Defining Success for Education Leaders
This article was originally published to HeathMorrisonSuperintendent.org.
The concept of successful leadership is difficult to define. It varies from industry to industry and person to person. Often, successful leadership is written about in the context of politics or business. However, notions of leadership in these areas can easily support or challenge what leadership looks like in other aspects of society. As I examine leadership with regard to education, mainly through the lens of a superintendent, I see the importance of leading with integrity and core values and creating a community presence for the improvement of student achievement.
Leads with Integrity and Core Values
Successful leaders establish and communicate their visions with clarity. Their vision, defined by a set of core values, serves as the infrastructure for what any educational leader hopes to accomplish. The essence of leadership is the ability to build trust and confidence in the journey from where an organization is versus where it needs to be. A leader, working collaboratively, can create a platform for change, strategy development, goal-setting, and continuous improvement if people believe their motives are what is best for the organization, not the individual leader.
It’s not enough to treat these core values as abstract buzzwords; leaders with integrity will advocate for what they believe in, putting initiatives in place to benefit the academic community. As a superintendent, you are faced with an enormous number of decisions. I would always ask the question: “Is it best for students, teachers, and learning?” This has to be followed up with the question: “Is it best for ALL students?” Too often, students who come to school with less, still get less at school. This allows for learning gaps to continue and institutional practices that actually harm vulnerable children to remain. Leading with integrity and strong core values demand that a leader confront these challenges. The change process is difficult, but leaders have to ensure that they are getting to the “harder yes” than accepting the “easy no” in creating better learning outcomes for all students.
In this regard, education leaders are responsible for more than just ensuring smooth operations; the best leaders in academia support and champion teaching and learning. Doing so requires a thorough understanding of the successes and shortcomings at a given institution. Where are teachers struggling? Could a redistribution of funding allocation positively impact overall performance? What do students want and need from the classroom experience? School leaders must practice active listening to find answers — and solutions — to these questions. Remember that, while it’s important to come into a position with core values, it’s equally important to structure those values around the people and issues that need the most consideration. Leaders must solve problems through fair delegation and attention to detail, as well as an understanding of short- and long-term impacts of change.
Creates a Community
The phrase “it takes a village…” serves as an apt metaphor for the world of education. While a vision based on core values can generate buy-in from the community, it takes more than faith in a leader to initiate positive change. A vision must be shared and valued by the greater community to truly make an impact.
Students and teachers are the heart of the school community, and the best educational leaders are active listeners with these core groups. But leaders cannot overlook another core group — parents. Parents are the first teachers of our students and continue to impact learning long past the 180 days most students are in school. As such, schools must bridge the connection between academics and home life to create a seamless transition for students and enable their success at all hours of the day, whether they’re in math class or doing math homework at the kitchen table.
Being a principal or superintendent can sometimes make leaders feel disconnected from their students. As much as they may want to be in the classroom, other duties pull their attention. That’s why approachability and active listening are so important for school leaders. Creating a safe and supportive school culture can’t be done with a blanket solution; it takes focus, commitment, and intentionality to boost morale and encourage positivity from all sides.
Successful school leaders know that building great public schools means committing to effective engagement with the public. Visibility in a school is vital, but visibility in the community is equally important. Participation in local events, support for businesses, and an understanding of municipality culture humanize leaders in the eyes of the community. This visibility demonstrates care about the community and a willingness to engage with students, teachers, and their families beyond what is required by the job description. It is through this dedication, optimism, and relationship-building that leaders in education can truly shine.