Building a Pipeline in Your School

Learn to spot the signs of a great school leader in the making.

This article is part of a series focusing on The Principal Pipeline, brought to you with support from The Wallace Foundation.

By Alan Richard
November, 2016, Volume 40, Issue 3

Given the high rates of principal turnover and shortages in many areas, principals need to be cultivating new leadership by scoping out potential leaders among their teachers.

But it’s easier said than done. “We need to accelerate the recruitment of principals and assistant principals, need a more diverse rank to match the needs of our changing demographics in schools,” said Gail Connelly, the executive director of NAESP. Many schools also need to expand leadership duties for teachers and assistant principals to help develop the principal pipeline, she added, and more assistant principals are needed in elementary schools.

How can principals help to make the ground more fertile for new leaders to emerge? The Wallace Foundation’s 2013 report, The School Principal as Leader: Guiding Schools to Better Teaching and Learning, suggests that effective school leadership includes these five main responsibilities:

  1. Shaping a vision of academic success for all students, one based on high standards.
  2. Creating a climate hospitable to education in order that safety, a cooperative spirit and other foundations of fruitful interaction prevail.
  3. Cultivating leadership in others so that teachers and other adults assume their parts in realizing the school vision.
  4. Improving instruction to enable teachers to teach at their best and students to learn to their utmost.
  5. Managing people, data and processes to foster school improvement.

Among their busy days and many other duties, it’s a challenge for principals to look for such possible abilities in their colleagues.

When he’s looking for potential school leaders, Jimmy Shaw Jr., the assistant superintendent for instruction in Alabama’s Florence Public School said he looks for vision, a willingness to do things differently; the will to sacrifice, to be a learner, to work hard, and for educators who consider their work a calling.

“Instruction is the core of what happens at school,” Shaw said. But he continued: “If teachers and students don’t feel safe, or if parents are freaked out because the bus is an hour late, or there’s trash all over the campus when visitors arrive, no one will really care about your instructional prowess.”

“That (instruction) is really what they get paid to do, but they’re responsible for it all,” Shaw said of principals.

Many teachers don’t always see in action how a principal’s job connects to instruction—which can give them the wrong impression of the leader’s role, Stanford University education scholar Linda Darling-Hammond told The Wallace Foundation in a 2013 interview.

“I often use the metaphor of the conductor of the orchestra. We watch the conductor, we’re in the audience and we say, ‘I could do that. Piece of cake, right?’ That’s true of teachers’ skill in the classroom; it’s also true of principals’ skill in orchestrating the collective, harmonious work of teachers,” she said.

“Teachers go into the profession to be successful with kids. If they’re working with a leadership team led by a principal who understands what it takes to be successful with kids, how the organization should be organized, what kind of supports need to be there, how learning for teachers can be encouraged as well as learning for students, how to get the community and the parental supports in place,” then teachers can succeed with their students, Darling-Hammond said. Otherwise, encouraging selected teachers to pursue leadership won’t work very well, she said.

If that seems like a long list of responsibilities, it is—as most principals can verify. A few tips to help you identify potential school leaders in your midst:

  • Collaboration should be the norm. A recent edition of the federal government’s Schools and Staffing Survey found that about 80 percent of teachers say they have the opportunity to collaborate with each other, according to the Wallace Foundation report. But only 15 percent said they have a collaborative culture in which they do it frequently. “We have a little bit of collaboration going around everywhere, but we have a lot of collaboration going on in very few places,” Darling-Hammond said. “And in fact, sometimes school leaders are alone and isolated and may not even realize that they can get help from the faculty to move an agenda forward.”
  • Help professional learning communities thrive. In well-led schools, “the principal functions as a principal teacher who is really focusing on instruction along with, by the side of teachers—not top-down mandates and edicts,” Darling-Hammond said. They “begin to open the doors and say, ‘Let’s talk about our practice. Let’s show our student work. Let’s go look at each other’s classrooms and see what we’re doing.’”
  • Build trusting relationships—and seek potential leaders who can. “You can know everything that there is to know about education, but if you don’t have the people skills to follow you, it won’t matter. We don’t get rewarded for what we know, in the real world. We get rewarded for what we get accomplished,” Shaw said. Darling-Hammond agreed: “Some really important research [has] looked at the relational elements of effective schools. It’s not just focusing on data about the test scores and so on. It’s also building trust between and among the professionals, seeing teachers as respected professionals,” she said. Good leadership is built on “lots of collaboration around good practice. That’s built on a strong foundation of trust.”
  • Use high leadership standards and criteria. The Wallace Foundation reported that the Hillsborough County, Florida, schools designed principal-candidate assessment rubrics that were based on the district’s new leadership standards and were consistent with its administrator job descriptions and evaluation criteria.
  • Commit to helping with the search. One school district’s principal pipeline project director told the Wallace Foundation: “I wanted principals to actually help us hand pick. When you send [an invitation] out to everyone, you’re going to have candidates that really would have no business going back for ed leadership, and they’re going to waste their money getting this degree and never really be the right fit to move into school leadership. So we gave every principal five invitations. And we told them to hand deliver them to five teachers in their school that they think would be good. … Delivering them by hand, I think we did get a good crop.”

Alan Richard is a veteran education writer based in Washington, D.C.

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