The Path of Effective Leadership
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.