Tag Archives: school leadership

Cultivating great teacher leaders, and ultimately, great teammates

I really love the fact that there are so many analogies between the world of sports and school leadership.  Frankly, if it weren’t for my experiences as an athlete, I think it is highly unlikely that I would have developed the necessary leadership qualities to serve schools in that capacity.  Every sports team has goals, like winning a championship, having a better win/loss percentage, giving time back to community organizations, etc.  And let’s face it, teammates have individual goals that are directly related to their individual strengths which then end up being mutually beneficial.

When I was preparing to be a school leader, despite course work and common sense telling me so, I never fully realized how important cultivating great teacher leaders (and ultimately great teammates) would be.

I have a real blessing to spend time in my role as a student teacher supervisor in the school where I was formally a principal.  I’ve seen accomplishments of teachers becoming formal and informal leaders in the building, and I can see where the leadership team I was proud to serve for a while helped to build capacity in these individuals to accomplish personal/professional goals for themselves or accomplish something larger for the school.

Here are some examples:

– Two faculty members I know of who are currently pursuing doctoral work

– Two faculty members I know of who’ve become department chairpersons, bringing a new set of talent to their positions and to the leadership team of the school.

– One faculty member who has become an informal technology guru, helping faculty and staff when she can.  She was a first year teacher only about 5 years ago.

So the big question is how did this happen?  I think there are ways that formal leaders, as they build relationships and trust can see where the interests, talents, and passion intersect for the betterment of themselves and ultimately, the students.  As a school leader, I found that I was most successful when I personally invited someone to be part of or lead a team that was tackling a problem directly related to their interests, talents and passion.  This isn’t the way to accomplish every task or problem in a school, but when people are specifically and intentionally invited to contribute in this way, it builds their capacity, which helps to strengthen the relationship, which positively impacts their ability to be great teacher leaders and great teammates.

Isn’t this what great sports coaches do as well?


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Being a Student Driven Principal

The suggestion of a blog post this week through the #SAVMP group has an awesome title!  We all have our strengths and weaknesses as school leaders, but when I was blessed to do that work, I felt this was something I always tried to keep in mind AND demonstrate each day.  It’s important to note that I believe everyone who is an educator (by my definition anyone working in learning institutions at various different roles who impact learning of students) has a desire to see each student learn.  Sometimes, we all have to be reminded, though, including me.  I didn’t expect during my time preparing as a principal how easy it would be to forget to be mindful of being student driven in all decisions, when sometimes getting overwhelmed by the day to day happenings as a brand new administrator.  However, as I reflected regularly on my practice, I continued to come back to the idea that as a school leader, it is vital to be the example of being “student driven.”  Below is a list of some of the ways I tried to do this in various venues.

1. Observations of student learning – that title is intentional.  We often say “observations of teaching.”  But really, student learning, driven by the facilitiation of a lesson, should be the focus.  In a post-observation conference, whether it be with new or experienced teachers, I ask how they know that the students learned what they needed to learn and how the students demonstrated that to the teacher.  Also, during the observation, I ask students who may appear to be less engaged what they are learning.

2. Interacting with students in common areas – A step beyond just being visible: Talking to students in hallways, cafeterias, extra curricular activities, community events, etc. This helps you get to know them beyond the classroom student, but even more so, it sets an example for a culture of appropriate interaction between education professionals and students outside of the classroom area.

3. Instructive discipine procedures – beyond punishment: It’s important for students to feel the consequences of their behavior; it’s how they learn the difference between good choices and not-so-good choices.  However, there needs to be instruction (this is where the admin who love to teach still get to do so) to help the students know how to make better choices the next time.

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Communication Essentials

Although it was only about 12-14 years ago that I was taking coursework to prepare to be a principal, the methods of communication were really limited compared to now, so it was more simple to talk about which medium was appropriate for which type of communication.

1) Most of the information – mailings, newletters, etc.  It was “innovative” then for teachers and administrators to create “Good News” only newletters and press releases, on paper of course.

