Jun 24, 2011

Excellent Leaders Build Excellent Schools (And Other Pablum)

Teacher Jill Whitescarver recently moved to Oregon, where she is tutoring children in reading. She previously taught in public schools in Ohio, Virginia and Idaho. She has taught kindergartners, first- and second-grade students.

Oftentimes, we forget the power and importance of a good school leader. And that's a shame. The quality of a school's principal is just as critical as teacher quality.

A principal has the power to shape the school's learning community, steer its instructional direction, affect teacher attitudes, set expectations, make hiring decisions, manage the professional development, and boost parental engagement.
Given that list, it's pretty clear principals are critical to a school's success. But, sadly, not all schools are staffed with top talent.

One area where principals must improve is in pointing out when teachers are not meeting expectations. I have worked in schools with great and not so great principals. The great principals had vision and knew how to bring about crucial school improvements, challenge and inspire teachers, and draw parent and community support. They understood instruction at every developmental level and had a vision and plan for positive change. The good principals were well read and understood best practices. They listened and addressed parents' concerns while also supporting teachers.

The not so great principals supported the status quo. They did not regularly work to observe teachers in the classroom or help them improve. Some did a poor job of listening to parents, and left teachers to fend for themselves when they needed support.

The worst principal I ever worked with hardly ever visited my classroom. She really didn't know what she was looking for instructionally, so whatever was happening was good enough as long as kids behaved and looked busy.

The best principal I worked with was the opposite. She had high expectations, and if you weren't meeting them, you knew it and were going to immediately work to fix it. When she visited my classroom, she knew what she was looking for and knew how to convey that. She talked to the children to ask them what they were doing and why. She wasn't just looking on the surface for a "nice-looking classroom"; she wanted to see purposeful learning occurring.

Teachers who welcome challenge and believe in students' ability to learn seek out principals who share that perspective. On the flip side, teachers who avoid challenges seek out principals who don't expect too much from them. This is one reason why schools can vary so much in quality.

Within every school district I have been a part of, there have been great schools and poor schools within the same district. It has appeared to me that some of the schools in communities with a lot of parent support and funding are assigned some of the best school leaders. I am confused by this practice. Shouldn't the schools with the greatest challenges get excellent leaders to help improve them? After all, it is without question that the quality of leadership guides every school's success. Other than fighting for outstanding teachers, we should be fighting for strong and effective leaders in every public school to bring about the change we need.

The views presented on our guest blogs are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of StudentsFirst. We thank all of our guest bloggers for their thoughtful perspectives.

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