Leadership That Works - Buckeye Community Hope Foundation

Leadership That Works

By Mindy Farry, School Improvement Representative

Ask fifty people what their definition of leadership is, and you will likely get fifty varied, yet similar answers. In talking to several new school leaders recently, I realized that while we spend a great deal of time onboarding new teachers to their roles, we don’t spend even a fraction of that time orienting new school leaders to the changes they are about to experience. One leader heartbreakingly said to me, “Tell me it gets easier.” I couldn’t tell her that it does. 

The most recent research shows once again that the role of the school leader has a tremendous impact on student achievement. “Leadership is second only to effective teaching among all school-related factors that impact student learning” (Wallace). “A student can have two years of ineffective teachers in an effective building and still get a year’s worth of growth” (Fullen). That is both good news and nerve-wracking news. School leaders are highly effective, but the responsibility weighs heavily on our shoulders. 

When the role of principal changed from management to instructional leadership less than a generation ago…. instead of one role replacing the other, the role of instructional leader was layered on top of the management role. But, again, no one prepares new school leaders for the constant juggling of these roles. 

The work of Marzano, Walters and McNulty (2005) delineates twenty-one responsibilities of a school leader:

Affirmation; Change Agent; Contingent Rewards; Communication; Culture; Discipline; Flexibility; Focus; Ideals/Beliefs; Input; Intellectual Stimulation; Involvement; Knowledge; Monitoring/Evaluation; Optimizer; Order; Outreach; Relationships; Resources; Situational Awareness; Visibility.

Does merely reading that list exhaust you? Or deter you from thinking about a leadership role? If you were to track your actions for a one-week period, where do you spend most of your time? Does that match where you believe you should be spending your time? School leaders must have a clear sense of mission and purpose and dedicate their time to the responsibilities that match this mission? Do you spend your time in minutiae that really has little impact on learning? 

School leaders often have difficulty “letting go” of some of the tasks which could be undertaken by someone else. Can an administrative assistant filter calls, emails and mail for you? Are teachers dependent on you to solve all their classroom issues or have you distributed leadership in such a way that they have become problem-solvers, instead of answer-seekers? Have you identified trained leaders and aspiring leaders to take on some of the responsibilities (instructional coaches; team/department leads; mentors)? Use your calendar to dedicate time each day to those areas of focus. Map out time to do observations and walkthroughs. Designate time to have important conversations with staff members. Treat those calendar items as sacred unless an emergency interrupts it. The email from the angry parent or the voice mail about an upcoming meeting can wait. Work with people during the day and work on paper at night. Work with people while they are in the building. Do the paper and phone calls after the staff and students leave.   Of course, this is not always possible, but if it is our goal daily, people in the building become less and less dependent on your solving their problems for them. Your visibility and presence in classrooms on a consistent basis are essential to improving instruction in classrooms. 

Another aspect that no one prepares us for is the mental transition from classroom teacher to school leader. Part of that emotional transition is the feeling that the “to do” list is never completed. You will check off three items and add five more. That feeling of the proverbial albatross on your shoulders takes some adjustment. 

A very wise principal told me, a fledgling assistant principal, to remember one thing: “Not everyone is doing the job in the classroom the way that you were doing the job.” I was shocked that some people didn’t come to work on time; some people never turned in lesson plans; that some people weren’t teaching to the standards (or teaching at ALL). I had to come to terms with having quite serious conversations with colleagues about their responsibilities and professionalism in the building. I was used to having serious conversations with students, but having those same conversations with adults is difficult, but essential. The teachers in your building who are performing at high levels deserve to know that you are confronting teachers not doing justice to their students. No one also warned me that being a school leader often resulted in running from fire to fire and that on any given day, I couldn’t make anyone happy. But at the center of all decisions must be students and decisions must be made that have the most positive impact on students. 

In Viviane Robinson’s research, the effect size of principal actions was measured. An effect size of any action at .8 or above is a significant effect. Robinson found that promoting and participating in teacher learning and development had a large effect size of .84. Does that effect size match the amount of time you spend in teacher coaching, observation, and development? Or do you spend your time with minor issues which do not have significant impact on teaching and learning?  

Our most significant roles as a school leader are in coaching, mentoring, and evaluating teachers. School leaders need to focus on improving instruction in the classroom, helping teachers navigate their work in the classroom.  Focus on the work of teaching and learning. Focus on teachers and their impact on students in the classroom. Confront issues, help remediate problem spots and have difficult conversations. 

So, those of us in management and administrative positions must think about how to effectively onboard, mentor and support new principals throughout their first few years.   We can’t merely take teachers out of classrooms and expect them to understand all the complexities of the principalship. While being a school leader is one of the most rewarding, yet chaotic jobs in education, we must also be conscious about building a principal pipeline for our aspiring leaders waiting in the wings to come the next generation of leaders for our students.


Fullan, Michael. (1997). What’s worth fighting for in the principalship. New York. Teachers’ College Press. 

Marzano, R.J., Waters, T., & McNulty, B.A. (2005). School leadership that works: from research to results. Alexandria, Va. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Robinson, V.M. (2011). Student-centered leadership. San Francisco. Jossey-Bass.

Sinek, Simon. The difference between a manager and a leader. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kc8ghJ90jHs

Wallace Foundation.org. https://wallacefoundation.org/insights/what-do-i-need-know-about-school-leadership

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