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School & District Management Opinion

What Are School Leaders’ Most Important Qualities?

By Joe Nathan — March 08, 2015 6 min read
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Deborah Meier and Joe Nathan discuss the most important qualities of school leadership.

Joe begins with two questions for Deborah.

Deb, you’ve helped start a number of schools and led at least two (maybe more). So here are two questions for you: What are the most important qualities of a school’s leader? Or are there different qualities involved, depending on whether you are starting a school or, coming in after someone else led it at the beginning?

Deb responds
That’s a meaty question, which, no surprise, the answer depends on the kind of school you want to run, the nature of the obstacles you face, the amount of power you hold, and....My dilemma is that if one wants to build a school that outlasts you and the school’s mission then it rests on your ability to develop colleagues (parents and staff) that can lead themselves without you while upholding democratic practices then that’s one problem. If one want to start (or maintain) a school that is unlikely to rub anyone the wrong way and intends just to get somewhat better test scores and graduation statistics without rocking any boats or un-doing the school’s norms--that’s another problem altogether. Yes, it’s easier to start from scratch, especially if your aim is to remain small and democratic. Then a good leader is defined as one who builds into the school and its constituents the skills needed to nourish and sustain it, as well as to respond skillfully to attacks on it--without you.
I think the success of Mission Hill--its staying power-- might be related to the fact that I was in the hospital for several critical months during our first year--January through March. But I didn’t succeed in doing it for CPESS.

Joe responds:

So before responding, I want to be clear that while I have observed and studied school leadership, I was only a school director for a short time. That was an acting (district) principal while the principal was on sick leave. I was a program coordinator at an innovative district school, reporting to the school’s director (principal) and a traditional district secondary assistant principal. My experience has been in schools serving a significant percentage of low income students and students of color.

We agree it’s easier to start from scratch, whether in a district or chartered public school.

We also agree that if you want a distinctive school to last, you need to develop other professional staff who can lead. Although I earned a Master’s and PhD in School Administration, I did not encounter this in materials I read, or discussed in graduate work.

Our Center interviewed a number of business leaders 7 years ago for a report, “Learning to Lead.” Business people stressed that one of the qualities of a great leader is that she/he helps develop others who can take over. They also urged leaders to help faculty and staff understand from the first few days they are hired, how their work contributes to the school’s overall goals.
Here are three other qualities that I think great leaders have: 1) They are learners. They are not content with things as they are, no matter how well things are going. They constantly are assessing what’s going well, and what could be improved. They encourage others to understand what’s going well, and what could be improved. 2) They are great at working with adults. They help encourage and assist terrific teachers. They help ok teachers improve. And they help mediocre teachers either improve, or help move them out. 3.They help their schools develop and act on priorities. Everything can’t be a priority. Wise organizations set and focus on priorities they’ve set so that they can be effective, and don’t become overwhelmed.

Deb responds

I view the principal as a delegated position that entails keeping one’s tunnel vision on the whole, while each of the other constituents is more expert on their particular delegated task--their classroom, etc. Both the roles overlap. For that reason it’s critical to have sufficient time built into the life of the school for everyone to know something about everyone’s role. Every teacher and parent (and kids) need to be in the know--which means to some degree they are trusting the lead teacher or co-heads to set priorities, to bring to everyone’s attention upcoming problems, opportunities, crises. To suggest a range of options to discuss, and to get away occasionally with making an emergency decision! It helps if the principal is not the key evaluator of children, parents or teachers--is merely one important participant in hiring, firing, etc. The respect that we need for each other in school should be as little as possible not but on power over others, but power with them. I’m glad, for example, that I have no say on who “the best” teacher is, or any ranking of them and/or deciding pay scales, etc. That’s a power I don’t want in the hands of the school’s principal teacher.

Joe responds:

Deb I understand that you don’t want the power to decide which teacher is “the best, or any other ranking or deciding of pay scales.” But I think a school director/principal should have some role in helping decide whether a teacher is doing a good, adequate or inadequate job. This could be done in cooperation with others.

Or do you think a school leader should have no involvement in deciding for example, that a teacher needs have some sort of improvement plan, or that a teacher should have opportunities to develop her/his leadership skills, if the teacher is interested?

Deb responds:

Yes, I think the principal should have all the rights of any other staff member, and hopefully my voice carries weight. But when it comes to judging the quality of teaching and other aspects of the job that makes someone a real asset to the school I don’t think I have any special insight. Or if I do, I can state that and it will be heard. It’s far easier for me to express my views forcefully precisely because I am only one vote of 20, 30, 40 when it comes to the final decision. I want to be heard so that I can persuade and, so that I can be persuaded. The only time I should have the right to veto a decision - and then it’s only in emergencies and can be resolved by more conversation over time and/or the intervention of our Board--are when the decisions involved affect our fiscal integrity or the health and safety of staff or students. Probably I think this because in the end I’m legally accountable for those two measures.

It’s because I like having the power to influence that I think this arrangement frees me most to present my ideas well. It also has helped create an intellectually lively discourse between adults in the schools I have worked in that has had a powerful impact on everyone--and makes most folks enjoy even our sometimes too long meetings. We also use a form of consensus for most critical decisions--but that’s another story. But it too is in the interest of making sure we all truly hear and think through what others are saying.

Joe Comments:

Deb, I agree that the model you describe can be an option - one way to run a school.

Two other things I’d add: the ability to clearly communicate the school’s vision, and how it has organized itself to work toward that vision. This means how the school defines learning, teaching, assessment, and progress. A strong leader can not only communicate those things, but can work skillfully with faculty, families, students and the broader community to make progress on the things that the school values - within a broader context of - but not limited to - what the state expects. That means all students will make progress, all will grow.

Joe Nathan has been an urban public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, researcher, and advocate. He directs the St. Paul, Minn.-based Center for School Change, which works at the school, community, and policy levels to help improve public schools

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