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Effective Principals Lead with Purpose

Written by: Lisa Sheehan
Published on: Jan 17, 2022

school principal teaching a class
Photo credit: NA/Getty Images

When every choice bears such significant weight, how do principals make decisions that really drive results? It took me years of administrative work to realize successful leadership strategies come to fruition when you answer a single-word question: Why?

This guiding query stretches far beyond the unreachably idealistic mumblings you see on motivational posters and coffee mugs. In fact, truly impactful and purpose-driven decision making relies on three crucial factors:

  • Listening to other experts
  • Following thorough, data-driven research
  • Communicating the mission with clarity

When you follow this simple equation, it leaves little to no doubt that your choices are built on a foundation of solid reasoning.

Listen to the Experts

At face value, those three pillars may sound like a gutted oversimplification. After all, principals serve as primary operation managers, instructional leaders, chief public relations personnel, human resources managers, and rule enforcers. The job is a never-ending juggling act that requires you to equip the faculty with tools, resources, and motivation that trickles down and benefits the student body.

That said, there’s no question that your body of knowledge will lead to an informed decision, but not necessarily one backed with purposeful intent. That’s because, too many times, principals are seen as the sole experts in any given situation. The education community often views school admins as the leaders who should be “all knowing.” And some leaders actually take this distinction too far. In truth, no one is omniscient, especially when it comes to something as unpredictable as your average school day.

To be effective, find other experts and follow their lead. Leaders must continually build their knowledge base so they can make the most well-informed decisions possible. Then, when faced with constituents (teachers, staff, parents, etc.), they will be able to share why they made the decision and provide some evidence for it.

Leaders benefit immensely from having a list of experts to seek guidance and advice from. Your list of experts might include individuals specializing in: mental/behavioral management, facilities, food services, instruction, personnel, and grounds. Know who to go to, who to trust, and who will give you purpose (why) behind their advice.

Yes, it takes a chunk of time to collect a reservoir of classroom experts. If you’ve been in an admin role for more than a year, you’ve undoubtedly conversed with experienced individuals you can recruit for future counsel. As you build your own body of resources, Advancement Courses recommends the following teachers and authors whose strategies will help you make the most informed, purpose-driven decisions:

  • Jed Dearybury, author of The Playful Classroom: Jed’s work revolves around using play as a classroom standard, focusing on culturally responsive playful teaching, play in the digital classroom, and how to schedule play into your day.
  • Ty Cook, the mastermind behind Cook in the Classroom: Mr. Cook offers a collection of pedagogical tools and classroom activities that kids gravitate toward. He relies on a tried-and-true teaching philosophy that maintains “the best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don’t tell you what to see.”
  • Peter Elbow, an expert on the many theories of rhetoric and composition: Dr. Elbow has spent decades democratizing the writing process, making a way for every student to enhance their critical thinking and craft stronger essays.

Follow the Research

This is where I have to get my pedestal out: Leaders must follow the research! Your gut, a “for-profit” instructional materials company, and “your colleague does it” are not the most reliable resources to guide your actions.

To be effective instructional leaders, principals must constantly study research on best instructional practices that lead to improved student outcomes. When looking at the latest data and case studies, leaders must know why they are learning about a particular topic and why they need to research it. They must be careful with the material. One article with a small field of research will not be as reliable as a large field whose results appear in multiple resources. Ultimately, it’s important to look for strong evidence of student learning based on the recommended practices.

By following the research, principals will have the data-driven reasoning that explains:

  • Why specific instructional practices are necessary: If you explain the reasons why certain classroom functions are vital, your faculty will view those instructions as helpful, rather than didactic.
  • Why some practices may need to change: It’s natural for human beings (yes, even superhuman educators) to fall back into what’s most familiar and comfortable. But growth, though sometimes painful, requires amending lackluster or irrelevant strategies.
  • How the school will implement certain practices: To get specific, leaders must be able to communicate their vision to parents, board members, and other stakeholders. The education world is densely populated, bustling with community members who have strong opinions about how young people ought to be educated. When you can give them a clear vision, they are more likely to help propel your plan forward.

Communication Is Essential

By clearly communicating the purpose behind each decision, recommendation, and action, leaders are able to build understanding among their staff and parent community. Trust comes from understanding, which is essential for a strong culture and organization.

As time consuming as it can be, leaders must be very detailed and intentional when communicating. Not only do they have to think about the best form of communication (e-mail, phone call, face to face, large group or small group, newsletter, social media, etc.), they also have to think about why one specific means is better than another. (There it is again: Why am I choosing this form of communication?)

Leaders must think about what they will communicate and what is most essential for their audience to hear and learn. How will you deliver information, and how frequently? Especially when it comes to instructional decisions, you should be prepared and committed to reiterating the purpose until it becomes internalized—that is, not only understood, but also repeated by constituents.

Purpose Leads to Success

Full disclosure: Your purpose must go beyond ticking state requirement boxes, collecting test score data, or delegating teacher bus duty. Of course, with so many competing commitments, it’s easy to fall into the trap of looking at school leadership choices through a granular lens. To stay focused on the big picture of schoolwide success, principals must explain the reasons behind every decision and every action.

Effective leaders recognize the role purpose plays in having a highly successful school where teachers, staff, and the community understand why things happen the way they do and why you make certain decisions.

Success comes when others understand and commit to the purpose. As a result, leaders ensure that the school community moves in a unified effort to provide the best possible learning experience for student success. Advancement Courses offers several PD courses designed specifically for school leaders that help you do exactly that:

  • The Art of Delegation: A School Leader’s Guide: Become a healthier, more successful leader through the power of delegation. Learn when to delegate, what kinds of tasks to delegate, and how to choose and coach the right people to help you lead your school to success.
  • Partnering with Parents for Student Success: Get the skills and confidence you need to create meaningful, long-lasting partnerships with your students’ families, including how to involve them with supporting students at home, volunteering in the classroom, and taking part in important decision making.
  • Maximizing Teacher Success Through Small Group Collaboration: How can you make the most of your PLC or grade or subject area team? Learn how to form and manage productive, growth-oriented teacher groups, improve communication, deal with confrontation, and facilitate meaningful professional development.
  • The Seven Domains of Teacher Leadership: Becoming a teacher leader is about much more than taking on a new title. Learn how to make a meaningful impact on your school’s improvement efforts and create a more equitable learning environment for your students.

Advancement Courses offers more than 280 online, self-paced PD courses covering both foundational topics and emerging trends in K–12 education. Courses are available for both graduate and continuing education credit for your salary advancement or recertification needs.

Lisa Sheehan

Lisa Sheehan has an undergraduate degree from Bellarmine University in art education and graduate degrees from the University of Louisville – Master of Education and Specialist in Education. Lisa taught art and in the regular classroom before moving into administration for 17 years. During her time as an administrator, Lisa was an instructional coordinator, gifted and talented coordinator, assistant principal, and building principal at Buckner Elementary School, in Oldham County, Kentucky. Lisa has been an adjunct professor for graduate classes at Bellarmine, undergraduate courses at University of Louisville, and served as a KTIP university resource teacher.

This article first appeared on Advancement Courses.