One of my core beliefs as a superintendent is to provide support and build the capacity of our school leaders. While somewhat of an over exaggeration, in many cases, “how goes the principal is how goes the school.” This doesn’t mean that everything good or bad needs to be laid on the lap of the school administrator but at the same time, without strong leadership at the helm, schools and ultimately students suffer. The only caveat I have here is that if you are in one of these schools without effective leadership, you might want to do a little self-reflection as most often toxic culture is bred within school staffs too!
A key consideration for building leadership capacity is to be visible in schools and available at the office. I remember the day-to-day frustrations of school administration and if you as a senior leader are not available when the times are tough…you are not much use. In working with leaders from across the province I hear about the “distance” self-imposed between senior and school administration. This is simply unacceptable! There is a hierarchy no doubt, and so it is essential for senior leaders to find ways to honor that hierarchy AND build strong relationships. My position requires me to have tough conversations and make difficult decisions but my school leaders are still my colleagues! The stronger the relationship, the more honesty you are going to get and the greater the ability to support.
While relationships are key, relationships in themselves are not enough. Senior leaders need to be able to support school leaders through issues and challenges, highs and lows and just plain struggles. It is not about solving problems but rather listening, questioning, causing reflection and ultimately building efficacy.
Listening- experienced leaders have a tendency to know the answer and want to just share their advice. It is easy and it is quick but it doesn’t necessarily stick and become part of the individual’s toolkit of strategies. Listening means that you just “shut up” and suspend judgment. You cannot get to the next stage of questioning if you are not fully aware of the context.
Questioning/Reflection- Most of our administrators are trained in the cognitive coaching model where asking the right questions is key to the process. To be honest, if you ask the right questions, reflective practice is enhanced and most often efficacy increases. Great questions are pluralistic in nature (i.e. What might be…) and are always open-ended. You won’t get much reflection from a yes or no question. The person doing the thinking is the person doing the learning, so make them think with reflective questions and ensure that you cast no judgment.
Efficacy- this has been a late learning for me but is proving to be the missing piece in the process. I like to tie situations back to when the individual was successful with a similar issue. For example, I might ask, “Looking back, what are some of the ways that you have been able to overcome a similar situation?” As you tweeze answers out, you can begin to place these successes front and center and looked for connections between past and future actions. It is powerful when people are able to see how they’ve been successful in the past and then build their own sense of efficacy.
I’ve never gotten it all right and the method I use works better with some leaders compared to others. However, when it works, leadership flourishes and staff and students excel. It is overdue for senior leaders to break down the positional barriers that exist, “get in the trenches” and support leadership development!