What Makes an Effective School Leader?

Effective school leadership involves more than balancing the budget and making sure the buses arrive on time. School leadership that works is a complex system. It leads by example, manages with respect and integrity, offers personal attention and stands up for what is right. As educators assume leadership positions, they face the challenges and reap the rewards of working with students, teachers, colleagues and the community to achieve a common goal: student success.

Leader as Model

One of the strongest ways to lead is by example. Effective school leaders do not just tell; they show teachers, staff and students what they expect. During the course of everyday business, these leaders show respect to all members of the educational community, both inside and outside of the school building. They demonstrate professionalism. They work hard and meet even difficult issues head-on. They communicate openly and regularly with staff, students and the community. An effective school principal or department head makes it a point to model relationship-building as a major key to success.

Strong school leaders are also teachable. Although they are generally well-informed about all aspects of school curriculum, district policies and local issues, a respected principal is always open to new concepts and different approaches to age-old problems. Leaders display not only humility but also confidence when they are willing to learn something new.

It is also important that educational leaders model self-care and self-improvement. Days are long and difficult, and unexpected situations arise regularly. Rest and emotional regeneration are elusive. However, educators recognize and appreciate school leaders who take care of their minds and bodies. People who see healthy leaders are more inspired to take care of themselves than those who see only stressed and worn-out leaders.

Leader as Manager

School leadership that works involves more than just modeling expected behavior. An effective school leader manages personnel, finances, facilities and information in ways that result in academic and social success.

Students thrive when every contributor in the school community is working in exactly the right position. Educators, student services staff, support staff and team members who are doing the job they were meant to do provide so much more than those who are simply putting in time. A strong leader searches out the potential of every team member and organizes the staff to make the most of their skills and talent. When faculty and staff members find their “sweet spots,” departments, teams and schools can focus on student achievement.

Facilities and financial management are often seen as necessary evils. However, strong leaders approach these areas with an open mind. Many districts are experiencing overcrowded buildings and under-resourced programs. Principals and department chairs in these buildings have no choice but to create innovative solutions. Effective leaders do not merely balance the budget and maintain a clean structure with books and copy machines. They discover new ways to stretch the dollars and maximize every square inch of the facilities they manage.

In addition, most educators agree that there is simply not enough time in the school day. The mandates for minutes in each core area, professional learning communities, team- and building meetings and annual reviews take up every bit of the teaching day. Teachers often have little time left for collaborative planning, peer observation or daily preparation. Effective school leaders manage and protect teachers’ schedules with one thing in mind: the consistent delivery of high-quality, student-centered education. If a meeting or event does not contribute to providing the best instruction possible, effective leaders exclude it from the schedule.

Every school leader must collect and report data from multiple areas. However, unless this data helps make instructional decisions or guide school policy, the collection process is only an expensive waste of time. Thoughtful leaders carefully consider how to use this data at the core level to maximize whole-class instruction and to determine the type and frequency of intervention programs. Data is not simply static, historic information about failing, meeting or exceeding expectations. It is a key indicator of each student’s specific needs. It helps manage and schedule the available time and talents of the teaching staff in the most effective ways.

Leader as Mentor

School leadership that works involves the careful selection of team members. Teachers, support staff and building maintenance teams must all work together to make a safe learning environment for academic success. However, hiring the right people is only the first step. One of the most important roles of a strong school leader is mentoring.

Strong mentors provide specific advice about professional development to their proteges. They consistently offer constructive criticism and encouraging feedback. They are regularly available and extend an open invitation for professional dialogue. This practice of mentoring demonstrates school leaders’ commitment to the continued success of both the teaching staff and the students.

In addition, team leaders’ and department chairs’ potential requires consistent care and nurturing. These rising stars will progress only if an experienced mentor guides and challenges them. An effective school leader will take the time to invest in the development of future leaders.

Leader as Advocate

An often-overlooked quality of effective school leadership is a willingness to advocate for staff, students and the community.

Legislators and other legal bodies continually scrutinize school districts and programs; they are legally subject to regulatory mandates. One of the responsibilities of school and district administrators is to ensure compliance with mandates and to guarantee that information reporting is complete and timely.

Not all regulations and mandates, however, reflect the mission or practice of working educators. Some requirements seem clumsy or overly burdensome. Some practices may be based on potentially biased assessments or ineffective student accommodations. It is the responsibility of school leaders to address these issues at the school, district and even state levels. A strong leader will listen to teachers’ concerns and encourage professional discussions about the merit or liability of these mandates. If the discussion leads to a next step, a strong leader will be willing to take the concern to the district or county level for review.

Many experienced educators are committed to effective school leadership. They understand that accepting a position as a leader in education requires accepting the roles of model, manager, mentor and advocate. Earning a Master of Arts in Education, Educational Administration online prepares these potential leaders to lead with integrity and help others find success in teaching and leading.

Learn more about the CSUSM online MA in Educational Administration program.


The Wallace Foundation: The School Principal as Leader: Guiding Schools to Better Teaching and Learning

Edutopia: What Makes a Great Leader?

Forbes: The Eight Characteristics Of Effective School Leaders

About Education: 10 Things Successful School Principals Do Differently

Education Week: What Does It Mean to Be an Educational Leader?

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