Principal Leadership: Aligning Vision With Actions

3 principal principles for driving student learning and closing the achievement gap.

By Carol Riley
July 2015, Volume 38, Issue 11

While the phrase, “all students can learn at high levels” has become commonplace, achieving the ideal is rare. Demographic shifts such as an increase in the diversity of students, including English-language learners, students with disabilities, and students from low-income homes poses significant challenges for schools. It is more important than ever for schools and educators to understand diverse groups of students and the communities from which they come. These students need a broad level of support in addition to skill development in reading and math. With a strong vision and belief system, however, principals can make the difference.

Aligning principal leadership skills to student and school community needs requires great self-reflection. Principals who not only understand their own ideals and beliefs, but also can communicate them in terms of the school’s larger message hold the key to success. Elementary principal Christopher Wooleyhand writes in “Putting Your Beliefs Into Action,” “Principals must steadfastly connect actions to their beliefs.” He goes on to assert, “Nothing undermines efforts toward eliminating the achievement gap quicker than half-hearted, weak messages that suggest confusion regarding the nature and seriousness of differences in student achievement.”

Here are three guiding principles that any principal can use to direct their path toward being a catalyst for change in closing achievement gaps.

Principle 1: People, Not Programs

The principal can be the hero for a short time, but that does not sustain progress. It takes more than one person to instill lasting change. In schools where the principal is the lone leader, the vision and mission are unclear and individuals perform without an understanding of where they fit in. Principals are responsible for spearheading teams of adults to function together as a collective voice—regardless of the program or initiative. Effective principals engender continuity and cohesiveness to the school culture, as well as drive unified expectations and direction by empowering all stakeholders, from students to community leaders to parents to teachers.

In The 5 Levels of Leadership: Proven Steps to Maximize Your Potential (2011), leadership expert John Maxwell shares, “One of the burdens of leadership is that as we go, so go the people we lead. Reaching our potential sets an environment for others to reach theirs.” A school’s vision and the actions resulting from that vision begin with the principal and then becomes the catalyst for change.

Principle 2: Random or Plandom

The first step in addressing an achievement gap is acknowledging it and knowing that principal leadership can make a difference. A confident school leader who actualizes a personal vision for all students’ ability to learn can propel the growth trajectory of a school.

Experienced mentors from NAESP’s National Mentor Training and Certification Program overwhelming report that a frequent mistake that new principals make is failure to anticipate the possible outcomes of their actions. Careful preparation and planning to initiate change is critical. Change does not happen randomly, and a poorly designed or inadequate plan will derail a leader’s best intentions.

Principle 3: Sharpen the Saw

The roles principals must now perform have changed exponentially over the years and will continue to shift. Today’s principals must maintain evidence of their continued competence, the growth of their schools, and the improvement of student achievement. Principals must take ownership of their own careers, including keeping abreast of new research, knowledge, and skills. Principals can develop a personal portfolio of professional activities and their relevance to their current positions as well as to future ambitions.

By “sharpening the saw,” principals can take ownership and be more aware of trends in leadership, ensuring situational awareness of the current environment, cultivating an ability to influence and lead others, and networking with colleagues. That is a personal, 360 degree investment in success.

The work to close the achievement gap is daunting. Building a cohesive team of leaders, intentionally planning actions, and minding personal development are three principle practices that can elevate your school to one that believes that all students can learn and demonstrates that through a collective vision, strong beliefs, and clear vision.

Carol Riley is Associate Executive Director, Professional Learning and Outreach, National Mentor Certification Program

Resources to “Sharpen the Saw”
The Wallace Foundation’s new video series, School Leadership in Action: Principal Practices, brings to life what great leaders do to become the catalyst for driving student learning. These illustrative, free, professional development tools are part of a growing repository of resources for principals to “sharpen the saw.”

At NAESP’s recent annual conference in Long Beach, California, five exemplary principals shared their knowledge, talents, and skills in implementing these practices. This conversation will continue with a Wallace Foundation Live Webcast Event: From the Principal’s Office: How Leaders Drive Student Learning. Based on The Wallace Foundation 5 Key Practices, panelists will discuss the values, beliefs, and personal dimensions they bring to their role as building administrators to meet the specific needs of their schools. Register for the Oct. 5 event, which will be led by NAESP and NASSP.

Copyright © 2015. 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.