Throughout my career as an educator, I’ve worked in four international schools and experienced myriad leadership styles. I’ve found that the most impactful leaders are passionate, engaging, and committed to collaboration—but these are not merely character traits, they are made real through daily interactions, actions, and strategies.
As an international educator and coordinator, I’ve had the privilege of receiving mentoring from Mark McCallum, head of school at the International School of Dongguan. Witnessing McCallum’s leadership practices, as well as others’ approaches across international institutions, has clarified for me what I, as a teacher, appreciate in a school leader—and what other leaders can do to create supportive teaching and learning spaces.
INVITE PASSION PROJECTS
Creating time for educators and staff to explore their passions can bring the school community together. By creating spaces to bond over common interests and experience increased morale, leaders can increase teachers’ connectedness. One way to do so is to make time during schoolwide professional development (PD) for educators to share their passions.
Before a PD session, email staff to ask who would like to share a passion with their colleagues—for example, writing, outdoor activities, music, project-based learning, cooking. Document these passions in a shared Excel spreadsheet. Send another email to teachers who have chosen to lead a session, and share time requirements for facilitation (I’ve seen 30-minute and one-hour time slots work well). Create a schedule that shows which passions teachers will showcase at each session so that teachers can choose those they’d like to attend.
I’ve seen this approach work best when leaders give teachers autonomy in creating and facilitating passion-related PD sessions. Rather than dictating the format of a session, leaders who trust teachers’ expertise promote feelings of worthiness and belonging.
Kindness audits involve sporadic check-ins during small-scale meetings within an organization (or, in our case, school) to ensure that colleagues are demonstrating kindness during their interactions with one another.
School leaders can replicate this strategy by visiting teacher meetings—by surprise—to spot-check for kindness. Kindness audits are nonthreatening and demonstrate that you take seriously the character traits of your learning community, showing teachers that their leader is walking the talk with regard to the school’s educational philosophy.
REPLACE ‘I’ WITH ‘WE’
Another strategy involves a slight change in language—replacing “I” with “we.”
According to journalist David Burkus, “When people feel insecure, self-aware, or diminished, they are more likely to focus their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors inward… [increasing] the rate of first-person singular pronouns (such as ‘I,’ ‘my,’ or ‘me’) used in their speech. By contrast… individuals using first-person plural and second-person (such as ‘we,’ ‘us,’ or ‘you’) ought to demonstrate an outward focus, considering the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of others.”
This is a bold claim. And it carries broad implications. Leaders can make a small pronoun shift by using “we” instead of “I” when writing emails to individuals and the whole school, as well as in discussions with staff. Doing so promotes a sense of community and orients everyone toward considerations of others.
EMAIL ABOUT GREAT TEACHING
To build positivity among staff, send emails to teachers when you’ve seen them demonstrating great teaching practices to let them know you appreciate their work.
Within the email, mention specific strategies or techniques you’ve observed. Try to keep the note between 50 and 125 words, as this range elicits higher readability and response rates. A positive tone further increases those rates, meaning that taking the time to celebrate teachers’ practice can foster interpersonal connection and communication that can carry beyond this one email interaction.
We all need to feel like our work is seen and appreciated, and instituting this practice is one way to make sure that recognition happens regularly.
Even Elon Musk does not believe in large-scale meetings, unless every person in attendance is adding value. Instead, he advocates for shorter meetings so that employees can get back to work. That practice resonates for staff meetings at school.
If large meetings must occur, consider changing terminology from “whole school staff meeting” to “whole school staff briefing.” Briefings are, well, brief, and the term signifies that the meeting will be less info-heavy.
My current head of school at Shenzhen Foreign Languages GBA Academy, Tom Kline, told me why and how he uses this approach: “I share simple messages in bite-sized chunks. I try to anticipate questions and provide answers. There isn’t much room for complexity when 100 faculty meet. People work hard, and their time is precious, so whole school briefings are concise out of respect. Great debate is reserved for smaller meetings, with the time to focus on a more nuanced exchange.”
If you must facilitate a longer briefing, try to keep it under 18 minutes to ensure optimal participant focus.
READ TO LEAD
Global leaders who have influence and impact are also prolific readers. Bill Gates is an avid reader who consumes at least 50 books a year. He also maintains a blog where he writes his musings about books he has read. Warren Buffett advocates that people read 500 pages a day.
School leaders can read about leadership to expose themselves to a variety of approaches. Three texts to start with, recommended by my leadership mentor Mark McCallum, include Endurance, by Alfred Lansing, Rising Strong, by Brené Brown, and What Makes a World Class School and How Can We Get There, by James H. Stronge and Xianxuan Xu.
By being intentional about the media we consume and share, the words we use, and the ways in which we demonstrate and foster connection, we can create leading and learning environments where all are welcome and valued.