“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way”.
John C. Maxwell
It is generally said that an organization is as good as its leader. In other words, the success or failure of an organization hinges upon the quality of its leadership. The same is true for schools as well. A strong school leadership can inspire change in teachers and students alike, ultimately raising the standard of the institution. However, leading a school is no easy task. Not only does is it require an aspiring vision, but also meticulous management to ensure the translation of that vision into reality. School leaders (principals, head masters and mistresses) often find this task daunting and face a number of difficulties in carrying it out effectively. In this regard, the experience of senior and experienced school leaders becomes an invaluable resource for those who are new in the field. The following sections discuss some important aspects of the role of a school leader with reference to what some experienced school teachers have said and practiced.
Vision, Values and Culture Setting
The first and most important requirement for becoming a good school leader is to have a strong and clear vision. Leaders must know where they want to lead their institutions to in terms of quality of education, character excellence of students and the development of a culture and ethos. The vision school leaders have is transmitted from them to the school staff and students. Thus, if the leaders do not have a high aim, the whole organization tends to suffers from a lack of vision and the efforts aimed at improving the school do not bring about significant results.
Similarly, leaders are also the fountainhead from where the whole institution derives its values and ethos. When there are a number of shared values, the organization begins to develop its own culture which becomes a guiding source for the individuals (teachers and students) operating within that culture. The quality and nature of interaction among the members of the organization, their attitudes towards each other and towards work, and the dealings with other organizations are all governed by this culture. For example, one experienced principal mentioned that he promoted a culture of openness and respect in his school, where the senior teachers mentored the new ones. Such a culture increased the commitment and ownership of the teachers towards the organization. On the other hand, when leaders are unable to provide a set of strong positive values, and are unable to lead through example by adopting and acting on those values, the institution moves towards chaos and individualism and gradually negativity starts creeping in.
Many practical issues can arise when school leaders try to implement their vision and values. One school principal who had newly assumed the leadership of a schooling system with three different campuses highlighted the difficulties that a new school leader comes across. According to her, when a teacher assumes the responsibility of a principal, he or she has her own views and perspectives. However, there are aims and objectives set out by the organization too. So the first challenge for a school leader is to reconcile the two perspectives. Next, he or she has to understand the coworkers and colleagues, their mentalities, temperaments, and working and leading styles, especially of the senior teachers, so that individual relationships and dealings can be based on that information. The challenge then is to pave the way for getting everyone to a common vision and working towards it.
Motivating the Staff
A big challenge for any school leader is to motivate the school staff. While the teaching and non-teaching staff usually fulfill the duties assigned to them, they often lack the drive to take initiative and do more than the minimum that they are required to do. In some cases however, the staff is so severely lacking in motivation that the required tasks also get done only barely. In such a scenario, the role of the school leader becomes even more crucial. Here too, the leader has to set a personal example of motivation and hard work. When the leaders themselves are fully involved in all important matters, and take personal interest, the spirit transfers from them to the other staff members as well. The following anecdotes illustrate this point well. Even though what happens in these anecdotes will be considered relatively small in a larger context, but their significance and motivational impact is huge.
One headmistress narrated an incident which demonstrates how involvement and motivation on the part of the leader can be inspire the other staff members. Once, the headmistress had assigned a teacher to supervise the daily cleaning of the wash basin in student’s washroom. The teacher would remind the sweeper but the sweeper wouldn’t clean it properly and as a result that basin always had dull look. One day the headmistress herself went to see the cleaning. When she asked the sweeper why wasn’t it cleaned properly, the sweeper started making the usual excuses that this is the best that could be done to the think. At that moment, to the amazement of the sweeper and the supervising teacher, the headmistress rolled her sleeves and scrubbed the sink clean. From that day onwards, the sink would be clean and shiny every day.
Once the present author went to interview a senior school principal who had been in the field for more than forty years. The sight of the principal’s office was itself witness to how the Principal kept her staff motivated. It was past school time but the principal was still working in his office. He informed the author that he usually remained in office well past the usual school timings. However, what was more unusual about the scene was the presence of a student whom the principal himself was tutoring, while continuing his own management work simultaneously.
Apart from setting an example of dedication and hard work, leaders can adopt a number of other practices which have a motivational impact on the school staff. One such practice is developing a strong bonding with the staff. All successful school leaders acknowledge the importance of having a good relationship with their staff members. Talking about her personal way of interacting with her staff, one school principal mentioned that she felt that without an open relationship with her staff and students, she couldn’t lead the school towards the desired aims and objectives. Therefore, she strived to have a ‘solid interaction’ with her teachers. She said she would make an effort to be on good individual terms with her teachers, spend time with them, discuss the issues they were facing, observe their classes, and provide feedback to them about their performance. Thus, according to her, her terms with her teachers were good to an extent that teachers could come to her and share their problems with her. With respect and trust, she emphasized, weaknesses of subordinates could be turned into strengths. Such a close relationship meant that the staff were motivated to cooperate with the leader and were willing to put in more and more effort.
