To try to articulate exactly what makes a great leader is a complicated, if not an impossible task. From my experience, the job of a leader, and especially of a principal, consists of countless priorities, fires to put out, and an endless juggling act of various stakeholders. Even with that in mind, thinking back on my previous leaders, both effective and ineffective, I believe that a few primary skills can be focused on to separate the best from the worst. An effective leader focuses on improving staff morale, modeling comfortable failure, and ensuring the leadership team is coherent.
The most important role of a principal is to ensure that the school is a community working together. Our current model is crushing our teachers. Cox, Chambers, Parmer, Jackson, Dial, Strizek, Wang, and Kaiser (2017) found that 17% of teachers leave the profession in the first five years (p. A-7). Between social pressures against Common Core Standards (CCS), Value Added Model (VAM), and contention of districts and teacher unions, the stress on teachers is almost palpable. As a principal, it is critical that we make every effort to ensure our teachers feel appreciated (Senchel, Sober, & Hope, 2016) for the hours they put into the essential work of teaching students. I spent two years at a school where the principal did not have this priority, who believed that teachers were satisfied despite what they shared with me and others on leadership. During that time, the school saw increased turnover, including veteran teachers leaving for other opportunities or retiring earlier than planned. In my current role, I work with a principal who prioritizes staff morale. Our leadership team is encouraged to thank our staff for their hard work regularly. In addition, the leadership team does staff events whenever possible, including Pancake Fridays. The first Friday of each month, a group of the leadership team cooks pancakes for the school staff. As a result of these various efforts, the staff morale has greatly increased in the school. During the previous two years, we started the year with 40 or more new teachers, filling the positions of those teachers who left voluntarily. Based on our recently received intent to return forms, we are only anticipating four teachers leaving voluntarily.
After staff morale has improved, a leader can focus on the second most important job of increasing the instructional capacity of the teachers. According to Fullen (2014), a principal can’t sustainably be the instructional leader for the staff. A great leader can model the necessary mindset to allow for innovation and experimentation in the classroom. To accomplish this, a leader must be willing to make decisions and more importantly, willing to admit when that decision was not the right one. People learn from failure, by making mistakes and not making them again. As a leader, we can be the example of comfortable failure in our schools. This is accomplished through trying new ideas, reflecting on the results, and admitting when the results are not what we hoped. When you model this for teachers, they feel more comfortable to do the same in their classroom, which in-turn makes students more comfortable to make mistakes as well. In this way, we can indirectly impact student learning.
A principal cannot be everywhere at once, and so they need to build and cultivate a team that can carry out the work of supporting teachers and their priorities. The most important part of this process, Lencioni explains (2002), is building your team up to be comfortable with conflict. At my previous school, the principal was unwilling to address members of the leadership team when they did not meet goals or complete assigned tasks. As a result, productivity of the leadership team decreased, staff stress increased, and dissatisfaction of many of the leadership team members increased. This was the biggest reason that I left that school and came to work for my current principal. He tasked the leadership team with reading The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, and has since used that book as a basis for leading the team in tough conversations. As a result of his modeling, team members are more comfortable addressing each other when work goes uncompleted, or when team norms are not followed. The result has been increased productivity and accomplishment of goals.
My greatest strength as a leader is building trust and improving staff morale on a campus. I am well practiced at planning and launching community building activities and programs at a school. At my last school, I created a series of staff shout-outs that could be completed by anyone for anyone and encouraged the leadership team to fill them out for teachers on campus. Most teachers who received them hung them up in their classrooms on display and viewed them with pride. I also managed a monthly after school team building meetup that consisted of a random selection of teachers in order to get teachers who did not normally interact with each other to build relationships.
I am also an expert in integrating instructional technology into the classroom. I have launched Digital Curriculum at two different schools successfully. I this role, I focus specifically on dynamic Professional Development and blended learning. This maximizes the impact of the development while minimizing the time constraints on our staff. These strategies apply to all initiatives and rollouts as well.
I know that my biggest struggle as a leader will be follow-through of my ideas. I have ideas that I am confident will be successful and lead to student learning improvements, and I will often delegate parts of the tasks to others. Where I fall short is making sure that I complete the ideas to fruition and completion, not just until I lose interest or the task is forgotten. An example of this is working with my Student Tech Support students. I created an engaging project centered around Minecraft that required peer communication, use of online discussion board, and digital citizenship skills. It was to culminate in students creating a screen capture video of their creation and sharing it via social media. We ran into an issue with the screen capture software, and so the project never got completed. This is clearly an area of need of improvement for me. One way in which I will help support this weakness is in building a team of leaders around me that are empowered to call me to task when necessary. In addition, I will continue to research this specific area of leadership and use other experts leaders to provide mentorship in completing the tasks I set for myself.
Cox, S., Chambers, L., Parmer, R., Jackson, B., Dial, S., Strizek, G., Wang, Y., and Kaiser, A. (2017). Documentation for the First Through Fifth Waves of the 2007–08 Beginning Teacher Longitudinal Study (NCES 2017-355). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, Retrieved [2/9/2019] from http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch.
Fullan, M. (2014). The Principal: Three Keys to Maximizing Impact. (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Lencioni, P. (2002). The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Senechal, J., Sober, T., & Hope, S. (2016). Understanding Teacher Morale (Rep.). Richmond, VA: VCU MERC Publications.