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School leadership: It matters more than you think

Friday, May 12th, 2017

“There are no good schools without good principals. It just doesn’t exist. And where you have good principals, great teachers come, and they stay, they work hard, and they grow (Arne Duncan).”

School leadership matters. In fact, school leadership can be responsible for as much as 25 per cent of the total effect of a school (versus socioeconomic status, family background, etc.) on student achievement.

“Great teachers and principals can help to close persistent achievement gaps, improve student attitudes about school, and build habits of mind that can change a student’s life trajectory (US DOE, 2013).”

Why does it matter?

The reality is there are lots of variables that affect student learning – the teachers, the resources, the school climate, the curriculum, the facilities, the technology, the supports, etc. Individually, they each have some effect, but relatively small on their own.

School leadership, on the other hand, has the opportunity (and responsibility, I would say) to create a larger effect by bringing together those variables in the most synergistic way possible (Louis, et al., 2010).

Typically, the ‘leaders’ in a school are often thought of as the principal, and of course s/he plays an incredible role as the quote above suggests. Today, though, school leadership must be defined more broadly to include the assistant principals, the student welfare staff, the curriculum leaders and the many teacher leaders who are helping create this synergy. Without them, principals would quit after a month!

Beyond synergy, school leaders also walk the tightrope of accountability, managing the fine balance between pressure and support.

High expectations for students and staff are necessary to change and excel as a school. Just as critical though, are the supports in place to ensure the school is successful in meeting those expectations.

Again, the principal could never meet all the needs of a school by her/himself, so school leadership must be distributed to include key players throughout a school. This team of committed and driven leaders pushes the school to learn more, achieve more, serve more while ensuring kids and adults have what they need to do more.

What exactly is school leadership?

To most people, school leadership seems more vague and unclear than teaching – after all, most of us have had teachers in our lives, so we feel like we understand what that involves.

But for many of us, the principal was that mysterious person we only saw occasionally, at a school assembly or if we were in trouble.

So what does a school’s principal class and its teacher leaders actually do? According to the Wallace Foundation, there are five core things the principal and other school leaders are responsible for (2013):

  • shaping the vision and mission;
  • managing the instructional program;
  • promoting a climate for learning;
  • managing (people, data, systems) for school improvement; and
  • cultivating leadership and capacity in others.

These responsibilities matter in any school, regardless of the socioeconomic level.

However, in schools that face significant challenges, such as high academic and socioemotional needs of students, student behaviour issues, trauma at home or not being able to attract qualified staff, these leadership functions matter even more.

  • In schools facing the greatest obstacles, a vision and mission that focus and align all the efforts of the school can be the difference between maintaining status quo and positively changing life trajectories for students.
  • If the instructional program isn’t managed well, that affects the quality of teaching and learning, which is the foundation of students’ achievement and pathway to future learning.
  • In schools where the climate is negative and/or unsafe for children and teachers, teaching and learning are sacrificed, along with morale and motivation.
  • If systems, structures, people, resources and the like are not managed well, reactivity, fragmentation and/or chaos become the norm instead of proactivity, coherence and stability.
  • And if no leadership is being cultivated and capacity is not being built, when people leave – and they do, because in our toughest schools, one’s resilience is challenged on a constant basis – schools will go right back to the beginning and have to start their school improvement efforts again.

Without strong leadership, school improvement can be relegated to a hamster wheel—going, going, going, but never progressing. Students at the most disadvantaged schools don’t have time for that.

Developing leaders

So what do we do to ensure more schools serving low socioeconomic communities have the leaders they deserve? In part, the same notion of pressure and support applies – though most school leaders will tell you they get much more pressure than they do support. Of course leaders need to be held to account – after all, children’s lives are in their hands. But they also need support – in the form of coaching, quality professional learning and opportunities to collaborate.

In other words: less bureaucracy and more focus on the real work of leaders as described above.

The reality is, however, there is a significant shortage of candidates for principal positions. In fact, it’s estimated that 70 per cent of Australia’s principals will retire within the next couple of years. To address this, we need to build a pipeline of school principals and assistant principals. That pipeline is created by preparing and empowering emerging leaders before they step into more senior roles.

Teach To Lead specifically focuses on equipping emerging leaders in disadvantaged communities with the skills to transition from classroom-level to school-level leadership. Programs like Teach To Lead help new leaders learn about one’s leadership style, how to best support others and lead the change process. It also provides one-on-one leadership coaching support, which is crucial while early leadership behaviours are being analysed, learned and developed.

Children deserve great teachers… but children in schools with the greatest challenges need and deserve great leaders, too.

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