Empowering Principals to Empower Their Schools
This article was first published in the April 22, 2021 ASCD Express issue, “What Makes a Successful Principal?”
Neither of us were planning to be principals. We loved teaching and didn’t want to lose our connections to the school community. But we got thrust into leadership positions very quickly—Karen after Hurricane Katrina and Claire during the founding of a new charter school—and found them both daunting and energizing. In our roles, we had to figure out the systems for instruction, school culture, and a community-building process. It was exciting, but not without challenges.
Research shows that school improvement requires effective teachers, strong principals, and rigorous and engaging curriculum (Leithwood, Anderson, Louis, & Wahlstrom, 2004). Any one of these elements without the other two is insufficient. In that dynamic trio, according to the same research, school leadership accounts for about 25 percent of a school’s impact on student learning. Effective principals drive collective efficacy within their schools by bringing all three elements together.
As current principal trainers, our experiences have shown us that principals have the greatest effect when they receive support that allows them to empower their teams and drive meaningful change. Empowered principals create a culture focused on student and teacher success. They establish systems that enable teachers to continuously improve their practice and galvanize the whole community to support students’ hopes and dreams.
But empowered principals are not go-it-alone superheroes. Principals need to drive toward sustainable solutions that engage the whole school community, including students, teachers, families, and community members. Now more than ever, our schools need leaders who bring out the best in everyone.
Three supports have made a transformative difference in our leadership. We’ll lay them out alongside some stories from our own learning experiences.
An Adaptive Mindset: Principals Need More Than Technical Skills
Principals need to be change agents. Technical fixes offer prescribed solutions, but adaptive solutions require that schools lean into discomfort and transform challenges into opportunities to move forward together.
Claire: As a new principal in Oakland Unified School District, I faced a huge budget shortfall. A grant was sunsetting at my school, and I had to be the holder of that change, whether I wanted to be or not. Small class size was the hallmark of the school, but without the grant, that was sunsetting, too. Layoffs were on the horizon.
There was no easy answer. I knew that I needed to engage my staff in the decision-making process. That meant doing my homework really fast: I had to make the budget crisis palpable enough for all of us to understand our financial situation and find a viable solution. I asked for mentorship from two former principals of my school, who both understood the vision of our work and the grant.
After I laid out the numbers for my staff, I reframed the question of layoffs into one about our vision: What did we think was the most important step to take for our students? Was it small class size? Was it educational resources? What drove our success? In the end, my staff voted unanimously to increase class size so we could avoid layoffs and teachers could continue to do what they did best: teach. Sharing information about a challenge and working with staff to help solve it ensured we were moving forward together with more voices in the decision-making process.
Like the adage “one size does not fit all,” adaptive leadership is how leaders dig into complex problems that do not have a known solution (Heifetz, Grashow, & Linsky, 2009). Adaptive leaders step back to understand a challenge from multiple perspectives, explore root causes, consider who is affected, and identify key partners and human resources. They interpret existing data and mobilize all stakeholders in forging solutions for their unique context.
For example, consider the dual crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and systemic racial injustice. The need to deliver high-quality instruction to students, be it in-person, remote, or hybrid, required principals to change their instruction plans to meet a new reality. There was no one right answer for every school. Principals had to lean into the ambiguity and cull feedback from staff, students, and families to pave the way for instruction that reflected unique needs.
Similarly, addressing systemic racism in schools does not have a singular fix. It remains an ongoing adaptive challenge, requiring leaders to engage in open dialogue. Principals need to create safe spaces for staff to surface internal biases and provide professional learning opportunities to build culturally responsive practices (Desravines, Aquino, & Fenton, 2016). How principals ensure equity of voice and coalesce their community around this work illustrates adaptive leadership.
Technical skills alone—like executing safety protocols or developing bus schedules—will not enable principals to create cultures in which every student thrives or face inevitable complexities. But adaptive leadership, when paired with technical skills, has the capacity to drive high expectations and student success. Developing such leadership requires deep reflection of practices, personal leadership, and systems and structures. This type of reflection doesn’t happen in a day—it must be measured over time.
