General skills for strong school leadership


“I believe that for any relationship to be successful, it takes loving communication, appreciation and understanding.” – Miranda Kerr

Education experts and researchers agree that school leaders can have a positive impact on student performance. But how? What are these people doing to help get results?

One answer is that they motivate their teachers to be high performing educators, to seek better teaching methods, to test new theories of learning and teaching practice, and to adopt educational reforms. Leadership activities that promote teacher thinking, such as feedback, suggestions and modeling, and professional growth also have positive effects on teacher motivation.

While doing research for my thesis a few years ago, I conducted a survey of teachers to see which key behaviors had a positive impact on teacher motivation. I organized these behaviors into four categories of leadership:

  1. Instructive / technical (understanding and implementing pedagogical procedures that promote learning). Examples include: curriculum and instructional supervision.
  2. Informative / interpersonal (train and inspire teachers to provide sound teaching). Examples include: leading by example and offering an affirmation.
  3. Organizational / technical (understanding and implementation of procedures that promote the efficiency and functioning of the organization). Examples include: maintaining order and discipline and managing change.
  4. Organizational / interpersonal (interaction with teachers and other constituents as head of the organization). Examples include: communicating clearly and frequently and being visible and accessible.

The survey results indicated, but not to a statistically significant degree, that the two “interpersonal” categories (numbers 2 and 4 above) were the most motivating for teachers. This means that teachers are motivated less by what their principals know (technical) than by how they choose to interact (interpersonal).

This may not surprise you. But the fact remains that most major training programs spend most of their time focusing on the ‘technical skills’ of instructional leadership, including content mastery, instructional expertise, and program design, rather. than more general skills, such as relationship building, communication and active listening. .

How can managers build stronger relationships with their teams? A good place to start is to simply get to know each team member as an individual. Try to learn and understand their strengths and goals, both professional and personal. What are they passionate about? What are their concerns? People appreciate it when you take an honest interest and show attention. They also love it when you can identify specific qualities and behaviors that make them special.

I remember once sitting around the table with my faculty advisory committee. The committee consisted of four teachers from different levels and disciplines of the school and was designed to offer me feedback on various programs and change initiatives as well as to be my ears on the ground. At one point, the conversation turned to handwritten thank you notes I had written for each staff member over the summer and left for them on the first day of the teachers’ meetings. The text was largely the same for every note, with a unique line for each staff member that emphasized a personal quality. He would say, “I really appreciate the way you…” and would focus on something like a teacher’s passion, creativity, contribution to the team, etc.

One committee member was young and relatively calm within the group. At one point in the conversation, the topic of notes came up. She commented on how much the grade she received meant to her. She had posted it on the wall above her desk and looked at it often for inspiration.

Another way to build relationships is to have one-on-one meetings. You can meet in your office, but think of other places that might work better. Go to their workspace or classroom for an impromptu chat or take time out together; these places can help level the playing field. If you speak into their space, look for items that can give you clues about them, such as pictures on display, an inspirational quote, or cute collectibles on their desk. These could serve as interesting conversation generators and also give you some valuable information to save for later. Getting together off-site offers a change of pace as well as a more focused conversation, away from the academic hubbub.

Once you’ve managed to develop positive professional relationships, it’s more likely that people at your school will openly brief you on internal developments, warn you of potential challenges or landmines, and even more readily tolerate your mistakes.

Nephthali Hoff, PsyD, (@impactfulcoach)) is president of Impactful coaching and advice. Discover his book on leadership, “Become the new boss.” Read his blog, and listen his leadership podcast. Download his new free eBook, “An EPIC solution with understaffing. “


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