Leadership skills enable educators to guide their learning communities at a school or district level. Effective educational leaders rally the community and create an environment that fosters execution of a clear vision. According to the Wallace Foundation, research indicates that school leadership, and perhaps even district leadership, can have effects on student learning. While it’s common to think of some people as “born leaders,” leadership skills can be cultivated, practiced and improved.
“We are all leaders. You can’t be an educator if you’re not a leader,” Utah kindergarten teacher Marty Davis, a member of the Utah Education Association Board of Directors, told the National Education Association’s National Leadership Summit: “Everybody has something to offer.”
The following are some of the core characteristics and skills school leaders would do well to develop:
- Strategic thinking: One of the core skill sets for school leaders is the ability to “set direction” or think strategically. This necessary competency is related to the establishment of purpose or “vision.” Working toward such a purpose or vision may be a broad, long-term effort, but with strategic thinking skills, leaders have the tools to translate that abstraction into concrete plans and measurable actions. Strategic thinking, Harvard Business Review explains, enables leaders to respond to unknown situations through their abilities to “anticipate, challenge, interpret, decide, align, and learn.”
- Community building: No leader is an island — especially not an educational leader. Schools and districts are made of many constituencies with disparate perspectives: students, families, teachers, support staff, community members, neighbors, policymakers and more. A survey conducted by the National School Public Relations Association polled 17 “superintendent of the year” recipients and found that communication/community relations skills are the second-most important for the success of a superintendent, behind only leadership/vision.
- Data-driven decision-making: Data is not a new tool used to inform educational decisions; however, its use has gained credence in recent decades as a result of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Race to the Top (RTTT) and the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) assessments. The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development defines data-driven educational decision-making as “the process by which educators examine assessment data to identify student strengths and deficiencies and apply those findings to their practice.” Educational leaders who are adept at data-driven decision-making take a systematic approach to information gathering and evaluation.
- Inclusivity: Between 2000 and 2017, the percentage of white students who attended American public schools decreased from 61% to 48%, while the percentages of Hispanic, Asian and biracial students increased. The National Center for Education Statistics projects that white students will make up just 44% of the overall student body by 2029. Given the shifting racial and ethnic demographics of American schools — to say nothing of gender, linguistic, religious, disability status and other components of students’ identities — leaders must be prepared to create school communities that foster belonging, not just welcoming. That belonging extends to teachers, staff, families, community partners and students.
- Emotional intelligence: This skill undergirds many other qualities and habits of good leaders. It is necessary for community building and inclusivity, but it also plays a critical role in developing people. In a school or district context, “developing people” often means improving classroom instruction, teaching and learning, sometimes called “instructional leadership.” Recent research shows that emotional intelligence plays a role in this type of motivation and development in forms such as paying personal attention to employees, making the best use of their individual abilities, conveying common missions or goals and actively listening to others’ feedback and perspectives.
Every person can be a leader in some capacity, but educational leaders have unique responsibilities to support communities of teachers, superintendents, parents, families and students. While leadership skills can be innate, they can also be fostered and developed with the right tools.
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