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February 1, 2008
Vol. 65
No. 5

The Principal Connection / What Do We Believe?

Research reinforces what those of us who practice the craft of principalship know by instinct: Leadership directly affects students' achievement. Superintendents evaluate a principal's performance by their perception of that principal's ability to lead. Teachers recognize good leadership, parents expect it, and, above all, students deserve it.
As much as we agree about the importance of leadership, however, how we translate that commitment into our understanding and behavior differs from school to school and district to district. What school leadership actually looks like is elusive.

Looking Beyond the List

Both practitioners and policymakers hold up key behaviors as representative of school leadership, and principals work diligently to perfect these behaviors: to compose a noble-sounding school mission statement, manage the building effectively, establish relationships within and outside the school community, and so on down the list. The assumption behind this list is that powerful leadership is identified by specific actionsthe principal performs.
Individual strategies that principals implement, however, must be understood in a broader context of leadership. To achieve deep, sustained improvement in our schools, we must look beyond a checklist of things good principals do. The underlying beliefs that principals hold about teachers and learning determine the efficacy of their actions. At the heart of effective learning is a principal who holds a pervasive belief that all students truly can learn and whose zeal for learning is palpable. To embody this belief is more difficult than "doing things."
  • Seize times for reflection, such as while driving in a quiet car or while sleepless (instead of counting sheep). The saying "the unexamined life is not worth living" is as true for principals as it was for the Greek philosophers.
  • Network with other practitioners. Blogs, chat rooms, and e-mail can connect us without formal meetings. A quick lunch to brainstorm with a colleague often offers insights not discovered in isolation.
  • Take risks! Few great leaders have played it safe. Let teachers know you are venturing into new territory. It encourages them to do likewise.
  • Articulate publicly that which is important to you. Highlight it in bulletins and faculty meetings and make it the heart of every evaluation conference.

Essential Areas of Belief

  • What is our work? Writing a vision statement to hang in the hall or deciphering what the superintendent wants us to do differs dramatically from discovering the passion that resides deeply in our hearts and minds. It must be about kids.
  • Does our school's culture reflect this passion? Does "the way we do things around here" reflect our beliefs about kids, teaching, and caring? Learning finds a hostile home in a toxic culture.
  • Have we found a context for psychometric data? Currently, test scores often substitute for learning, and the obsession with upgrading test scores defines leadership. It is outrageous that so many hold in high esteem only that which can be measured. We must keep in mind the famous words of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's little prince—"That which is essential is invisible to the eye"—and articulate this truth as often as we say "test scores."
  • Is our leadership embedded in relationships?Principals are effective not because of positional power, but because of the synergy that flows from positive relationships between the principal and teachers—and among the teachers themselves.
  • Are "teachers as professionals" and "teacher leadership" more than buzzwords?Leaders must clearly express—and back up—the expectation that adult learning is crucial to professionalism. And as they show increased acceptance of teachers in leadership roles, principals must trust teachers' decisions, even when they diverge from the principal's preferences.
  • Is the principal the head learner? We, too, must tear ourselves away from the paper, e-mail, phone calls, and meetings that jam our days to participate in meaningful professional development, lest we, too, keep relying on information learned for and in a different era.
It would be easier if effective leadership were simply a skill set to be learned at a morning meeting or assessed through improved test scores. Truly effective leadership demands much more. It insists on a thoughtful examination of who we are as human beings, professionals, and leaders.

Joanne Rooney has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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