2) phone calls…. lots and lots of phone calls.

3) emails, only occasionally, for in-house communication or with a couple tech-savvy parents who communicated that way.

I definitely was NOT prepared back then for the different levels of communication and the much more complex decision-making that needs to take place around what type of communication to use for each task.  School leaders now still need to disseminate crucial information and highlight the positives of the school. We can do that through websites, blogs, wiki’s, facebook pages, twitter accounts, instagram, etc.

Ultimately, though, technology can never replace the relationships we are building, but it certainly enhances them when the right tool is used for the right reason and for the right audience.  When you build a relationship with individuals, a school leader begins to understand the best ways to communicate different types of information to parents and the community.

On a more individual level, if there were a concern about a student, for me, that still comes back to the tried/true method of face-to-face meetings and phone calls.  However, I certainly had one parent in particular whom I can remember only wanted me to email him, because his work took him out of the country so often.  I always honored the requests of my audiences whenever possible.

The bottom line is that with all the  tools at our disposal for communicating with individuals and communities, school leaders need to pick the methods that work for their individuals and communities.  Sometimes this is a trial-and-error process.  However, matching the mode of communication with the audience and task is essential for a school leader.

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Parental Involvement – How do we reach them?

When I was preparing to work as a school leader (back in the early 2000’s), I never could have imagined beyond my wildest dreams that we would be working in between the technological and face-to-face spaces that we are each day with students, parents, employees, and the greater community.  Any of us preparing for this work before a couple years ago have really had to play catch-up in learning quickly about these environments and their intersection.

Let’s face it, though.  Some conversations and news need to be delivered through a phone call or face-to-face conversation (individual students’ academic and emotional progress, for example).  I think, though, there are lots of ways that technology can enhance the relationships with families.  I had a blog as a high school principal where I would highlight academic, athletics and other accomplishments of students periodically.  I know of a local superintendent who uses twitter to also highlight great things about his district, but he also uses it to highlight educational issues that impact the district and the community as a whole.  I’m starting to see lots of districts use twitter as a place to post schedule changes, announcements, highlights, etc.

By utilizing these tools, it can also keep us in touch with what the community members and students are saying…. a window into our customer service, so to speak.  In addition, the school can become a training ground for other adults in the building or community to learn more about these media to have a more accurate understanding of the world our children experience.

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Critical Conversations – Cause No Unnecessary Pain

Many school leaders entered education as idealist teachers, like most everyone else.  Through luck, desire, circumstance, hard work, or likely a combination of those, some have the opportunity to serve their schools as formal leaders of the building.  Along with this awesome opportunity to assist teachers in doing that vital work, the leader has to start to understand how and when it’s necessary to have the “critical conversations” with other professionals.  This can be really challenging, as many school leaders I know (myself included) struggle with conflict and feel uncomfortable when we have to confront our teachers about certain instructional practices or behavior.  During my preparation for being a principal, I don’t recall learning in great detail how to handle these situations.  It’s a real learning-by-doing skill to effectively and humanely confront other professionals.

Discovering a theoretical framework, though, helped me in learning when and how to have these conversations.  Nel Noddings, a wonderful educator and prolific writer on the ethics of care in education once stated that any grown-up, in thinking about a decision related to the education and well-being of a child should ask “Is this necessary?”  as all educators should aim to, “cause no unnecessary pain, separation or helplessness.”  This became a simple litmus test for me as a school leader.  If unnecessary pain, separation or helplessness were happening to any student in my school, then it was my job to have the necessary critical conversation to end that.  Period.


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What’s School For & What Does That Mean for Professional Development

In a powerful TEDx talk, Seth Godin asked “What is school for?”  (Click on this link to view; it’s sure to stretch your mind: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sXpbONjV1Jc).  As I was preparing to be a school leader and even acting in the role my first year or so, I don’t think I recognized how important it was to explore this question as a school entity to make sure that everyone in a building had a pretty clear understanding of it collectively.  Without a collective answer to this question, how can students know what’s expected?  How can faculty and staff help them reach the nebulous and inconsistent target?

