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School & District Management Opinion

What Does It Mean to Be a Good School Leader?

By Karin Chenoweth & Christina Theokas — April 27, 2012 6 min read
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A teacher of our acquaintance once remarked that “the daily-ness of teaching” overwhelmed all calm reflection. Only in stray moments or middle-of-the-night worry sessions could he ponder the big questions of whether he was helping all of his students and whether he needed to deepen his content knowledge or improve his lesson planning.

This phrase, “the daily-ness of teaching,” would probably resonate with many teachers who can’t help but be caught up in the endless work of planning lessons, grading papers, building relationships with students, communicating with parents, and the other myriad responsibilities they have.

In fact, teachers have so much to think about that even when they have opportunities to work with their colleagues, they often question whether collaboration is really worth it when they have so much to do.

To help teachers step back and think deeply about their instruction and how to improve it is a tough job, but it’s the job we need principals and other school leaders to do if schools are going to educate all students well.

That, at least, is what we concluded after conducting a study of 33 principals who led 24 successful schools. The study included schools of all levels, with 65 percent being elementary, in every part of the country, with a range in student population from 200 to nearly 2,000. These schools are not expected to do particularly well; on average, about three-quarters of the enrollment are students of color or students who live in poverty. But if you look at their state-test data, some look surprisingly similar to any middle-class school in their states; others are among their states’ top performers. Their success demands our attention.

Our study of them makes it clear that these schools didn’t achieve success by accident, or by endless test prep, either. They succeeded because they had leaders who understood good teaching, made it their priority, and honed it with their staffs.

We found commonalities among these school leaders:

• Successful principals help teachers improve their individual practice, whether they are new or veteran. New teachers, for example, lack experience in how to set up their classrooms to support routines and manage discipline, design a lesson, or build relationships with students and colleagues. As teachers master those tasks, they must learn to design lessons that engage all students and analyze data to see which students need additional help or enrichment. These principals gauge what their teachers need and arrange for the appropriate support. They assign mentor teachers; they send in instructional coaches or more-accomplished teachers to teach model lessons; they or their delegates observe instruction frequently and offer suggestions; and they meet with teachers regularly to look at student data, discuss relevant research, and explore options for their classrooms.

“Before [new teachers] ever begin here, we explain [that] this is an ongoing learning experience and it should never stop,” said John Capozzi, the principal of Elmont Memorial High School, in Elmont, N.Y., one of the schools we studied.

[These schools] succeeded because they had leaders who understood good teaching, made it their priority, and honed it with their staffs."

• Successful principals work with groups of teachers to find patterns of instruction within grade levels and departments. If state math scores indicate that many of the 3rd graders didn’t understand measurement or some of the 9th graders didn’t understand fractions, were some teachers’ students more successful than others? If so, what did those teachers do differently that they can share with their colleagues? If not, perhaps those grade levels need to reassess their approach. Perhaps the teachers could benefit from a math workshop or conference. Which teacher would be the best designee to attend such an event and relay the most promising materials and techniques back to his or her colleagues?

• Successful principals identify schoolwide needs and plan professional learning to develop collective expertise. For example, students who live in poverty often arrive at school with weak vocabularies and limited background knowledge. The principals we studied work with teachers to tackle that problem in a coherent way across grades and subjects because they understand that students will learn more when the school consistently intervenes.

What we have described is a sophisticated approach to school leadership that requires principals and other school leaders—assistant principals, department chairs, instructional coaches, teacher leaders, and others—to have a deep knowledge of and respect for instruction and for the professional role of teachers. But it requires something more as well: It requires a deep belief that all children can learn and a determination to figure out how to help them do so.

This sounds simple, but it means that educators must see that student failure requires a change in their practice. It takes leadership to help teachers take on the burden of student failure, look it squarely in the eye, and ask, “What can we do differently?” rather than declare, “These students are helpless” or think quietly to themselves, “I am a bad teacher.” For teachers to be able to do this, they need clear expectations from their principal and the opportunity to develop a professional practice through collaboration with colleagues.

Good principals understand that no individual teacher can possibly have all the necessary content knowledge, pedagogical skill, and familiarity with his or her students to be successful 100 percent of the time with all of those students. Good principals know that it is only by pooling the knowledge and skills of their teachers, encouraging collaboration, and focusing on continual improvement that students and their teachers will have the opportunity to be successful.

For that reason, successful principals take very concrete steps to support teachers:

• They build schoolwide master schedules carefully to make sure that instructional time is not interrupted and that teachers have time to work and plan together during the school day.

• They ensure that such collaboration time is spent in ways that will have the biggest instructional payoff: studying standards, mapping instruction, building assessments, studying data, and learning new content and skills. As Deb Gustafson, the principal of Ware Elementary School in Fort Riley, Kan., says: “Time is our most precious commodity, and we must use it effectively and wisely. ... [M]eetings and requirements must be well organized, focused, agenda-driven, and contain specific expectations.”

• They establish schoolwide routines and discipline processes so that time is not squandered on behavioral problems or such popular time-wasters as fumbling with materials, classwide bathroom breaks, or so-called “movie Fridays.”

• They model what they want to see. As Ricci Hall, the principal of University Park Campus School in Worcester, Mass., put it, “Being a school leader is about helping to create powerful learning experiences for your staff and faculty and creating the circumstances where teachers can do the same for their kids.”

• They monitor the work of everyone in the school to ensure that no teacher or staff member shirks responsibility while others are working their hearts out.

• Above all, they help teachers step back from the “daily-ness of teaching” by providing the evaluative eye that allows teachers to think deeply about whether they are getting the most effect for their efforts.

This kind of leadership is a long way from the traditional model of the principal as a building manager, and few principals have been trained this way. But if we want schools that prepare all children for productive citizenship, this is the leadership we need.

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