Leadership Lessons from the Helm

Strategies from a Former School Leader


by Jay Adams, Managing Director of Quality Reviews

When I was a school leader, I had more than one moment of uncertainty — wondering if I was steering my ship in the right direction.
Now that I work with school leaders across the country, I know how common it is for principals to question their course. To help school leaders “get their sea legs,” I frequently coach them to focus on a few essential leadership strategies. If you’re prepared to do a little hard work upfront, these strategies can move your day-to-day leadership experience from “riding the waves” to “smooth sailing.”  

1. Intentionally Build Your Dream Team 

Yes, you’re the captain, but even the most skilled sailors need a crew. Surround yourself with a leadership team that complements your strengths. In Robert Marzano’s book, School Leadership That Works, he and the contributing authors highlight the importance of building and maintaining a strong, supportive leadership team. When considering your school’s Dream Team, think of the three competencies that are foundational to school success: instruction, culture, and operations.

First, you need a person focused on instruction. This member of the team can be a Dean of Instruction, an Instructional Assistant Principal, or, in a smaller school, it might be a Lead Instructional Coach. Whatever the title, this person’s responsibility is to carry out the instructional vision for your school. Not sure if you have an instructional vision? Stay tuned; we will discuss that later in this article.

Next, you want to ensure your school culture is positive and progressive – look for a leader with an innate ability to rally the troops and bring everyone together. The culture person will manage parent-school relationships, teacher-to-teacher relationships, student-to-student relationships, and leadership-to-stakeholder relationships. This person’s responsibilities might include:

  • Student management and responsiveness
  • Organizing community-facing events like family nights or literacy nights
  • Planning team-building activities for your staff
  • Organizing chats with the school’s leadership team to receive valuable stakeholder insight and feedback

Lastly, you need that Type-A “box-checker” personality to manage operations. This person will ensure buses run on time, the cafeteria is monitored, the master schedule is flawless, and the entire school functions like a well-oiled machine every day. This person will be crucial in focusing on the big-picture operational items while you lead other team members in the critical areas of focus for the school.

If you do not have these three competencies represented on your leadership team, you need to reexamine your human capital – ASAP. Leaving any of these three areas “at risk” for poor oversight will keep you stuck in the role of putting out fires.

2. Nurture Your School Culture by Setting Expectations

From the school’s entrance to every corner of a classroom, it’s crucial to foster a culture of care, pride, and collaboration. To achieve a positive school culture, school leaders must spend time nurturing relationships and communication channels. Your work in this area begins with setting expectations.

For example, in schools with positive school culture, students have and follow clear behavior expectations that are set by teachers and leaders. Communication norms for staff are established and followed – including how staff communicate with one another, how they communicate with leadership, and how they communicate with students and parents. If your communication plan does not articulate these norms, invest some time in establishing these systems. And while you’re at it, it’s always good to double-check that your communication plans and expectations are rooted in your school’s vision and highlight an uplifting culture of collaboration within your school.

Just one note of caution before you get to policy-making – always prioritize people over paperwork, and be visible. Your presence is the number one factor shaping the culture.

3. Use Collaborative Structures to Set the Academic Course

It goes without saying – your job as a school leader is to keep a steady hand on the helm, guiding the ship toward educational excellence. This includes establishing a set of non-negotiables for planning, assessment, and delivery of instruction. These non-negotiables should guide student learning daily and be evident in each teacher’s classroom. In Ray Bolam’s research on Creating and Sustaining Effective Learning Communities, Bolman focuses on the need for teachers to meet regularly to discuss instructional practices. To maintain a clear path for learning, be sure to create time in your school’s schedule for teachers to engage in collaborative planning with an instructional leader or coach every week. This time should be utilized to review the curriculum and standards, discuss any current student needs, and plan high-quality, engaging lessons for the following week. Setting aside dedicated time for collaborative planning ensures all teachers follow the outlined instructional expectations, plan effective assessments, and deliver high-quality instruction.

4. Establish Mechanisms to Monitor and Adjust

Now that you’ve set clear goals and expectations, you must monitor. Be assured – if it’s not monitored, it will not get done. Monitor your culture and climate plan by creating quarterly stakeholder surveys to assess each area of the plan and create a space to receive feedback on any strategies in play. Adjust where needed. Rinse and repeat.

When it comes to instruction, monitoring systems are essential. In Paul Bambrick-Santoyo’s Get Better Faster: A 90-Day Plan for Coaching New Teacher, the author writes about the importance of establishing a clear coaching cycle for instructional staff. To monitor instruction, establish a coaching and feedback cycle for your teachers. A manageable cycle with a tiered model (think RTI for teachers) ensures every teacher receives the level of support needed for their growth. Be sure to create a walk-through system to monitor high-quality instruction. A walk-through system can be accomplished with instructional rounds by assembling a team of 3-5 leaders who complete joint walk-through observations each month and identify areas of strength and areas for improvement. It might be helpful, in the beginning, to identify 1-2 of the instructional expectations (non-negotiables) to focus on during these instructional rounds. For a more in-depth look at instructional rounds (aka, Learning Walks), check out our recent blog post, Key Components of Learning Walks.

To ensure that student needs are prioritized, establish a bi-weekly or monthly collaborative time to evaluate student data and progress, and adjust instruction and remediation to improve student achievement and growth.

Finally, put all the data from all three monitoring systems together and use it to determine your professional development goals, topics, and areas of improvement. 

As you consider some of these strategies, remind yourself that creating systems that serve you well is hard work. There will be some trial and error along the way. But remember, your team is there to support you. Delegate tasks, empower your colleagues, trust in their abilities, and grow together.




Article by Jay Adams,
Managing Director of Quality Reviews



To learn more about our leadership quality reviews and coaching services, reach out anytime at info@schoolworks.org.


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