4 ways to lead school improvement with and through others

Understanding our role and responsibilities as leaders in schools is better understood by examining the way relationships change in the building as one moves up the leadership ladder.

When we begin teaching, our main interactions, on a day-to-day basis, are with students. As we take on leadership roles within the school, direct contact time with students is often reduced in order for there to be time for us to carry out our leadership duties. In most instances, this means spending more time in conversations with teams of teachers. As educators move into senior leadership positions, there is even less direct contact time with the students and working relationships are more focused on teachers and support staff. In order to influence change and improvement in the classroom, senior leaders have to work through these teaching teams and support staff. In a sense, change and improvement for students occurs indirectly because school leaders are reliant on their teachers and support staff to effect change.

In some schools, teachers are promoted into leadership positions because they are excellent teachers and leaders of students. Interestingly, being able to effectively lead students does not mean that a teacher will be a good leader of adults. Indeed, many have opted out of leadership positions in their schools because leading adults is difficult and demanding. When we lead adults both personal and professional relationships come into play and managing both in challenging circumstances is difficult for many to achieve.

Rather than working with and though others, many school leaders try to effect change in their schools by trying to do all the work. Such leaders are often referred to as ‘Hero Leaders’. This type of leader wants to directly influence the changes that the school needs to move forward. Hero leaders have the mindset that: ‘if the job is to get done properly, then it is better to do it myself’. In doing so, they become relied on too much by others for getting things done, they are often too stressed and susceptible to burn out. Hero Leaders fight tooth and nail to remain involved with teaching and learning in a direct way, as they cannot let go and empower other leaders and teachers to do the necessary work at the chalkface. When Hero Leaders are away from the school building, things fall apart without them. A good as the Hero Leader may be, it is hardly the best way for a school to bring about sustainable improvement.

Good leadership at the senior management level involves the indirect leadership of students. The leadership comes from working with and through the teachers and support staff in the building to make the desired change, rather than having to go do it yourself. To do this effectively, significant time must be invested by the school leader(s) in the teams and people that need to directly influence student learning.

This type of leadership means more indirect leadership of students and more direct leadership of adults. To do this successfully school leaders need to do the following four things:

  1. Collaboratively set improvement goals and parameters within which to operate in achieving the goals, so that there is a clear direction and focused work.
  2. Hold weekly meetings with the teams / specific people you work with and through. These meetings should focus on progress being made towards improvement goals. They should be problem focused, in that the senior leader’s purpose for the meeting is not just to be informed but, more importantly, to also offer support and guidance. These meetings should also provide coaching and feedback that instills confidence in others to lead without being micromanaged.
  3. Empower others to lead and make the change. Trust in others to get the job done and avoid interfering. Things may not get done in exactly the same way that we might like it done but those we work with are not clones of us and nor should they be – allow for difference. Observe meetings and give feedback to others afterwards and away from the meeting table.
  4. Celebrate the progress that is being made and acknowledge the role that others play in making improvements. After all, leadership is not about you, it is about others.

As Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Facebook states: “Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.”

Originally posted on the Ed Leader blog

Connect with me @richard_bruford