As a school leader, you make an incredible amount of decisions – both instructional and operational – in a day, a week, a month, a school year, and certainly over an entire career. Why do you do what you do? Do you reflect on what values and beliefs are at your core as a school leader? What knowledge, skills and dispositions do you engage when you make decision? Are you open to modifying or changing those values and beliefs? How about those around you?
In a recent Huffington Post article (Effective Leadership in the Age of Reform), high school principal Eric Sheninger shared some answers in response to the question, What do good principals do? The list was generated by principals attending a leadership institute Mr. Sheninger also attended. What do principals think good principals do? Here’s their list… (Please read Mr. Sheninger’s post to get more detail about each of the qualities.)
- Great communicator
- Difference maker
- Risky, but not too risky (Why did I chuckle at this one?)
- Manage by walking around
- Address problems
- Cares about students and staff
Keynoting at the conference was Dr. James Strong from the College of William and Mary. Dr. Strong presented this researched-based answer to the question, What do good principals do?
- Instructional leadership
- School climate
- Human resource administration
- Organization management
- Communication and community relation
As I thought about the lists, I couldn’t help but ask the question, How would this list have looked 5, 10 or 20 years ago? It seems to me that these are qualities we have always valued in our school leaders, at least since I’ve been around. If we espouse that teaching must change, and students learn differently in the 21st century (largely as a result of technology), how should we lead differently? Surely, we still value many, if not all, of the qualities barnstormed by the practitioners and proposed by research. In the 21st century, should we be expanding our frame of leadership to correspond to the needed changes in teaching and learning? Is it good enough for school leaders to operate from a frame of leadership limited to qualities we valued 20 years ago and beyond? How do these qualities of an exceptional school leader look different today, and do the practitioners’ work and research reflect these differences?
I think not. We as school leaders must define a frame of leadership that reflects the world we live in and the schools we work envision, embracing and emobodying qualities that expand the current frame of school leadership for the 21st century. Here are three from my work with school leaders.
- Engage in immersive learning with digital media. If we are truly to be the instructional leaders, as the research states, we need to do more than just talk about technology or use if for productivity purposes. We need to experience the tools – experience them in rich ways that teachers and students learn with them, in and out of school. This is a great opportunity to demonstrate that we are the chief learner in our setting.
- Reframe your ideas about learning. Do we lead from an instructionist, “old school” model of learning or one that is more in line with what we know about learning based on fresh research and the learning sciences? Do we understand the latest research from the learning sciences, or is our mindset about learning dated from the era in which we went to school?
- Be a change agent. Does our vision for education and schooling tinker around the edges, or is it bold and transformative. I love the definition of “change agent” found in School Leadership That Works: “Being willing to challenge school practices that have been in place for a long time and promoting the value of working at the edge of one’s competence.” How often do you feel you are working at the edge of your competence?
In my experience, the majority of school leaders operate from a mindset that is deeply rooted in the past. In fact, our leadership certification programs and advanced degree programs are embarrassingly behind the times! While many of the qualities outlined above should still be valued, we must begin to clearly identify a frame of school leadership that is right for 2011 and beyond. I would argue the qualities outlined above – from practitioners and researchers – are simply not enough.
Using your own experience as a school or district leader, what pieces would you add to a redefined frame of school leadership for the 21st century?
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