Joined: 14 Jul 2011
The Changing Dynamics of School Leadership
By Dr. Jason Creekmore, principal of McCreary County Middle School and member of the Kentucky Association of School Administrators
The wide-ranging concept of leadership is one of the most studied topics in all of academia; however, the more specific issue of educational leadership has gained attention in recent years due to the increased expectations of public schools to improve student achievement. Serving as school principal can be truly fulfilling. Indeed, there are few positions where one has the ability to help so many students each day. Either directly, or indirectly, school principals influence students with every decision that is made. Whether it is purchasing instructional resources, promoting school safety, or simply listening to student concerns, the impact of school principals has never been more prevalent. The principalship has always played a key role in public education; however, the position itself has experienced a fundamental change in recent decades.
From Manager to Leader
In the late 20th century, the duties and expectations of school principals were much more managerial in nature. From creating supervision schedules to assuring the maintenance of the building, principals were primarily responsible for the day to day operations of the school. Simply put, principals concentrated on issues outside the classroom. Inside the classroom was the domain of the teacher, as principals had little involvement in instructional activities.
This paradigm in school structure created two distinct levels of supervision responsibilities; however, this paradigm has experienced a dramatic shift in recent decades. Public education is one of the most evaluated and scrutinized institutions in American society. “Now as never before, the public and all the organs of government are insisting that student academic performance improve – and fast” (Tucker & Codding, 2002, p.16). Indeed it is this increased pressure that has led to a fundamental shift in principal leadership. Although principal leadership is a widely accepted determinant of school improvement, the position and duties of the principal is a relatively new dynamic.
As social institutions go, large public schools organized in political hierarchies are fairly new phenomena. The modern-day school principal is also relatively new. These days, buffeted by political storms, the position is changing rapidly. This may be one reason why we do not have a lot of empirical data describing what the very best of these leaders do (Gray & Streshly, 2008, p. 104).
In order to meet the standards of federal legislation such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, state departments of education have revamped a great deal of their educational infrastructure such as assessment programs and teacher certifications. Some states have even instituted the controversial merit pay system, whereby public educators’ salaries are based on the performance of their students. Regardless of the approach, the pressure for schools to improve student achievement has never been higher and no single position experiences more of this pressure than the principal.
Principals are now viewed as the primary instructional leader of the school and are held ultimately responsible for student achievement. While teachers remain the primary determinate of student success, it is the principal who is primarily responsible if this success does not occur. This shift in accountability has forced a change in principal leadership strategies. Simple organizational management has given way to continual data-analysis, professional development and academic content knowledge.
Practices of Successful Principals
Although compiling an exhaustive list of principal practices would be impossible, scholars and practitioners do agree on several activities that are most beneficial when leading a school.
Vision – Establishing a clear vision is perhaps the most important responsibility of leadership. Identifying measurable goals and the strategies used to reach these goals are essential for success.
Hiring Practices – Although the following statement is obvious, its importance cannot be overlooked. Hire the best teachers. It’s like educational magic, when good teachers are placed in classrooms, students learn and test scores rise. Before hiring potential employees, principals should conduct a thorough background check and make personnel decisions based on what is best for the school and nothing else.
Motivation of Staff and Students - Countless studies prove that people respond to different types of motivation in different ways, but everyone responds. A successful principal will determine what makes her tick. For some individuals offering comments of praise, or presenting them with a challenge can increase their intrinsic motivation, while others are motivated by more extrinsic factors such as rewards. Regardless of the method of motivation, successful principals must be adept at bringing out the best in people.
Clear Communication – People want to know what is expected of them. They want clearly defined procedures, as well as someone who will listen when problems arises. Often times schools leaders focus more on the speaking/delivery aspect of communication rather than listening. You have two ears and one mouth for a reason; use them proportionately.
Implement Meaningful Professional Development – Passionate teachers desire to improve their content knowledge, and instructional skills. When scheduling professional development, stay aware for the cookie cutter mentality. Instead, implement content specific trainings as a means to keep teachers engaged.
On-going Data Analysis- To some degree, running a school is much like running a business. As instructional leader, the principal must keep a pulse on all aspects of the school including: academic performance, finance, safety, personnel issues, etc. Successful principals develop a very systemic approach to monitoring these issues within the building. Only through continuous assessment and monitoring of these areas can principals truly make data-driven decisions.
Now more than ever, schools require the leadership of dynamic individuals with a unique set of abilities. As today’s principals adjust to the changing expectations of the position, the on-going examination of successful practices is necessary.
Gray, S., & Streshly, W. (2008). From good schools to great schools: What their principals do
well. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Tucker, M., & Codding, J. (2002). The principal challenge: Leading and managing schools in
an era of accountability. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.