Another successful principal shared a similar approach. He would pay surprise visits to the class and would take personal interest in what and how the teachers were teaching the students. He would then give constructive, personalized feedback to the teachers and would appreciate them for their efforts. Moreover, he would ask the teachers to share their problems and suggestions with him. And indeed, that praise and concern would turn out to have a greater motivational impact on the teachers than the year-end appraisals.
Involving the staff in decision making is yet another way of keeping the staff motivated. When the opinions of staff members regarding an important decision are taken, their commitment to the decision and feelings of worth and ownership increase. On the contrary, when the staff has no say in the decision, feelings of dissatisfaction are likely to be caused. One of the principals mentioned earlier stressed that it was important for the school leader not to impose his or her views on others, and to take others on board when planning and making decisions. Giving her own example, she mentioned that if she came up with an idea or strategy, she would first act upon it herself, creating a model and setting an example, and only then she would expect others to implement or adopt it. In her view, imposing authority meant disrespect, which would eventually be destructive.
Relationship with the Students
One of the factors that make successful school leaders distinctive is their relationship with the students. It often happens that teachers act as the connection between the school management and the students, with management having no or very little direct interaction with the students. The interaction that happens is either restricted to events and ceremonies or occurs in the context of a disciplinary action. This lack of connection means that school leaders lose an important opportunity to influence the academic and personal growth of students. It also means that the leaders miss out on the important information that students can provide. Such information may include aspects of what is actually going on in the school and what impact is it having on the students.
Reminiscing about his old school days, the principal of a technical institute told the present author about the principal of the college he had studied from. He admiringly mentioned that the principal had command over all the technical disciplines taught in the college; however, his most remarkable quality was that he remembered the name and other information of each and every student in his college. Whenever he encountered the students, he would interact with them using their names, because of which the students held him in high esteem and paid heed to what he had say.
Another current principal, whose thoughts have also been referred to above, mentioned that she tried to take out time to sit with her students, listen to their problems, and provide feedback to them. She would then share the students’ perspective with her staff members so that they could act accordingly for the benefit of the students. Owing to this multilayered interaction, the principal said she could better ensure the well-being of the students.
Continued Professional Growth
In his famous book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey named the seventh habit of effectiveness as ‘sharpen the saw.’ What he meant by this expression was that for continued effectiveness, it was essential to focus on and engage in those activities which increase the personal capacities and skills of an individual and make him better equipped to handle his day to day personal and professional tasks in an efficient way.
This holds true for school leaders as well. In order to be able to lead the institution effectively, school leaders need to engage in activities which foster their growth as school leaders and educational experts. Following are some helpful activities to meet this end:
- Reflection: Reflection means to think seriously. Successful leaders reflect about each and everything that they do and that goes on in their institutions, and on the basis of that reflection, try to improve the state of affairs. This thinking is done both prospectively (e.g. thinking about the usefulness of a decision before actually making the decision) and retrospectively (e.g. thinking about what has already been done and what were the positive and negative effects of it). Through reflection, successful leaders are able to capture the learning offered by the day to day experiences and profit from that learning in improving subsequent efforts. Thus, reflection helps in avoiding future mistakes and facilitates wiser initiatives and decision making.
- Discovering New Information: Successful leaders are constantly motivated to improve themselves and update and expand their knowledge. In the context of educational organizations, this can be done through reading books, research journals and educational magazines, and by attending workshops, seminars and conferences. The new knowledge and skills thus acquired help them in improving their existing school leadership practices and ultimately benefits their institution.
- Maintaining Ties With Other Leaders: Even though a thoughtful individual can accomplish a lot on his own, the output of any endeavour is usually better when multiple minds are involved in planning and executing it. School leaders who run their organizations successfully not only consult the members of their teaching and management staff, but also maintain ties with leaders in other educational organizations and try to learn from what they are doing in their respective schools. This sharing of ideas across institutions gives birth to a more pervasive wave of change and improvement in quality.
A Final Note
Leading an educational institution, like leading other organizations, is a demanding task. Professional qualification, experience and practice can help one get better in fulfilling the requirements of this task. However, the factor which holds fundamental importance among all factors is the personal passion, will and determination of the school leader. Without an unrelenting spirit and commitment to serve and bring about positive change in the lives of students and teachers, school leaders can never become true leaders. When passion and commitment are added to knowledge, skills and experience, the result is the exponential growth of the entire institution. As Hegel, the famous German philosopher, said “Nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion,” and with passion, the arduous task of leading a school can ultimately become an undertaking of achievement, fulfillment and pleasure.
The author is a graduate student of Human Development at Teachers College, Columbia University, New York.