Professional Learning

How to Give Your School Leader a Grade

August 14, 2009

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.

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