Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Question of Leadership

We’re 19 days into the 2010-2011 school year and the question of leadership has been at the forefront of my mind for quite some time. What kind of leadership do we need to create thriving schools in 2010? What does it look like? How does it affect school climate, and most importantly how does it positively affect student learning?

With the upcoming release of the documentary “Waiting For Superman” receiving much attention and condemning public school education I wanted look at what it takes to create successful schools! After all, there are schools trying to get it right.

The challenges we’re facing at my school are to maintain a culture of achievement with a greatly increased student enrollment, successfully assimilate new colleagues into already cohesive and collaborative grade level teams, and continue the synergy that prevailed in our inaugural year. I believe these challenges, or some form of them, is common to all schools.

Too often we lay the total leadership burden on the person at the head of the organization. After taking a hard look at leadership we may need to rethink our notions, change our perceptions, and perhaps the way we do business. Here are three leadership principles I’ve found necessary in creating great 21st century schools.

1. Great leaders clearly define and disseminate a mission statement.

Too often I think schools lose focus on what they are about, and when that happens teachers are driving down different highways headed for different destinations. Staying focused on the school mission statement keeps us all traveling down the same road together. Michael McKinney blogged about the principles of outstanding leadership quoting the report published in January 2010 by The Work Foundation, a British think-tank. His post is What Kind of Leadership Will Work in 2010? The report identified three things great leaders do.

Outstanding leaders work systematically connecting the parts by a guiding sense of purpose, see people as the route to performance, and act consistently to achieve excellence through their interactions. At my school, our mission is, “…in collaboration with our families and community, will prepare students for their future by implementing Problem Based Learning and authentic, real-world experiences. By providing them with rigorous and relevant academic opportunities, we ensure that students will excel as critical and creative thinkers while becoming responsible citizens who will thrive in a changing world.”

We believe in problem based methodology supported by our business partner, the Center of Excellence for Research, Teaching and Learning. It’s revisited often as we plan for instruction, and that keeps us “on mission.”

2. Great leaders create a culture of “can do.”

A year ago our faculty came into a brand new building with technology-rich classrooms, and most had little experience using any of it. One year later, the faculty here uses daily their technology, asks to learn more, and are thinking of new ways to integrate their tools. They see the potential power in using them. They were given the support and autonomy to learn these tools at their own pace and with greater depth. A colleague who provides training to teachers in schools all over North Carolina and did much of our interactive white board training made the comments that on our faculty nobody made excuses, nobody said, “This is too hard.” They worked within a culture of “can do,” and were supported by administration who saw the need and value in building those capacities. Our faculty often hears from our principal the phrase, “You don’t realize your own greatness,” and in turn they believe in themselves and in bettering themselves as educators.

3. Great leaders empower educators through shared leadership, and foster a community where educators are seen as professionals.

This comes straight from Learning From Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning, a study published in July by University of Minnesota Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement, the University of Toronto, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and commissioned by The Wallace Foundation. The study looked at the link between school leadership and improved student learning. The study concluded, “When principals and teachers share leadership, teachers’ working relationships with one another are stronger and student achievement is higher. Where teachers feel attached to a professional community, they are more likely to use instructional practices that are linked to student learning.” PLCs (Professional Learning Communities) and LTMs (Learning team Meetings) are in vogue in education right now, but if teachers don’t feel shared leadership and that they are equal stake holders in the process is it time well spent? The Learning from Leadership study also concluded, “Principals who are closest to the classroom are most effective when they see themselves working collaboratively toward clear common goals...” Administrators need to be fully invested in the PLC/LTM process. At my school, these weekly meetings, totally focused on instruction, provides time for the principal to interact with the faculty in a scholarly fashion.

The question of school leadership is a slippery slope as education reform gets driven by competition for funding and through the encouragement of innovation. It leaves wide open the opportunity for school leaders to implement a myriad of programs in the name of reform. What we need to realize is we all have a stake in the education of our children. Leadership in schools really is about finding a way to stay on mission and create a positive, professional, and collaborative culture. That culture is all-inclusive, and leadership matters at every level.

Sam Walker is the Technology Facilitator at Kimmel Farm Elementary in Winston-Salem, NC and the 2010 NCTIES Outstanding Teacher/Instructional Technology Specialist of the Year

Photo courtesy lumaxart's photostream via Flickr under a Creative Commons Share alike2.0 License

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