Being an effective educational leader requires a complex set of knowledge, skills, and qualities. There is a temptation to think that the principal must know it all, be able to do it all, and be everything to everyone. While this is not possible, the effective educational leader must never stop acquiring knowledge; the principal must use that knowledge with a variety of skills to create the conditions for learning; and the effective educational leader must embody a diverse set of qualities so that his vision is inclusive and attainable. Effective educational leadership starts with a wide-ranging knowledge.
The most important knowledge for an effective educational leader is the insight that he doesn’t know it all. Of course, it is vital that the leader know the best pedagogical practices of a vibrant learning environment such as differentiating instruction, creating hands-on activities, and designing interdisciplinary units that complement state and local standards. When I taught seventh grade social studies, I created a learning environment that was engaging and differentiated. My lessons often allowed for a layered approach or a hands-on style to help all types of learners. My four-teacher team created engaging interdisciplinary units. As an administrator, I have had the opportunity to create a mental catalog of the skills of dozens of fantastic teachers. I also engage in the professional development that we’ve offered to the teachers (e.g. Balanced Literacy, Read Naturally, Differentiating Math Instruction). While pedagogy comes closest to the core of what an educational leader needs to know, there is also much practical knowledge required.
A principal needs to know many aspects of the law as it relates to student records, special education, and student discipline. I have attended trainings and workshops, and I know when to ask the Superintendent and Director of Special Education for advice or review. Only with proper knowledge of budget management, can an educational leader also be the manager that he needs to be. I am very proud of the group effort that has gone into creating and maintaining the budget in the last few years. From starting with a needs-based proposal to creating a fair process for the inevitable reductions, I have managed several budgets that support the core program even in difficult financial times. For the past seven years, I have been the lead disciplinarian with a fair and firm policy. My experiences include handling running in the halls, antics in the cafeteria, bullying, harassment, and more. Of course, a thorough understanding of such areas as the health office, the kitchen, the school bus, the boiler, and the custodian’s closet comes in handy from time to time.
With all of this knowledge comes the realization that even the most veteran principal cannot know everything and must know how to find information and create knowledge. The best source of information is the expertise of the staff in the building. An effective educational leader models lifelong learning by engaging in professional development with and by the teachers. I attend as many of the teacher-taught sessions as I can, including Reader’s Workshop, Read Naturally, and Tips for Teaching Basic Math Skills during the last couple of years. In the last year, I have grown my own Personal Learning Network. I have never met most of my PLN face to face, but we exchange teaching and leading tips and opinions about ideas in education - all online. My PLN has provided some of the best informal professional development I’ve yet encountered. Gaining all of this knowledge is very important; knowing what to do with all the information, a foundation of strong skills, is even more so.
Of the dozens of skills used in any given week by the leader of a middle school there are three main categories that will make that leader more effective: Sound Decision Making; Regular, Two-way Communication; and Fostering Relationships.
An effective educational leader needs to keep two principles in mind while making decisions. First, the process used to make any decision needs to be based on an explicit, usually inclusive, process. It helps to tell the staff exactly what kind of decision the leader is about to make: the principal could be delegating or facilitating or collaborating on a staff driven decision, the principal could be consulting before a decision is reached or testing a preliminary decision, finally, the principal must sometimes directly make a decision with little or no input. This structure of decision making (and associated staff roles) is one that I use with the staff when working on a large decision for the school. I have a chart posted in my office and bring a copy to the Faculty Advisory Committee meetings. I seek to make very few decisions without an explicit, inclusive process.
The second principle of decision making revolves around the appropriate use of data to do what is best for the children. Victoria Bernhardt (Using Data to Improve Student Learning, 2003) writes about using, both individually and at the intersections, “multiple measures of data: demographics, school processes, student learning, and perceptions.” Bernhardt explains that each of the four are vital and that using the intersection of all four types of data will lead to the best decisions. Over the last three years, I have been engaged with the staff in improving our use data for improving student learning. We look closely at MCAS data through Cognos/DESE Data Warehouse, we study our own assessment data, we conduct staff and parent surveys, and we are developing a student survey. I have frequent conversations with teachers about how their classroom observations and experiences with a student compares to the assessment data; we try to dig deeper into why there is a problem. This a change in thinking for many teachers and is slow going. The work on increasing our use of data to make decisions that are best for children has been very rewarding.
Regular, two-way communication with various aspects of the school community is also a very rewarding set of skills for the effective educational leader. Since nature abhors a vacuum, it is the principal’s job to ensure that there is no vacuum when it comes to information about the school. The principal must have a clear vision and must communicate that vision in every way he can as often as possible. I am a firm believer in the idea of an abundance of communication. I write a note in the weekly parent newsletter. The staff receives the Monday Message from me, every Sunday night, with information about the week to come. I make careful use of the Community Outreach module of Connect Ed. I make the rounds of the building to speak with individual staff members or students. I created a staff blog and have started the Principal’s Point of View blog (http://principalspov.blogspot.com) to highlight the great learning at Spofford Pond School and to share my opinions from time to time. The flip side of all this sharing of information is the great skill of listening. Educational leaders must listen to the staff, the students, the parents, and the community. I have adapted the corporate CEO idea of gathering the daily pulse of the business via charts and graphs to fit public school. I listen regularly to the curriculum specialists, the special education coordinator, the counseling staff, the grade-level teams, the special educators, the specialists, the office staff (although right next to me, this is sometimes the hardest meeting to have), the nurse, the head custodian, the district leadership, various parent groups, and the students. While all of this communicating is time intensive, it is vital in its own right and to the relationship building that is part of being an effective education leader.
“It’s All About Relationships.” Gerry, the about-to-retire guidance counselor, said this to me almost every day during my first year as an administrator. Each year since, I understand more what he meant. A principal needs to foster, cultivate, and facilitate relationships among and between himself and each of the constituent groups in the school community. All the listening that a principal does certainly helps to gather data, but it does far more to nurture relationships. My full schedule of listening is explicitly dual purpose. Listening is far from the only way to promote positive relationships. Effective educational leaders must also see teachers and students at work. I strive to reach my ambitious goal of visiting five classrooms every single day (my weekly average is lower than that, but constantly improving). After a boost in visits, one teacher summed up the feeling by telling parents in a meeting that I must know what is going on because I visit her room so often. I have been able to increase trust with parents by describing their child during my last visit. By being in classrooms more, the school community knows that I value the learning and the teachers.
Possessing and communicating a clear vision is possibly the most important quality of an educational leader. Jim Collins wrote in Good to Great (2001) about the hedgehog effect. As the hedgehog curls up into a ball with the singular purpose of escape, the effective educational leader must establish a clear vision and curl up with the singular purpose of making that vision the reality. As the position of principal covers so many domains, I have created a clear vision that covers leadership, community, and learning. Of course, there is great overlap in these three areas. My vision of leadership is: 1. “We do what is best for children,” 2. “It’s all about relationships,” 3. “Process and participation matters in decision making.” My vision of community is based on three words: “Safety, Respect, and Learning.” My vision of learning is straightforward: “All children can learn and be successful.” Each of these vision statements is chock full of ideas and action plans, research and implementation, and trends and traditions. When a principal combines a clear vision with other qualities such as being organized, flexible, calm, outgoing, and fun that leader, can be an effective educational leader.
Combining the qualities, skills, and knowledge needed to be an effective educational leader is a long-term, perpetual process. Every school deserves to have a principal who will be that effective educational leader.