10 Characteristics of Effective School Leaders

Posted by Elizaveta Shkurina on Oct 24, 2018 9:30:00 AM

In the latest study on school management, researchers have identified leadership to be one of the key factors behind successful schools. The study is in line with other research into what makes schools thrive, such as the influential study linking leadership to student learning.

But what makes a great leader in a school? As it turns out, leadership may be broken down into specific qualities that translate into different contexts, in and outside of the education industry. In search of these qualities, Walter Isaacson interviewed Steve Jobs on the foundations of an effective leader. In the Harvard Business Review article, The Real Lessons of Steve Jobs, Jobs identifies ten principles of leadership:

  • Simplify

  • Control the Experience

  • Innovate

  • Ignore Reality

  • Have confidence

  • Rethink design

  • Team with winners

  • Collaborate

  • Vision and details

  • Rebel

In this article, we apply these elements to the ESL school context, so that educators may incorporate these elements into just about any school context. A number of these principles are supported by team leader-centered lessons as described by Stephen Covey, the author of 7 Habits for Highly Effective People, who refers to these as “principle-centered” leadership characteristics. We borrowed Steve Job’s leadership principles and explored them below.

effective school leadership

 1. Simplify for effective leadership

As the saying goes, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." The fundamentals of school leadership are in organization, transparency, and preparation. To bring you closer to those opportunities, Steve Jobs suggests simplifying tasks and ambitions by focusing on their essence. Thus, those goals are bare and easier to focus on, with eliminated unnecessary components that may have created barriers. 

There are a number of ways to simplify your school environment that leads to success: 

  • Break down your goals into simple language that will allow you to clearly communicate with the school team. Once everyone is on the same page, you may work toward the goal as one team.
  • Foster an organizational culture in your school. This means self-modeling behavior, creating expectations, and formally communicating those expectations with your team and students.
  • Complexity comes from a number of processes, hierarchical structures and over analyzing data. Good leaders simplify data, providing feedback, evaluations and progress reports in clear language and presentations.

 2. Control the experience of your students

In schools, things like budgeting, teacher training, and administration have an impact on the experience of students. To be an effective leader, it is important to recognize what aspects of the school are worth a heavier investment and where the resources may be spared. If you mix up the two, the results may be detrimental. Set clear goals, distribute funds in a way that benefit students first, and know the priorities when it comes to your school.

 3. Innovate for problem-solving

Any successful leader is not afraid to takes on challenges. It’s important to view hardships not as an insurmountable burden, but as an opportunity to see more options. If you encounter a problem, presented it as a lesson that has a solution for you and your team. The leader must actively engage his or her team to explore the solutions that will ultimately resolve the problem.

According to another Harvard Business Review article, The 4 Types of Innovation and the Problems They Solve, innovation, at its core, is about solving problems. The author created the “Innovation Matrix” to allow leaders to identify what type of innovation strategy is needed to solve a specific problem:

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  1. Sustaining innovation - getting better at what you are already doing, improving at the existing practices in the industry. Conventional strategies, such as roadmapping, traditional R&D labs, and bringing in new and needed skill sets into the school are effective for this problem.
  2. Breakthrough innovation - a clear and well-understood problem that may be more difficult to solve than others. The resolution includes open innovation strategies.
  3. Disruptive innovation - when the basis of competition changes in the marketplace, due to shifts technology or other changes, companies often find themselves getting really good at what people no longer want. For schools, this problem may require a complete overturn of the business model, striving for the demands of the modern students.
  4. Basic research - ideas for true innovation never come fully formed, out of nowhere. They are founded on the basis of discovery. That’s why market research will drive you toward both innovation and problem-solving. Did you know that schools (and any small to large businesses) have access to an entire library of latest innovation research?

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4. Ignore the limits of “reasonable expectations” 

Jobs had an infamous "reality distortion field." He motivated his team to push limitations and surpass what was seen as impossible in the past. Similarly, school leaders must have consistent, high expectations for the team and students, being very ambitious for the success of their school.

According to psychologist Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, “One of the benefits of an optimistic temperament is that it encourages persistence in the face of obstacles.”

How do you set a culture of high expectations, which both pupils and school staff may see as impossible? Research shows the following strategies for ‘ignoring reality’ for success:

  • Believe it’s possible. When you model an attitude of endless possibility, others will believe your vision and follow suit.
  • Develop a clear plan. Having high expectations is crucial, but they must come with the means to achieve them.
  • Incorporate a feedback to motivate and to guide curriculum decisions. Seeing progress (or even stagnation) is important to form a plan and motivate your team.
  • Do not confuse goals with measures of the goals. Implement multiple measures of progress and success, so that teachers do not see grades, for example, as the only measure of success.

 5. Have confidence and build it in your staff and students

Self-awareness and emotional maturity should be prompted by confidence. Effective leaders need to be able to rise above base instincts and act or react, in a reasoned and mature manner. This does not mean ignoring emotions but recognizing bad feelings without allowing them to dominate rational thought. A good school leader models this behavior and encourages others to follow his or her example.

The best school leaders are great at communicating and developing compelling stories. They have the skills of persuasion, listening, and how to share 'school’s story' with an audience. They also know how to motivate others with both personality and action.

