School Leadership Statement

Ryan Gallagher

Leadership Statement

The Path of Effective Leadership

    As I sit down to write this paper, I am faced with a dilemma. Explaining the type of leader I aspire to be may sound like an imitation of some, a critique of others, or worse, the unrealistic ambitions of an idealistic and overenthusiastic grad student. Below I have merely attempted to zero in on a set of characteristics that I have learned from example, read about and appreciated, or simply recalled from somewhere along the path to now. While imitation is proverbially accepted as a form of flattery, true leadership skills cannot be carbon copied from a formula or recipe. They must be honed through a mixture of experience and careful reflection. In this statement I highlight a set of ideals that I believe to be essential elements of leadership; however, I do not intend for this paper to be prescriptive or dogmatic. Duplication of these ideals is not the objective; rather, the true aim is learning how to integrate them within a personal architecture to create a new leader. 

Be Present

    Over the last few years at High Tech High, I have had the opportunity to work with several different teachers. I have also observed many staff members come and go, each having experienced varying degrees of success on our campus. Upon reflecting about what makes up a strong teacher, and what factors contribute to a successful teaching partnership, certain commonalities arose. I settled on the fact that having a strong work ethic is paramount to becoming a successful teacher, and thus it follows naturally, a strong leader. A strong work ethic will naturally inspire others. One of the things I appreciate about working at High Tech is the drive that so many of the teachers and directors have for their jobs. This drive causes them to stay late, come in on the weekends, and put in time at home in order to not just do their job, but to do it well.

    A work ethic is more than simply putting in the clock hours, though as I have stated, that is important.  A genuine work ethic encompasses the willingness to dedicate the necessary energy to the school community.  A school leader makes themselves available to staff, students, and families. The leader attends meetings, participates in presentations of learning (POLs), actively engages in IEPs, and goes to student discipline meetings. This consistent presence sets a strong example for the staff, and it also helps the leader develop and maintain a sense of the needs of the school community.  This also means that you take the time to listen to your staff, hone in on their needs, and celebrate their accomplishments.  Spend time in their classrooms and allow them to talk about their challanges and successes.  This can also take the form of a short email recognizing a staff member, a phone call after noticing that a teacher seems stressed, or postponing a meeting so that you can have lunch with the staff.  In short, being a leader is more than moving through a laundry list of daily tasks.  A true leader demonstrates not only a physical presence, but a genuine presence of mind.

Empowerment Through Delegation

    As a first year teacher, I vividly remember sitting in my first staff meeting. I recall silently pledging that I was never going to talk unless asked a direct question.  At the end of that very meeting, my director told me that I would be responsible for chairing the next meeting. While the duties were minimal, I stressed about it for the week until the next meeting. Of course, the meeting went well, and more importantly, my pledge to remain anonymous was forgotten. From that point on, I knew I was part of the staff. This small moment for me felt empowering.

    Ray Trinidad, the director that year, was a master at empowerment through delegation. Nothing makes a staff member feel more a part of the team than when they are entrusted with a task from their boss. That same year, Ray invited me to be part of the POL study group. Presentations of Learning had been a central part of High Tech High from its inception. In my first year, I was going to help shape the POL vision for our middle school. I was growing more and more invested in the team and began to develop a sense of ownership over the decisions at my school. 

    As a school leader I would aim to cultivate this same sense of belonging and empowerment for my staff. It was a central part of the reason that I felt successful in my first few years at High Tech High. From the leadership standpoint, it also helps take care of some of the countless tasks while simultaneously preventing the leader from falling into the trap of becoming a micromanager. Micromanagement sends the underlying message that "I do not trust you enough to complete your task," whereas, delegation says "I trust you enough to help me with this task."  

Be Supportive But Not Invasive

    I was sitting in a meeting where the topic was how best to support first year teachers. The conversation turned to whether new teachers received enough feedback. A colleague of mine who had taught for several years remarked, “Every time I needed feedback, I asked for it.” A keen director made the observation that that was most likely the reason that teacher experienced so much success in his first year. It is easy to lead these types of individuals. The self-reflective, proactive teacher solicits feedback, making the job of the leader easier. However, many types of personalities exist within a school community, and honest, constructive feedback is critical to their professional growth whether or not they solicit it. For the school leader, this needs to be a top priority.

