Culture Isn’t Just for Schools: District Leadership Matters

District leaders, from principal supervisors to superintendents, play a critical role in establishing a culture of growth, satisfaction, and impact. Here are four leadership actions you can take.
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Anne Thomas
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As preparations are underway for another unknown school year, now is the time to restore, retool, and recommit. A former teacher, principal, and district leader for over 25 years, I support and coach district leaders to be powerful and positive forces for change. 

In my work with districts across the nation, I’ve seen many successful district-level practices evolve as almost unintended consequences of the pandemic response. District leaders have been forced to re-evaluate practices to give attention to the things most pressing in these moments: the health and safety of students and staff. Now it is time for all district leaders to take that re-evaluation to the next level and address support for school-level staff and student outcomes. 

Based on my observations of these effective shifts, here are the top four district leadership actions you can take right now to establish a culture of growth, satisfaction, and impact for the coming year:

  • Analyze current systems and remove barriers
  • Move from compliance-driven to capacity-building systems around instructional improvement 
  • Reframe district-mandated curricula as resources to support effective teaching
  • Commit to supporting and sustaining strong school leaders 

In 2021, Edweek reported that approximately 42% of principals were looking to leave the profession. According to the report, the top five reasons cited by principals were working conditions, compensation, high-stakes accountability systems/evaluation practices, lack of decision-making authority, and inadequate access to professional learning. (NASSP. LPI. 2021)

Stop for a moment and consider the palpable difference it can make when you take action to effectively address 80% of these issues by committing to just four strategic leadership actions. Schools will be positioned to enter the new year with a renewed commitment: a purposeful focus on high-quality instruction to drive maximum impact for students while discovering new levels of fulfillment and joy in the work. 

"The only great way to do great work is to love what you do." - Steve Jobs

Analyze current systems and remove barriers

One thing that can be done at the district level, whether as a supervisor of principals or a district-level supporter of principals, is to analyze your current systems to ensure that school administrators and teachers are being supported in the most impactful ways. This means removing barriers: the systems that aren’t working and the systems that are too cumbersome compared to their output. 

It may mean letting go of those things altogether. Or,  it may mean working with school leaders and staff to create simpler, more effective systems that enable them to do their highest-quality work without the barriers of old. For example, consider the district leader who effectively eliminated unnecessary structures to monitor compliance around the use of technology-driven math support in favor of supporting stronger professional learning and support for highly-effective teaching and learning in math classrooms across the district. 

In coaching leaders, I’ve always said that where you spend your time is where your priorities lie. Whether that is intentional or not, it’s a fact. If your systems and structures are taking precious time away from instruction, from ensuring safe spaces for kids, from developing school leaders and school staff to their fullest potential, or from maintaining a laser-like focus on high-quality instruction, then the structures are an issue. Fix those first. 

"If you are not willing to risk the usual, you will have to settle for the ordinary."
Jim Rohn

Move from compliance-driven to capacity-building systems around instructional improvement

Another highly impactful district leadership action is to be intentional to re-evaluate and be willing to rework your processes for building leader and teacher capacity through observation and support of high-quality instruction in schools. You want to re-center all processes on the instructional core. 

Education researchers define the instructional core as consisting of the teacher’s knowledge and skill, the students' engagement in their own learning, and academically challenging content. Research indicates that the three are not only interdependent but that the absence of one diminishes and sometimes completely negates the impact of the others. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what you can do at the district level to support effective, high-quality instruction in schools at scale.

Be intentional about creating school-level observation systems that support teachers’ abilities to construct and deliver high-quality, rigorous lessons centered around the instructional core. It is critical that you consider this when making decisions about school observation practices as well as any existing compliance-driven-type emphasis on set curricula utilization across your district.

If your previous school visit system centered on compliance, throw it out. Take the time to work with school leaders and teachers to design and implement a district-wide system of observations that is both experiential and collaborative. Consider calibrating with your team and with all of your school leaders to discuss and execute observation practices that not only focus on the instructional core but build school leader and teacher effectiveness at scale. 

