Don’t Survive, Thrive!

How to focus your leadership on the “right work.”

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

By Mitch Craft
November, 2016, Volume 40, Issue 3

The first few years new principals spend in their school leadership roles can feel a bit like juggling. That is, juggling six raw eggs, two swords, three flaming chainsaws, and an angry rhinoceros. Sound familiar? Keep working on those juggling skills, but also take comfort in the fact that some of us have come out on the other side of the early years, still alive and excited to improve student learning in our schools.

A dear principal friend of mine has promoted a resonant mantra at his National Blue Ribbon, Title 1 School: “Do the right work.” As he and his teachers continually revisit the four critical questions of a professional learning community, ensure their students learn at high levels, and deal with the day-to-day trappings of school operation, they remind themselves to focus their time and effort on factors that truly impact student learning. While there are innumerable daily pursuits and incidents that can and will occupy the time of early-career principals, there is indeed such a thing as the right work for school leaders. Just like my friend has done with his teachers, helping them identify and focus on high-impact strategies, principals must identify the right work within our profession.

Way back in 2008, a study in Educational Administration Quarterly compared transformational leaders to instructional leaders. Transformational leaders (effect size 0.11) tend to spend their time working to motivate teachers to achieve big picture goals, improve morale, and protect teachers from external or top-down forces. Instructional leaders (effect size 0.42), in contrast, turn their focus to student learning outcomes. They work with teachers to promote proven teaching practices, provide quality professional development, and respond systematically to student learning data.

As John Hattie argues in Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement (2009), any factor with an effect size below 0.4 is really not worth our time. That means that transformational leadership demonstrates significant limitations and should be purposefully avoided by principals. Instructional leadership works better, but an effect size of 0.42 doesn’t move mountains. So what is the right work for principals, especially those early in their careers?

In his book In Praise of American Educators (2015), Richard Dufour promotes a new brand of leadership in which he positions the principal as the school’s “lead learner”. Like instructional leadership, learning leadership is very much focused on students. But it goes miles further to develop the principal as the lead learner in the school who focuses on “creating the conditions that allow teachers to succeed” in improving student learning.

With all this in mind, here is some essential advice for early-career principals: start purposefully building your professional identity as a learning leader, and start today. The following strategies will set the tone for new principals who truly want to make a difference and improve student learning:

  • Get teachers collaborating, and join the collaboration. Systematic collaboration through models such as professional learning communities make the biggest impact on student learning. Hattie has calculated the effect size of what he calls “collective teacher efficacy” at a whopping 1.57.
  • Transform your faculty meetings. Start producing a weekly, running memo of information items and updates so your faculty meetings can focus on improving student learning. Select staff members who are successfully implementing quality techniques and let them take the reins at your meetings. Hattie reports an effect size of 0.84 for “leaders who learn in an environment that privileges high-impact teaching and learning.”
  • Learn in front of and alongside your colleagues. Organize book studies around meaningful teaching practices that are proven to grow student learning, and study alongside your teachers. You can even work with the outreach arms of area universities to offer credit. These book groups will become your school’s unofficial think-tanks and really start to drive progressive change through improved learning.
  • Foster a no-excuse culture. Work with teachers to establish essential, schoolwide commitments. One of the most important pledges a school can make is to take ownership and avoid excuses when students don’t learn. According to Hattie, Leaders who never retreat to “just do your best” have an effect size of 0.57.

And always remember, you cannot lead alone. The very best principals build the capacity of their staffs to take ownership of and drive strategies like those listed above. In the principalship, you will never stop juggling. But you can control what you juggle and develop a whole team of fellow-jugglers to help you keep all those balls in the air.

Mitch Craft, a former middle-level principal, is the curriculum and assessment director for Sheridan County School District No. 2 in Wyoming. He is a 2016 National Distinguished Principal.

Copyright © 2016. National Association of Elementary School Principals. No part of the articles in NAESP magazines, newsletters, or website may be reproduced in any medium without the permission of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. For more information, view NAESP’s reprint policy.