The days of leading from behind a desk in the principal's office are long gone. While school administrators are responsible for the maintenance of the building and a balanced budget, a strong leader does more than oversee a safe and secure environment. As an instructional leader, a principal must be intimately involved in the academic success of students. In addition, effective leaders help others strengthen their skills, developing future leaders in the field.
Why Leaders Lack Meaningful Skills
Schools need leaders who embrace instructional leadership and focus their efforts on improving the environment and interactions in the classroom. So why is that need not being met? There are several reasons — at the educational, professional and personal levels.
Many educational programs claiming to prepare teachers for leadership roles focus heavily on research and philosophy, emphasizing theory over practice. Even on-site internship components can fall short of authentic, real-life experience of the day-to-day work and responsibilities of school leaders.
From a career perspective, the most common path to leadership in the schools starts with a position as an assistant principal. But because this role usually involves disciplining students, managing daily flow, and maintaining materials and supplies, it does not provide the experiences or preparation needed to assume a higher position of leadership.
On a personal level, some potential leaders are drawn to the power the position brings, motivated by personal gain and individual recognition. Moreover, some will avoid seeking help to solve problems and simply settle for the status quo or second best. Of course, there is nothing wrong with moving up in both position and salary. But, according to educator and author, Christopher Day, finding success as a principal has less to do with position than it does with passion. Day states that the picture of success "… is to have a passion for teaching and learning, for teachers and learners … to successful principals, just doing the job will never be enough."
How to Turn Things Around
In the past, leadership in schools focused on the business of maintaining the four walls of the physical building. But times have changed. Now, the spotlight is on quality instruction and learning. Leaders focus on helping teachers and students achieve academic success and promote transformational change in the classroom. Principals must be well-prepared by experienced practitioners in the areas of leadership theory, evaluation, culture and diversity, educational law, technology, and curriculum. They must also be willing to cultivate and welcome innovation from teachers as they encourage upcoming leaders to strengthen and stretch their leadership skills.
To maintain contemporary demands, educational leaders must be open to trends in the industry and the greater society. Leaders must seek out and prepare future educators who are more representative of the diversity in the classroom. And to do this, they need to build strong, trusting relationships with teachers and empower them to make innovative decisions based on their expertise and experience. In fact, the "most successful school and district leaders are those who have the tools and mindset to develop communities in which teacher-led innovation is fostered, supported, empowered and celebrated" (Education Elements).
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