A Coach: Principals Need Real-Time Support
Leaders need someone who is looking in from the outside. Coaches can push you to see what you cannot, translating the knowledge in your head into real action. In turn, your openness to learning can motivate staff to be open as well.
Karen: In my first years as an elementary school principal, I wanted to give students exactly what I thought they would need to be successful. I looked at formative and interim assessment data and observation data from classroom visits. Then, I redid the school schedule to allocate more time for ELA instruction. I created a reading intervention block, trained paraprofessionals to teach small reading groups, and identified weekly curricular goals for every grade. But I didn’t feel like our school was invested in the changes.
In my 4th year of leading, I got a leadership coach. One day, he asked me if I knew what my teachers said about me. “They think you do all the work yourself,” he said. “You don’t empower people.”
His authentic feedback shifted my leadership. A lack of empowerment also meant a lack of trust and capacity building. The next time I got my staff together, I told them why I became a principal and what I value as an educator. I asked the staff to reflect and share their “whys.” Then we created a shared vision for our school by imagining the ideals we desired for our students and our aspirations for the future. We needed a clear image of what success looked like for us.
Successful coaching reflects adult learning theory—the idea that adults learn best when their learning is applicable to their goals. Principals need opportunities to hone their leadership skills in day-to-day work in ways that are authentic and relevant as well as continuous (Joyce & Shower, 2002). Coaching, with progress monitoring built in, can provide that kind of practice.
The idea is to build leaders’ capacity to strategically think through goals and how to achieve them. A coach's actionable feedback often marries observations with multiple data sources (e.g., qualitative data, artifacts, video review), which allows leaders to see the connections and gaps between their current practices and effective decisions. To be impactful, the feedback needs to be paired with self-reflection. Though the coach plays an important role, coaching is only truly successful when leaders own applying the insights to their action steps and identify what is in their control.
A Team: Principals Need a Community of Leaders
Bringing a school's vision to life, as we both discovered, is the real work of schools. Rather than limiting leadership to a specific role or title, leaders need to cultivate the skills and knowledge that exist across the building. Sadly, this talent often goes untapped.
Claire: It is so important for school communities to make decisions for themselves. During our budget crisis, teachers wanted to understand the complexity of the situation so they could make their voices heard. And they wanted to shape the process and the outcome. Principals cannot lead by themselves—they need thought partners and instructional teams to be leaders as well.
In distributed and shared leadership models, an empowered principal distributes leadership across multiple teams, using their varied skills and experiences to advance the school’s vision—whether through instructional leadership, cultural leadership, or personal leadership. An instructional leadership team may develop a plan for implementing a new teaching practice at every grade. A school-based team may analyze disciplinary data and create new systems when there are inequities. Another team may facilitate peer observations or develop proposals for new hybrid schedules. Working with the principal, these teams drive collective action.
Principals can determine which leadership strand or what part of the work educators are uniquely aligned to drive. Then, they can be the process keepers, designing project plans, check-ins, and action items to track progress with ongoing support.
Research suggests that distributed leadership models are linked to more sustainable school improvement (Harris & DeFlaminis, 2016). Specifically, distributed leadership has been found to improve teacher motivation and performance, which correlates with stronger student outcomes (Leithwood & Mascall, 2008). Teachers in schools that use a distributed leadership model tend to show more optimism, efficacy, and trust (Mascall, Leithwood, Straus, & Sacks, 2008). They also report a higher sense of job satisfaction (Torres, 2019).
Building a community of leaders increases the sustainability of school improvement efforts over time. Trust your team and show them how your leadership evolves. As an added bonus, you’ll feel less alone and more supported.
Transform Your Leadership, Transform Your School
As principal coaches and trainers, we have met with principals from across the country who are working to navigate this unprecedented school year. The most empowered principals are leaning on their teams. They are managing ambiguity and adapting quickly to a changing landscape. They are seeking out professional support via a coach or other learning opportunities. Together, all three supports are helping them to empower others and build the kind of schools all children deserve.