While there are many different personalities in administration, the most successful administrators often act and react in similar ways. Let’s take a look at what habits define these great school leaders.
Effective school leaders should have consistently high expectations for their staff and their students. These expectations should be clearly communicated, but also grounded in a leadership style that inspires people to embrace and utilize their strengths.
- Believing your goals are possible
- Having a clear action plan
- Building in a feedback mechanism
- Not confusing goals with measures of goals (higher test scores)
- Being thoughtful about the stakes and rewards associated with your expectations
As a leader, high expectations are more than just action items. “It doesn’t matter how many tasks you can check off your list, how many programs you can build, or how many systems you can maintain,” says Amy Fast, EdD, author of It’s the Mission, Not the Mandates: Defining the Purpose of Public Education. “If you can’t move people at their core — inspire them to leverage their strengths for a purpose greater than themselves — your impact has room to grow.”
There are only so many hours in a school leader’s day, and numerous responsibilities quickly fill those precious, finite hours. Since there are often fires to put out on a daily basis, school leaders are left with little time to work on short-term and long-term goals.
At the start of each week, principals and assistant principals should create a list of priorities. Here are some questions to ask yourself when creating this list:
- What absolutely needs to happen this week?
- What would you like to make some progress on?
- What can wait?
Examine the schedule, then identify and block off chunks of time for each item. Do any of these tasks require closed-door time? Schedule it in. By limiting interruptions, you can efficiently move through mundane tasks that need to get done each day, such as sorting through email and returning phone calls.
When specific time is allotted for these tasks, school leaders often find it is easier to accomplish larger items on their to-do lists during other times in the day. Principal Whitney Meyer notes the importance of developing time-management skills as a school leader: “Many administrators struggle with managing their time when there’s always so much to get done. The work feels like it can be never-ending at times, so I’m learning how to find a balance between what I need to do and what can wait until another time.”
School leaders are expected to consistently and patiently interface with staff members, students, and parents throughout their day. Often, these interactions can be tense, frustrating, or challenging. Mindful listening is an approach that helps slow down reactive tendencies, making listeners feel heard. It can dramatically change the tone of even the most contentious meetings. It’s the nature of educators to jump into problem-solving mode, but when a visitor comes to your office with an issue, try to begin by simply listening. Make a conscious effort not to interrupt or react. According to Psychology Today’s Elizabeth Dorrance Hall, PhD, “Mindful listening is about being fully present when interacting with others.” It means ignoring distracting thoughts and not making our own emotions more of a priority than someone else’s.
In Valerie Brown and Kirsten Olson’s book The Mindful School Leader: Practices to Transform Your Leadership and School, the authors discuss a strategy to use in difficult meetings called Self-Empathy. Take slow deep breaths — even as a meeting is happening — and silently name your feelings: “irritated, rattled, perplexed… Silently name [your] thoughts: ‘I want to be right.’ ‘I’m really annoyed.’” While continuing to breathe slowly, think about what would support you now. Consider how to calmly and successfully deal with what is coming your way. By combining reflective listening and self-empathy, leaders can more thoughtfully take on daily interactions.
Schools can’t improve communities or society alone, nor can they solve all of the problems their students face. Effective school leaders not only rely on the work happening inside the school but also utilize organizations, community partners, and opportunities outside of it.
Cavalier Monique Woodley, EdD, says that one of the biggest misconceptions in education is that “the school can cure all of our community or societal problems. But we have to remember that in order to improve our communities and our society, all community organizations have to work together. So churches, police stations, hospitals, and our schools — that’s really how we can support all of our students and create societal growth.” Host community-wide events, create community resources like a food pantry or an annual clothing drive, invite local professionals to speak, or host a workshop. The possibilities are endless, as are the rewards for this type of meaningful community engagement.
Trusting the team
School leaders just can’t do it all alone. Effective school leaders rely on and delegate to their trusted team members to carry out the school’s mission. The practice of transformational leadership gives everyone a stake in working toward a school’s success.
“Transformational leadership fosters autonomy in all individuals, empowering them to problem-solve and innovate without seeking permission and instead trusting their expertise,” says Elisabeth Bostwick, educator and co-founder of the #LeadUpTeach chat on Twitter, who has two books coming out this winter. “Traditionally speaking, some schools continue to place emphasis on hierarchical leadership models where top-down decision-making reigns, often negatively impacting teacher motivation as they may be left feeling that their voice doesn’t matter. Within a school where transformational leadership flourishes, individuals are confident that their voice matters, elevating collective efficacy and increasing learner achievement.”
Cavalier Melissa Schachner, MEd, says, “Becoming a principal is the hardest job I have ever had, and that includes being in the Army. One thing that became crystal clear this year is that I must lead with love, meet people where they are, and help them on their journey. Only then will people make changes necessary to ensure all students are successful.”
Strong school leaders have a positive, visible presence in their schools. They model lifelong learning, focus on learning objectives, and lead by example. They set the school’s tone through their daily interactions with staff and students. The school leader who stays hidden away in their office does little to improve school culture. “The position of principal is critical to setting the tone, carrying the message, and telling the story,” says Evan Robb, school principal and author of The Principal’s Leadership Sourcebook. “Every school, every teacher, every student deserves a school led by a person who chooses positivity through words and actions.” Cavalier John Paul Sanchez, EdD, also puts great emphasis on meaningful interactions and visibility. “Every day is about the differences that we make in students’ lives.”