Studies have proven that school leadership makes a strong impact on several important educational factors, including teacher effectiveness. The Wallace Foundation’s landmark research on the effects of leadership on student learning, for instance, found that not only did leadership matter, but it was second only to teacher effectiveness in the factors that affected learning. In fact, the Hechinger Report said the differentiator between a failing educational environment and a successful one may lie in school leadership.
High-quality school leadership multiplies effective teaching methods, improves struggling schools and helps retain the best teachers. It reaches beyond the formal structures of authority within a school, and it can include parents, civil servants, elected leaders and engaged community members, among many others. The interconnectedness of modern life creates multiple opportunities for school involvement at an influential level by all kinds of stakeholders.
What Is School Leadership, and Why is it Important?
Leadership expert John C. Maxwell famously said, “Everything rises and falls on leadership,” but what does that look like in schools? Most experts believe that a strong definition of school leadership encompasses more than the person who sits in the chair marked “principal.” Rather, effective outcomes emerge from leaders who build flourishing work environments for students and teachers.
School leaders are educational professionals who influence or manage people, learning or organizational units within a school. These professionals may serve as teacher leaders, instructional coordinators, principals or executive directors. In charter schools or private schools, their roles may include fundraising, marketing, board relations and facility management along with traditional school leadership responsibilities.
The central school leader is the principal. A principal’s most immediate impact falls on the executive staff. Vice principals, counselors, office workers, instructional coordinators and even parent-teacher organization presidents feel the direct impact of this senior leader’s decisions. The faculty members experience the second level of impact. These professionals work in a direct-service position and have the greatest direct impact on the students. Finally, school leaders at all levels impact the families and communities they serve. The Hechinger Report emphasized the importance of superintendents and district leaders in particular, saying these leaders set the tone and direction for the principals, which then trickles down to the teachers and students.
Often, the best leaders work in teams. According to research from the Gates Foundation, strong school leadership teams create four conditions for success. Those conditions are:
- They equip teachers to work together for improvement rather than evaluation, which helps educators to coach each other and boosts morale.
- Strong leadership teams involve teachers at all levels of curriculum and instruction, including textbook selection, instructional techniques and assessments.
- These teams engage families and communities, connecting the day-to-day life of the school with the families and neighborhoods it serves.
- Strong teams create a safe and nurturing learning environment that draws the best efforts from all students.
An editorial in Education Weekly said, “There is now much greater emphasis placed on the complex idea of ‘distributed leadership’ shared by multiple individuals at different levels of the organization . . . (and) school leadership must be viewed as the cumulative activities of a broad set of leaders, both formal and informal, within a school.” This approach reaches beyond equipping teachers to manage and instruct individual students to create a coherent learning focus that engages external environments, shares leadership and acts in the strategic interests of the institution’s future.
How Does School Leadership Impact Educators?
Research indicates strong education leadership teams create more effective teachers but maybe not in the way most people think. An article published in Educational Leadership argued that effective school leaders focus on student learning instead of teacher inspections. In such cases, principals and teachers work together to create powerful, personal learning communities that ask and answer questions about student growth and achievement. These conversations are not traditional staff meetings. Rather, they focus on collaborative worked aimed at improving student performance.
Effective leadership lends to a collaborative and supportive environment, which fosters an engaged and positive workforce. Sadly, though, the most recent Gallup report on the state of schools in the United States indicated there is room for improvement in this area. The 2013 poll showed only 31% of teachers reported feeling engaged in their work.
That same Gallup poll identified strategies school leaders can employ to improve their teams’ performance, such as by identifying the right people to serve as school leaders, focusing on teacher strengths and building a culture of engagement. “Building an engaged school is not an event,” the report stated. “It requires ongoing and intentional effort.” The best leaders commit to building great schools over the long term.
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