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Principal Leadership Tips: Part 2

EducationWorld is pleased to present this article contributed by Steve Hall and Susan K. Green. As a former principal, Hall did award-winning school turnaround work in North Carolina. He is also a national trainer and coach for school leaders. Green is Professor Emerita of Educational Psychology at Winthrop University in South Carolina. She has published articles on classroom assessment and strategies to enhance achievement and motivation.

Daring leadership is required to meet the challenges of today's schools. We define daring leadership as managing external and internal demands so that words and actions remain consonant with our core beliefs. Read about two strategies below that can support principals as they navigate the challenges of guiding and inspiring their staff.

For more strategies, see Part 1 of this article.

Occasional Unilateral Decisions Can Jump-Start Change

Virtually any turnaround school we have led or visited has had to confront the challenge of changing the prevailing beliefs of staff and students. Too often, a well-intentioned principal expends inordinate time and energy launching a frontal assault to change limiting staff beliefs about themselves and their students. We propose that daring leadership frequently requires the selective use of an alternate tactic--what we call “coming in through the back door.”

A principal entering a school mired in low expectations must have the courage to flex the muscles of formal authority in order to change counterproductive behaviors. In spite of the extensive body of literature supporting the development of collaborative decision-making, daring leadership requires knowing how and when to unapologetically leverage a principal’s prerogative. The result of this strategy is often referred to as “early wins,” which can play a critical role in shifting belief through discrete yet significant changes in staff behaviors.  

Our experience bears this out. At one school, for example, initial administrative mandates set two protocols aimed at restoring order. These directives were (1) highly explicit and methodically monitored procedures for supervision of student movement through the halls and (2) a major change in the lunch schedule that dramatically reduced the amount of wait time for students to be served their meals. Both of these changes responded to staff concerns but were developed without their input. The new procedures' impact on school climate was dramatic, though the directives initially resulted in accusations that we were establishing a “prison mentality.”

At another school site, where little quality planning had been taking place previously, an initial “mandate” was issued for online lesson plans, giving real-time access to administration. This policy provoked “Big Brother” accusations. 

In both instances, eventual changes in staff belief and school culture were extensive.  Supervision and order in the hallways, long assumed to be a battle not worth waging, demonstrated how staff functioning as a coherent unit can accomplish large-scale change. This beginning shift in mindset was then leveraged when discussions about rigor were begun. “Big Brother” came to be viewed as a highly skilled instructional leader respected for quality feedback that ultimately led that school to levels near the top of the system. 

The fundamental challenge is for the school principal to anticipate and accept the likelihood of negative initial reaction that might include calls “uptown,” contacting Board members, or even using PTA to press for removal of the new leader. This is a storm worth weathering if the directives have been explicitly connected to the long-range vision of the school. Accordingly, we urge principals to be explicit with their direct supervisors about their initial reliance upon compliance to move belief. Administrators then will be viewed as methodical, adaptive leaders advancing a long-term strategic plan.


Make Today Count

As principals, we begin every school year implementing a variety of sophisticated strategic planning processes and tools. But many of us fail to properly prioritize the importance of the moment. Ironically, the most effective strategy to avoid compromising our vision to the seduction of long-term pressures may be to fully commit to today. 

Years ago, '60s counter-culture icon Ram Dass wrote his seminal work Be Here Now, which we have found holds a counterintuitive key to daring leadership. We've discovered that it's not inconsistent to be fully committed to outcomes while also being fully committed to "right now." In fact, we would argue, suspending our attachment to outcomes by insisting that we and our staff honor the fleeting opportunity of this moment is a necessary strategy to navigate the outcome-based pressures we all face.

Consider how we frame our student goals on summative assessments. Most accountability standards relate to proficiency, but an alternate focus on daily growth is a necessity for meeting long-term standards. School-wide practices that ensure ongoing informal assessment throughout the day--and resulting adjustments in instructional pacing--will translate immediately into heightened regard for the present moment.

But there is no more fundamental way for a principal to promote daily acts of courageous leadership than through the school’s master schedule. We have often seen principals build master schedules around secondary pressures regarding electives, teacher preferences, study halls, recess and athletics. The schedule is reduced to a jigsaw of compromises involving equally important pieces, rather than the opportunity to assert commitment to the school's core mission. 

When secondary pressures are seen through the lens of your core beliefs, the courageous principal will allocate instructional time, insisting that staff and students are present to the opportunity of each moment. For us, the master schedule was usually built around daily team planning, because it formed the pedestal for high-functioning, collaborative teams. Everything after that involved compromise for the remaining pieces of the schedule to fit. 

It has often been said that if you want to know what someone values most, look at how s/he spends his/her time. This may well be your greatest point of leverage as a school leader, and we urge you to pay the opportunity of every moment the profound respect it deserves.

For more principal leadership strategies, see Part 1 of this article.



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