The Challenge of Transforming Principal Leadership

I have the great privilege to work with incredibly dedicated school administrators across the country on a regular basis. In this work, I witnessed first-hand the sometime Herculean effort it takes to do the job well. Mike Copland, in his article in the Kappan, talks about how the number of duties assigned to a principal can exceed the ridiculous. “Expectations for the principalship have steadily expanded since the reforms of the early 1980s, always adding to, and never subtracting from, the job description.”

Needless to say, the principal’s job in many schools is incredibly difficult. In fact, it isn’t just one job, but several jobs that include:

  • Facilities manager
  • Human resources manager
  • Security manager
  • Disciplinarian
  • Budget manager
  • Fundraiser
  • Complaint manager
  • Parent liaison
  • Community builder

In addition to all of these important, and time consuming duties (as well as all of the other fires they have to put out on a daily basis), principals are supposed to find the time to attend to their most essential role, that of instructional leader. Although every principal I have worked with wants to be a successful instructional leader, many of them struggle to find the time, or are not sure of the most effective way to approach this work.

So what does it take to be an effective instructional leader in a school today? Our Project RED research identifies the importance of the principal as a change agent, which is critical to creating a sustainable 1:1 implementation that can raise student achievement. Through our work and research we have found that principals often need guidance as a lead learner in the following key areas.

  1. Vision and goal setting

Defining and building a clear picture of what personalized and technology transformed learning looks like.

  1. Generating, collecting and using meaningful data

Finding digital systems that will generate and dashboard student formative and summative data, and then developing a systemic way to use this data in decision-making with teachers.

  1. Understanding motivation

Understanding the rational and emotional aspects of human motivation is critical to changing school culture. A good understanding of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is also essential to helping people achieve the desired outcomes.

  1. Student-centered pedagogy

Including student voice and choice in their learning process is an important first step in personalizing learning and maximizing each student’s potential. This can be accomplished in highly effective ways through the proper integration of technology.

  1. Engaging parents in meaningful ways

Schools traditionally engage parents and community through one way communications. With an effective learning management system and the appropriate digital content parents can be meaningfully involved in their child’s learning process.

  1. Engaging the community in meaningful ways

Every community has a wealth of intellectual capital. Schools can tap into the expertise of community members to enrich the learning for students in a number of interesting ways using technology.

  1. Creating a system of continuous improvement

Some type of professional learning community for each teacher, with clear goals, experimentation, data collection and analysis is essential to improving learning in the classroom and raising student achievement. When effectively integrating a digital learning platform, best practices can be shared, and principals can efficiently look at data and trends in his/her building.

With the myriad duties and distractions a principal faces on a daily basis we have found two support structures to be of the most value to them. First, just as the teachers need to participate in some form of professional learning community, principals also need to take part in their own continuous learning/improvement cycle. This can take many forms, but unless regularly scheduled and ongoing time is set aside to focus on their learning and analyzing data around their efforts, principals rarely improve their leadership practices in ways that lead to higher student achievement.

Second, principals benefit greatly from the guidance of a mentor. In our work we set up a monthly virtual meeting between the principal and an OTO Leadership Consultant. These consultants have led 1:1 programs, and have walked in the shoes of the principals, which helps build a trusting relationship with the principal. Their role is customized and is guided by goals that are developed by the principal in collaboration with the Leadership Consultant. Our principals state that the biggest benefit of the mentorship program is knowing they have an experienced ally they can turn to as they face difficult challenges during the change process.

Raising student achievement is not easy. There is a growing body of research, however, about what works and what doesn’t work. Knowing what to do is just part of the equation. Every school has unique challenges (and many similar ones), but I believe that if the principal can become an effective change agent and instructional leader, student achievement will steadily improvement.

Michael Gielniak, Ph.D.
Chief Operating Officer
One-to-One Institute

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