differently and how to begin that process. 

Grading for Equity: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How It Can Transform Schools and Classrooms
Joe Feldman
Ensuring accuracy, preventing bias and subjectivity, and presenting a dynamic picture of academic performance can all be factors that make grading a particularly challenging task. What’s more, how can educators help students focus on the learning and not the grade? Feldman examines these points as well as how grading relates to identity, the history of grading, unreliable practices, why traditional grading can demotivate and disempower students, and how to chart a path forward. In spite of the nuance involved in determining what works best for each school community, Feldman’s insights provide a starting point for an examination of school-wide grading practices. 

The Assistant Principal 50: Critical Questions for Meaningful Leadership and Professional Growth
Baruti K. Kafele
Whether you’re pursuing a career as an assistant principal or aspiring to become a principal, Kafele argues the role of an AP is “one of the most misunderstood and underutilized positions in education.” Kafele aims to help prospective and current APs navigate the ambiguity of each step of their journey, offering reflective questions, insights, and guidance with some personal anecdotes mixed in. Although some readers note the book's emphasis on the role of the administrator as disciplinarian, which may not apply depending on your school's culture and climate, Kafele offers a wealth of ideas that can be adapted to a variety of school ecosystems. 

Transforming School Culture: How to Overcome Staff Division
Anthony Muhammad
Every school building has its own unique cast of characters. The tensions that may arise between them—potentially becoming a roadblock to progress and change, Muhammad explains—stem from shifting dynamics, relationships, and the beliefs or assumptions of four groups: the Believers, the Fundamentalists, the Tweeners, and the Survivors. Based on a study of 11 elementary, 14 middle, and 9 high schools, Transforming School Culture offers solutions for transforming an ailing school climate into a healthy high-functioning environment for learning. 

Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students
Zaretta Lynn Hammond
What does it mean to be a culturally responsive educator? Hammond’s take is informed by recent neuroscience research and aims to help schools with diverse classrooms bolster engagement and foster deeper learning in a way that honors students. Designed to prompt self-reflection and action, Hammond’s book aims to leave educators and instructional leaders with a more fleshed out understanding of how to effectively implement brain-based culturally responsive instruction and create a culture of independent learners.   

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