Godin points out that “What school is for,” is changing rapidly.  No longer do we need to model schools after factories, because so few students’ paths will take them to work in factories anymore.  No longer is it important to receive or produce “1 size fits all” products (graduates). 

One could certainly argue, perhaps rightfully so, that the reform movement, with the emphasis on standardized testing and school personnel being evaluated primarily on the results, is creating a more incongruous set of experiences for students by enforcing such strict adherence to certain guidelines on one hand and asking teachers to be innovative and project-based on the other hand.

Godin discussed some implications for professional development, as many others of my #SAVMP colleagues have also done in their recent posts.  I agree that it’s vital to help teachers understand the use of technology to enhance lessons and the use of data to inform instruction, in a way that meets the individual teacher’s needs.  No longer relevant is the model of professional development of having “expert” speakers coming into schools as maybe it once was.  As school leaders, having relationships to know what’s needed by the staff members of your building is necessary.  This can take the form of surveying them.  It also takes the form of just being in classrooms and knowing what’s happening and knowing your in-building experts on certain topics who can assist peers with during professional development time.  What’s additionally important is the leader being transparent in knowing what they don’t know, and being willing to share and announce their own growth (and blunders).

One such example of this sticks in my memory, because I’ve had colleagues from my last K-12 position remind me of it from time to time.  Apparently, according to others, this particular PD session was relevant to many people and made a lasting impression.  I had recently dealt with a situation that required some individual attention paid to a particular staff member in reference to working with ELL students.  In the process of talking to students in our ESL program, I discovered a trend of these particular students feeling very disenfranchised and unwanted due to certain actions (probably inadvertent, but still concerning) from multiple staff members and teachers in the building.

In order to address the issue, during a faculty meeting, I shared a story about myself as a teacher, when I had been extremely insensitive to one of my first ever ELL students.  In being willing to be transparent about my own weaknesses and mistakes, I was also able to reach some faculty members who perhaps wouldn’t have heard the message as clearly had I simply told them more tips about working with ELL students.

Transparency and openness in a leader, plus her continued example of professional learning, provide the exemplar for the rest of the teachers, staff and then students.  This helps the personnel of school buildings and communities jointly answer the question, “What’s school for?”


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Management As A Principal

When I was preparing to be a school leader, I had hoped that I would be able to lead in a way that meant I wasn’t like a “manager.”  That word connotes some less than savory images, especially when one hopes to lead organizations in a way that inherently recognizes and supports the leadership within all staff members dependent on specific tasks and overall job.  However, I wasn’t truly expecting the many ways in which I had to balance being a “leader” with being a “manager”.  What I learned over time was that being a good manager complemented collaborative leadership and also allowed teachers to do what they do best with fewer distractions.  Managing my own schedule as a school administrator was a way in which I could attend to management tasks but also work within my own vision framework and be that instructional leader that is so vital.

I can think of one example specifically.  I tried to rarely spend time in my office, even when I was in administrative positions where I had to manage student discipline.  If one lets it happen, it can be very easy to get into a pattern of dealing with discipline 24/7, calling students out of class to the office to talk about discipline infractions.  Fundamentally, I had severe reservations dealing this way with students and their disciplinary infractions.  Most of all, it went against my vision of being proactive, spending time in classrooms with students and teachers.  In managing my time and the discipline referrals, I carried a clipboard.  Every morning (as it was my norm to be in the building by 6am) I would strategically plan my walk through observations for the day to correspond to certain students I also needed to see in reference to a discipline issue.  (*a side note to this would be that this only works with certain kids and certain types of infractions AND the administrator doing this needs to have built the relationships with students and teachers where they understand you will often be present in classrooms).  Students missed less class time when I went to them, which supported my philosophy on keeping students in the classrooms as much as possible and the idea that the learning is paramount to anything else happening in a school.  Also, my (or any administrator’s) presences and visibility automatically helps to prevent issues before they become major problems. 

























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