As I observe leaders in different capacities and reflect on my own role as a teacher leader, I have been thinking about what it takes to be an effective leader. There are loads of books on the topic of leadership, written by folks with far greater knowledge than I have, but this post is my own analysis of effective leadership.
In any organization, there are different levels of leadership. Within a school district, we have leaders in administrative positions: superintendents, curriculum directors, and principals. In addition, we have teacher leaders that hold a variety of positions. In Fort Madison Community School District, we have identified teacher leaders: our TLS group (of which I am a part) and our Guiding Coalitions, as designed by Solution Tree. Beneath the surface, are many other teacher leaders that fulfill leadership positions without any official titles.
In all of these positions, there are qualities that contribute to designating a person as an effective leader. I frequently reflect on my own effectiveness as a teacher leader; the conclusion I often reach is that I am fairly ineffective. Such a conclusion is likely the impetus for this post – perhaps by formalizing my reflection of effective leadership in writing, I will be able to take action in becoming a more effective teacher leader. Very recently, I was able to walk away from a situation giving my self a rare tally in the “effective leader” column. With the help of another coach, I was able to organize a central location for our special education department (in one building) to have access to our English Language Arts curricular materials. An amazing teacher from the Special Education department had been asking for this centralized location for two years, and had understandably built up frustration when this need (among many others) had not been met. It’s rather embarrassing that it took this long for something that should have been in place on Day 1 of the delivery of materials to happen, but I’ll still consider it a “Win.”
In the last two weeks, nearly 50 teachers from our district participated in a five-day series of professional development around Computer Science integration. Our computer science journey began in 2019 with the awarding of a Future Ready grant from the state of Iowa. At that time, Richardson Elementary launched our computer science journey with four teachers who learned about and implemented computer science in their classrooms. Since then, we have added an additional team of four teachers from Lincoln Elementary, added a STEAM Lab to Richardson, as well as a very recently-opened STEAM Lab at Lincoln. In addition, we have a MakerSpace at Fort Madison High School. Plans are in the works to add a STEAM Lab to our Middle School. How does this connect to my reflection on effective leadership? Throughout the five days of the Computer Science workshop, it became apparent that we were developing nearly 50 teacher leaders around computer science. These are the people who will go back to their classrooms and try out what they have learned with their students. In addition, they will share the knowledge gained with other teachers, and assist them on their own learning journeys. They are leaders of computer science integration, to be sure. As a district, we are becoming a leader in the state of Iowa around Computer Science. This experience impacted my thoughts around effective leadership.
So what makes a leader effective? I’ve had 25 years to work with and for many effective leaders, and have concluded that there is no single “right way” to lead. I’ve worked with and for leaders who have completely different personalities, yet are effective leaders. I have yet to work with/for the “perfect” leader (not sure that person exists), but there are some leaders that are clearly more effective than others. And those are the ones I aspire to be. Effective leaders within a school district (according to Megan Kruse 🙂 have the following qualities:
- Effective leaders have a clear mission and vision that is aligned to their organization’s mission and vision. It’s common to have (and maybe OK to have) our own agendas. Said agendas should align with the mission and vision of the organization for which we hope to work for or are currently work for. If there is misalignment, it’s time to look for a different organization.
- Effective leaders have the ability to move the organization forward. Again, that movement should be in line with the organization’s mission and vision. Moving an organization forward happens when we have a clear destination, and know how to forge forward on a path, recognizing that there will be bumps and snags along the way. Which is where the next quality comes into play.
- Effective leaders recognize, encourage, and nurture the strengths of the individuals within their organization. They designate additional leaders, support them, and delegate tasks to them. Effective leaders have the ability to identify strengths in others, especially when those individuals don’t recognize their own strengths.
- Effective leaders provide both pressure and support for those in their charge, not necessarily in equal doses. Effective leaders know that there are times when pressure needs to be applied to colleagues/staff to uphold the mission and vision of the organization. They know when and how to apply the pressure, and how to balance it with support.
- Effective leaders keep high levels of student learning at the center of all decisions. They know that moving the organization forward means, among other things, that they pose the right questions. In Learning by Doing, Solution Tree authors identify “four critical questions of the PLC process: 1) What knowledge, skills, and dispositions should every student acquire as a result of this unit, this course, , or this grade level? 2: How will we know when each student has acquired the essential knowledge and skill? 3) How will we respond when students do not learn? 4) How will we extend the learning for students who are already proficient?”
- Effective leaders hold teachers and students accountable to ensuring high levels of learning. And they provide support for making high levels of learning happen. They have a system in place for collaboration and mutual accountability among team members. Effective leaders know how to structure a system that supports teachers in implementation, and encourage teachers to move on when they are working against the district mission and vision.
- Effective leaders nurture relationships with and among their staff and students. They know that without relationships, high levels of learning will not occur. Effective leaders take the time to get to know their staff/colleagues and students. They listen to understand, rather than listen to respond. They create opportunities for relationship-building to occur.
- Effective leaders are able to make decisions “on the fly,” and acknowledge their own mistakes that come with some of those decisions. Leaders, especially administrators, are faced with making decisions, “big” and “little” all day long. They are frequently bombarded with questions that require quick decisions. Effective leaders know how to respond swiftly and with certainty, even if that response sounds like, “I need more time to think about that. I will get back to you by the end of the day.” When a decision turns out to be the “wrong” one, effective leaders own up to it with humility and grace.
- Effective leaders know pedagogy, continue to build their own knowledge base, and build on the knowledge of those within their organization (see #3). They know how to deliver high quality instruction and how to support others in that delivery. They recognize that high quality instruction includes: crafting student friendly learning targets, using formative assessments, planning lessons that are learning-focused rather than activity-focused, building student assessment and reflection into lessons, designing lessons that include student discourse, differentiation, using student evidence to drive lessons, and using effective classroom management strategies. (The Essential Guide for Student-Centered Coaching, Sweeney and Harris).
- Effective leaders address issues directly, rather than making blanket statements. They know to “go to the source,” versus asking others, or masking their directives toward one or two individuals behind blanket statements to all. Effective leaders know that Fierce Conversations are necessary at times to achieve positive change.
Hmmmm – I didn’t plan for that to be a nice, clean list of 10 qualities, but there you have it. The 10 Qualities of Effective Leaders According to Megan Kruse. As I forge ahead on this journey to be a more effective teacher leader, I will continue to lean on folks like Danny Steele and Todd Whitaker, for inspiration. They are leaders to follow, for sure!