    Even the shyest teachers, or those who would prefer to fly under the radar, should be encouraged to seek out support as needed. It is often difficult to ask for advice from peers and colleagues. Like our students, no one wants to ask the stupid question. The key for an effective administrator is to create a safe environment to allow for these types of questions. Allowing for smaller groups and individual time that give less dominant personalities the chance to share is one way to accomplish this goal. In this area of leadership, personalization for teachers is key.

    Every teacher needs to feel supported; however, they need not to feel that they are constantly being watched and judged. Classroom observations are an excellent avenue for providing the personalized feedback that is a key component to a teacher’s growth. The effective leader strikes a balance such that he is consistently implementing this practice without being pushy. Classroom observation can be non-judgmental and informal. I like the idea of an administrator offering to assist with a lesson or a project. It is helpful to approach the observation as a colleague offering support rather than as an administrator. Larry Rosenstock often says, “hard on content, soft on people.” Be clear and candid about how effective that teacher is being in his or her class, but be measured and delicate with how that feedback is delivered.

Clear Expectations

    I was sitting with a student after she had completed her POL. The student was unhappy with her grade and I was explaining that she had failed to reflect about the difficulties with her project. The student looked at me and said ‘why didn’t you just ask me?”. Reflecting back, she was right. As a leader it is important that you do not just assume that your staff will meet your expectations. It is important to lay out what you expect from them and follow up when they do or do not meet these expectations. This idea comes in many forms. A leader can ensure that he places importance on extra-curricular projects like study groups. A leader can ask for producibles from teachers and be supportive of their implementation. The idea of personalization again becomes relevant here.  Setting expectations that are specific to each teacher's ability level is paramout for effective leadership. Expectations for a rookie teacher would differ greatly from those for a veteran teacher. Through cooperative discussions, the two parties can create realitic goals that challenge the teachers to improve their craft.

Be a Teacher First and a Leader Second

    Being a teacher first is more than staying connected to the classroom. I have always admired the story of the CEO that started in the mailroom. That CEO has experienced every aspect of her company from the ground up. This breeds an empathy and understanding for the people who work at every level of the company that would be impossible to attain in any other way. An effective administrator is one who can empathize with his teachers. This leader knows what it is like to have 54 ungraded lab reports and grades and student comments due in a few days. Because of their shared experiences, he is able to offer thoughtful and tangible advice to the teachers.  There is also a respect that comes from the teachers in recognition of that shared experience

    Staying connected to the classroom would be a priority for me as a school leader. It is important for a school leader to cultivate positive interactions with kids, particularly when so much of school leadership seems to fall on the side of discipline. This can be achieved by running an advisory period or an elective. Another option would be for the leader to teach a lesson in one of the classrooms. This affords the school leader the opportunity to engage with a class and can offer beginning teachers a model for effective teaching. It also ensures that the leader remains connected to the practice of teaching.

Be a Cheerleader, or At Least Hire One

    School culture is an integral part of a school community. I once had a school leader who looked like he had 13 Red Bulls before the start of each day. Ray was an inspired public speaker.  He rallied kids, staff and parents alike.  The ability not only to inspire but energize a group, is a skill that I still admire to this day. It is difficult to live up to a persona as large as the one described above, and for some of us, it would be a fruitless endeavor. I have learned to entrust others to balance out my profile of strengths and weaknesses. A strong leader can hire a teacher that can be the school cheerleader, so long as he recognizes the need. Surround yourself with a staff that compliments your leadership style. You cannot always be the type of leader that everyone needs, but you can find people that fill that need for others.

The Final Word

    In the end, being a leader is about embracing a lifelong process with a necessary evolution. If I were to write this same essay five years from now, I am sure that it would differ, shaped and remodeled through my experiences. My work as a teacher and advisor, and daily interactions with parents and students, provides invaluable insights into the traits of a strong leader. As I work with new directors each year, I am exposed to the unique styles and techniques that make them effective as leaders. My studies at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education have afforded me the opportunity to reflect on the qualities of effective leadership. The most crucial trait then, is having the flexibility to change and adapt with these experiences.

Ryan Gallagher,
Jun 10, 2010, 2:16 PM
Ryan Gallagher,
Jun 10, 2010, 2:10 PM