Everything rises and falls on leadership (Maxwell, 2007). Anyone who has served as a building principal will share that school leadership is on-the-job training. Graduate school provides school leaders with an understanding of school law, leadership theory, curriculum theory, communication with stakeholders, and management. Within the first month in the principal’s office, school leaders learn that there are lessons yet to be learned.
“Leading people is the most challenging and, therefore, the most gratifying undertaking of all human endeavors” (Willink & Babin, 2015, p. 287). Principals have the opportunity to coach, encourage, inspire, transform, and communicate. Great principals understand the important role that they perform. Intentional leaders focus on the following key areas of leadership.
Be present. This is advice that teachers, students, families, and stakeholders would give aspiring principals. A principal should learn the names of students and staff. Great principals focus on others and understand that investing in others is an important part of leading. “In short, the relationships among the educators in a school define all relationships within that school’s culture. Teachers and administrators demonstrate all too well a capacity to either enrich or diminish one another’s lives and thereby enrich or diminish their schools” (Barth, 2006). Fist bumps, high fives, and lunch with the principal are investments that have a high return on investment (ROI).
Establish a Culture of Instructional Excellence
Instructional leaders provide a system that supports teaching and learning. In the absence of a system, students will fall through the cracks. Instructional leaders must strive to identify the main focus for each grade level or course and then work collaboratively to ensure that each student is challenged. Hattie suggests that principals are engaged in instructional leadership when they “have their major focus on creating a learning climate free of disruption, a system of clear teaching objectives, and high teacher expectations for teachers and students” (2012, p. 83). When instructional leadership becomes the priority for administrators, understanding will grow. “The job is not to hope that optimal learning will occur, based on our curriculum and initial teaching. The job is to ensure that learning occurs, and when it doesn’t, to intervene in altering the syllabus and instruction decisively, quickly, and often” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2007, p. 55). As an instructional leader, hundreds of students and families are counting on you to give the school direction and help students grow as lifelong learners.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
If education is viewed as a relationship with students, families, and the community, then good communication should be a priority. Communication skills are critically important in education. Teachers and administrators communicate with parents/guardians, community leaders, co-workers, and other stakeholders. A principal can be successful if she understands curriculum design and knows how to support teachers. However, if her communication skills are weak she will not last long as a school administrator. In a world where most people use a SmartPhone for Twitter, Facebook, alerts from the pharmacy, and driving directions, families expect to receive real time communication from school. While it is important to focus on curriculum development, assessment, healthy school lunches, exercise, and student safety, some schools could benefit from focusing on how well principals are communicating.
Eric Sheninger wrote, school leaders need to become the “Storyteller-in-Chief.” There is a story told about every school in the United States. In the 1980’s, the story was told in the daily newspaper. In the 1990’s, the story was told through pictures and videos. Social media allows principals to communicate and connect with key stakeholders.
Use Data to Make Informed Decisions
Data-driven schools focus on key indicators that support teaching and learning. There are two types of schools: Schools where student growth is increasing and schools where student growth is declining. “Timely indicators are hugely important if institutional leaders are to know whether things are on track or off track – before it’s too late” (Offenstein, Moore, & Shulock, 2010, p. 1). Principals should monitor attendance, behavior, grades, formative assessment scores, summative assessment scores, and other indicators that are available. Data-driven schools are focused on continuous improvement. “The ultimate validation of a curriculum lies in its results; that is, did it help students achieve the desired outcomes” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2007, p. 159)? Great principals use data to determine if the written curriculum and instructional strategies are yielding the desired outcomes.
School leaders often fall into the trap of feeling like their job is to have all the answers and to be the perfect leader. There is no such thing as a perfect leader and great principals lead by providing others with leadership opportunities. Tony Dungy (2001) wrote, “By touching the lives of the people right around us, and by replicating leaders who in turn can replicate more leaders, we can create value far beyond the small sphere that we can reach and touch directly” (p. 201). Teacher leaders can provide instructional leadership, data analysis, curriculum development, program review, professional development, and home-to-school communication. Great school leaders focus on adding value to others and providing leadership opportunities. Maxwell (1995) wrote, “If you really want to be a successful leader, you must develop other leaders around you. You must establish a team” (p. 2). Are you focused on developing followers or multiplying leaders?
There has never been a higher demand for building principals. The role is demanding, yet rewarding. The principal can set the tone for the school and this is a powerful responsibility. Schools are learning organizations and the leader of the organization should keep these priorities at the center of their work. Successful schools require strong leadership.
Traditionally, the principal resembled the middle manager suggested in William Whyte’s 1950’s classic The Organization Man – an overseer of buses, boilers and books (The Wallace Foundation, 2013, p. 6). Today, the principal builds relationships, establishes a culture of instructional excellence, communicates with stakeholders, uses data to make informed decisions, and multiplies leaders.