The most effective districts also center on supporting principal and teacher growth as their target, knowing that increased student achievement will be the end result. 

Whatever you do to build a strong culture and outcomes within and across schools, it is critical to ensure that school leader and teacher voices are part of the process and that district visits consistently align with a mission of support, not a ‘gotcha.’ If you can make that happen, the outcome will ultimately be a stronger instructional focus, tighter alignment, and measurable impact on student outcomes while affording school leaders and their staff the personal, growth-centered support and autonomy they need in order to do their best work for kids. 

"Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth." - John F. Kennedy

Reframe district-mandated curricula as resources to support effective teaching

In an age of tech-driven classrooms, your role at the district level should be to promote school-level decision-making around curriculum and to guard against classrooms becoming mere checklists of web-based program completion. You have the opportunity and the responsibility to leverage your role at the district to engage in courageous conversations around what effective instruction is and to be a fearless advocate for authentic, high-quality teaching. Encourage your principals and teachers to use their resources wisely and well while focusing on developing indispensable, high-quality instructional practices across classrooms. 

Take time to consider the critical role that the instructional core should play in your district-level systems and in schools under your broader leadership while remembering that absolutely nothing can replace highly effective teaching. Not a set of good textbooks. Not a new tech-driven curricular resource or a system of monitoring minutes-based compliance. 

Be sure that you also vet new classroom-level resources to ensure that their use will positively impact a teacher’s ability to create and support rigorous, high-quality lessons centered around the instructional core. You want everything you invest in to meet the following criteria:

  • It substantially increases the quality and intellectual rigor of the curriculum.
  • It increases students’ voice, agency, and leadership in their learning.  
  • It promotes an adult learning culture that enhances the knowledge and skills of teachers. 

Equipped with a laser-like focus on effective instructional practices and a grounding in the instructional core, you can be the district leader who drives change. Not only will you see higher levels of student achievement, but greater satisfaction and effectiveness in the workplace for school leaders, teachers, and staff. 

“You can choose courage, or you can choose comfort, but you cannot choose both."  Brene Brown

Commit to supporting and sustaining strong school leaders 

Supporting and sustaining effective principals sounds so simple. And in some ways, I think it is. A recent report from the Wallace Foundation states, “it is difficult to envision an investment with a higher ceiling on its potential return than a successful effort to improve principal leadership.” For that reason, districts are remiss not to pour into those leaders as much as possible. 

Some of the district leadership moves above will naturally shift leaders to a place of higher levels of satisfaction—and this departure from the norm in a positive direction could be enough to keep your principals invested in the work for a time. But I want to challenge you to be deliberate about how you show up as a supporter, as an advocate, and as a relentless coach for your effective school leaders. And for the not-as-effective leaders, too. 

After twenty-five years in education, I have countless coaches to thank along my journey. The best coach I ever had was not only an experienced leader herself, but she consistently listened with intention and pushed me to consider aspects of my leadership that I had never before considered. She called me out when the words I used necessitated reflection, and she paid attention to patterns in our conversations, leveraging both to push me to think intentionally about my passions, my skill sets, and my future. Make the commitment to be that kind of thoughtful and supportive partner to the principals you support. 

Some final thoughts from one leader to another 

With constant high-stakes pressure for school leaders to improve student achievement and the persistent disruption caused by the pandemic, the time has come for district leaders like yourself to ensure that the culture you create inherently supports not only the growth and development of your leaders and teachers but their levels of autonomy, as well.  

Coach, mentor, advocate, support, reflect, be brave, and when you can, let go of some of the control and trust them to do the work. It really is that simple. For more strategies, read our full series: Innovative Ways to Create a Positive School (and District) Culture.

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Anne Thomas

Anne Thomas

New Leaders alum Anne Thomas currently serves as Senior Executive Director, Program Implementation and Adjunct Trainer Corps at New Leaders. She manages and oversees program leadership for our district partnerships across the nation. Over her 25-year career in education, Thomas has served as a district administrator, principal, assistant principal, and teacher.

Anne Thomas

Anne Thomas

Anne Thomas

Anne Thomas

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