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Leading by Example: Six Traits of Effective School Leaders

Why are some schools more functional than others? There are certainly any number of reasons behind why schools are either admired or dismissed, and looking for the root cause in either case is a complex process. When we try to analyze why some institutions struggle more than their counterparts that are comparable in so many ways, the focus usually remains on teacher quality and on student performance. Because of that, we overlook the role of school leaders in the equation of a functional school, both in terms of climate and measurable results. At the end of the day, school leaders are responsible for ensuring the effectiveness of school operations and instruction: in other words, they represent the bottom line. What makes some leaders more adept? While many qualities might come to mind, six traits in particular define stronger leaders who empower everyone in the building to keep striving for greatness.

They Listen

There is such a huge difference between hearing and listening. Truth be told, listening is a skill, one that can become more elusive as we get older and more entrenched in our opinions. If school leaders want to gain the respect of their staff, it is so important to pause and listen more to what people are either saying straight out or to what they might be implying, which is often more telling. By sitting back and focusing on the words and ideas of others, we learn more about how we want to lead regardless of whether we agree with someone or not. In fact, hearing dissenting voices is more illuminating than surrounding ourselves with so-called “yes” people. One way to work on listening is to remind ourselves, either mentally or in writing (I use a small Post-it for this) to stop talking. Then, we can really begin to think about valuing perspectives outside our own, which is invaluable in the true leadership of a school.

They Collaborate

We love telling kids about teamwork and how important it is, but we often forget to practice as we preach. A leader who works alone or who does not delegate according to the strengths of staff members cannot be successful in the long term. Instead of hiring people who are just like us, or doing tasks ourselves because we feel we can do it better or faster, open up more to the possibility of elevating others through working together. The collaborative process is likely to be messy at first, but with time, school teams will begin to function smoothly. Even more important, letting others participate in moving toward joint goals gives leaders more time to focus on student achievement and has the added benefit of inspiring everyone with a shared purpose.

They Were (or Are) Teachers

Years ago, an assistant principal observed my class. When she left, her only comment was that my window blinds were not pulled down at equal length. At that moment, I stopped caring about what she thought. Teachers are suspicious of administrators who spent a brief period of time in the classroom, or who only saw teaching as a means to moving up the career ladder. Can we trust a leader who does not understand what teaching really entails? If we lead others, we need to have at least some degree of empathy for what they are experiencing. Instruction is a complicated area that requires vast knowledge, and leaders regularly observe teaching and learning with the expectation of being able to offer insight and coaching. If leaders cannot provide that meaningful feedback, they not only lose respect; the quality of the school suffers. Taking it one step further, remaining in the classroom (if possible) can enrich a school leader’s influence immeasurably, as these experiences detail. If school leaders do not have a lot of teaching experience, approaching that reality with humility and a learning lens is vital. Sitting in classrooms, learning from master teachers and asking questions can help to bridge gaps with instructional experience.

They Have Clear, Transparent Goals

The phrase “need to know basis” is highly subjective and often damaging in a school. How many times do we feel as though our voices are not valued? Nobody wants to be the last to know what’s going on, but teachers often feel left out of the information loop. Wherever possible, share the target of school goals openly, often, and clearly. Then, ask for help from everyone in achieving the desired state of the school and follow through on including people from a variety of job roles in the building. In addition, it helps to provide information to the staff not just verbally, but in multiple modalities through regular communication. If a teacher walking down the hallway is asked about the school’s primary instructional focus and cannot answer the question, the leadership team has not done its job. It’s as simple as that!

They Don’t Monopolize Attention

Every now and then, we work for self-involved leaders who expect us to flatter them and treat them like royalty. Narcissism is real. Everyone has at one time or another worked for a leader who makes it all about them, and they do not inspire anyone to go beyond what is expected. Even though it can be tempting to soak up the focus we receive when we lead others, avoid the urge to be that center of attention. Instead, using our influence to put others into the spotlight will build the capacity of our staff, increase collegiality, and foster true respect for how we run a school. Isn’t that authenticity so much better than the transient feeling we have when people laugh (or pretend to, anyway) at our jokes and praise us?

They Care

They say fake it until you make it, but that really doesn’t work if you’re a school leader. You have to actually care about the success of your school, from the students to the staff. If leaders don’t care, everyone realizes it pretty quickly. Presumably, we all got into education to help others, and while we may go through periods of burnout or frustration, continuing to emotionally invest in the success of others is a non-negotiable quality in any leader. A great way to make that caring evident is simply to be present: physically, that takes place in the hallways or in classrooms, while mentally it means checking in with students and staff and knowing what is happening on a regular basis down to the minutiae. If we have bad moments, that is normal, but overall, continuing to care is what makes leaders keep striving to help others.

Being a good leader is hard, and it can also be isolating. After all, when the burden of school success rests on someone’s shoulders, that is a significant responsibility to undergo, and it doesn’t help that people are always watching and critiquing. However, approach and mindset matters more than anything else in determining long-range success. Leaders who display the six traits above are already ahead of the game and have a higher likelihood of moving their schools toward meaningful growth from one year to the next. Just as important, they feel good about the work they do because they know they are helping others. Even with the daily challenges of running a school, it is far easier to sleep well at night when we know we have done so much good during the day.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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