"Getting people to do things and go that extra mile lies at the heart of good leadership," says Kenny Frederick, principal at George Green's School. As long as you are supporting your position through self-evaluation, with a clear strategy for improvement, you are on the beginning path to be a confident leader!

6. Rethink the design of the traditional school

Be resourceful with what you already have and reconsider the design that is already established. Studies show that in schools, redesigning traditional classrooms may lead to promoted creativity and collaboration. Take the example of these US schools that have reconsidered what education may look like in the 21st century.

Case #1: Maine - St. George Municipal School Unit and the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science. STEAM and STEM activities at these two schools support students with disabilities, build their confidence in applicable skills, teach real technological skills, and explore possibilities that may not have been available to them elsewhere. These schools are challenging themselves to rethink how to best serve students with disabilities.

Case #2: Vermont - Hiawatha Elementary. This school practices interactive classroom meetings every morning, before direct instruction with students (with plenty of one-on-one time), using augmentative and alternative communication. Hiawatha demonstrated the importance of a personalized learning experience to improve student outcomes.

 Case #3: Rhode Island - Hugh Cole Elementary. This elementary school utilizes data-based individualization within a multi-tiered system of support framework. The system is created to meet the specific intervention needs of the students. Hugh Cole Elementary uses individualization strategies, practices teacher development, and support efforts, and ensures that its practices are highly sustainable and easily replicable by other schools.

 7. Team with winners and 8. Collaborate 

Teaming up with winners and collaborating with others within the school community go hand-in-hand. It’s important for school leaders to openly seek and share information and knowledge. School leaders must cultivate a range of partnerships - with other schools and institutions, parents, business and the community to support pupil learning and progress.

When it comes to internal collaboration, school leaders must focus relentlessly on improving teaching and learning with the extremely effective professional development of all staff and stakeholders.

According to Consortium on Chicago School Research, one of the central features to advancing student achievement is leadership. The key here is that the leadership must be focused on cultivating a growing team of stakeholders. These are the people, including teachers, staff, parents, and the community, who become involved in sharing overall responsibility and efforts for the school’s improvement. The study focuses on the school creating a “relational trust” among its stakeholders for success.

Collaboration between schools needs to meet a number of elements to be successful, according to research: 1) common goals; 2) joint work or interdependence; 3) parity; 4) voluntary participation. To seek out schools on a wider scale, consider the collaboration platform of now - the digital sphere. Other school leaders may be reached through a Professional Learning Network (PLN) or through social media.

effective school leadership, clear vision

9. Have a clear vision

In a study on medical education leaders, effective leadership is founded on defining personal and shared visions, core purpose (mission) and core values. In The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner explain “you must clarify your own vision of the future before you can expect to enlist others in a shared vision.”

Your vision has to be clear, strong, and explicit; it must be cultivated and constantly restated because it is what allows leaders and their staff to correct course if things start to slip. Models of excellence are all around — it can be an entire organization, a single department or division, even a conversation between a leader and member of his or her team.

Developing Your Vision

Your vision should represent the future state of your school that you hope to achieve. The vision statement should be one of positive ambition, capturing your goals and aspirations for the school. Ask yourself, what can we do better?

Building Your Company’s Vision by the Harvard Business Review, defined vision as being based on a core ideology, with the core values being the guiding principles for the envisioned future. The first step to developing a set vision (and the values that uphold it) is contemplating your purpose for starting the company and placing it alongside the future of possibilities.

Developing Your Mission

Your mission is a statement that you develop after pondering your purpose. What is the future of your school, and how does it reflect your priorities now? The mission statement is your mantra, the path that will guide you for approximately the next decade. It may be broken down into two parts - what do you want your school to do and to be, and how this will be accomplished.

Developing Your Core Values

Could you name 3-5 values that stand at the foundation of your school? These are your guiding principles and should uphold your priorities for the length of your journey. In the same HBR article, the authors define core values as the “essential and enduring tenets of an organization.” Think about the values, standards, ethics, and ideas that drive you and your school. All the decisions that you make about your school will come from this set.

Developing Your Implementation Strategy

What is the method for you achieving your goals for the school? That is where implementation strategy comes into play. Think about the methods that align with your goals and values, and how you will distribute your resources for this purpose. Don’t be afraid to reach out to outside outlets for your mission - many educators lean heavily on their personal networks or social media for support.

10. Rebel 

Courage - that is the basis behind any successful leader. The best school leaders show great determination, displaying willpower and patience to achieve real results. These leaders are not afraid to take risks for the benefit of their goals. They know when and how to challenge under-performance or misbehavior. "There's a mental courage that you don't waver from," says Madeleine Vigar, former principal of the Castle Partnership Academy Trust. If you stick to this principle, your efforts will be rewarded. 


Let us be your helping hand in your journey as a school leader. At Your Agora, we built an online platform that makes the lives of ESL teachers and school owners a bit easier. With a collaborated library of teaching material, user-friendly tools for scheduling, and automatic scheduling, Your Agora is there to make your language school more efficient and proactive in student learning. With plenty of research and a team of teachers from all over the world, we created a software that will advance you toward your goals!

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