Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
December 1, 2000
Vol. 58
No. 4

The Heart of School Leadership

    Principals know that education hasn't really changed—it's still focused on people.

      It was 2:30 in the afternoon. I was beginning to feel pleased about finishing my third observation report and catching up on two 8-inch stacks of mail from the past four days. Then I realized why I was getting so much done—I hadn't seen a child all day.
      This day was unusual for me because I pride myself on my social skills and on being a child-oriented principal. Paperwork just goes with the territory. Catching up on mounds of paperwork and evaluation requirements demands my highest form of self-discipline. I have perfected the process, but I still don't like it.
      What is the heart of school leadership? Some say it is effectively evaluating teachers, selecting capable staff, handling many tasks simultaneously, or even publishing the latest spin on the art of education or conquering the technology of the millennium. Leadership requires all of the above, but if school leaders don't have skills in human relations, they will perish.
      I respect colleagues who have mastered the technological and analytical skills of being a school principal, but I believe that the principal who takes time to pat a teacher on the back, to reassure the distressed parent, or to dry the eyes of a frightened child is the most effective leader.
      In fact, I am amazed at the polished skills of my fellow principals when it comes to technology. Mastering the latest in multimedia presentations, Web publishing, Claris Works spreadsheets, and Smart Boards has become the professional norm. When I recently attended a county principals' committee meeting, two of my colleagues were engrossed in using their new hand-held personal digital assistants. When I asked what they were accomplishing, they told me that they were communicating with each other, agreeing on dates for future events. I asked, "Why don't you just talk face-to-face after the meeting?" I intended my remark to be humorous, but as soon as I spoke, I realized it made sense.
      Has the use of e-mails and voice mails replaced the personal touch of a phone call? Are we buying into a technology that separates us from human contact? Has the deluge of principals' tasks forced us to move away from the heart of our challenge—the children? I hope not, but recent trends in school leadership compel principals to spend many computer hours evaluating, analyzing, and translating data and creating reports, often for new state standards of learning.
      The changing culture of our profession means that we often need our professional development activities to remind us why we entered this profession—the human being, the child. Staff development in the art of people skills is as important as training in developing school plans or in using technology. The best news is that we can learn most human relations skills from one another.
      We all have our gifts and strengths. My strength happens to be in the arena of human contact, so sharing some of the human relations strategies that have worked for me is a way to repay the many colleagues who have kindly shared their technological, scientific, technical, and financial skills with me. We call it survival through combined efforts and gifts—the very essence of civilization.
      Seven seems to be the magic number for laws of success, so here are mine. They've worked!
      Start by making your school community a family. Even if you have inherited a not-so-family-like atmosphere, begin to create one. Emphasize that all school populations—gifted and talented, parents and community, learning disabled, emotionally disabled—belong to one family that is working together, learning together, and sharing. Our parent meetings are always open to all populations, whatever the topics. We even schedule overnight camping trips for staff, students, and families.
      If a child is new to our school or to any of our programs, we communicate with the previous school to offer a warm welcome to the newest family member. On the other hand, if we send a child to another program, we make it a policy to check the progress of the child, following up on how appropriate our committee decision proved to be.
      We look at our school as a joint family investment where everyone contributes ideas and takes part in the implementation of these ideas, with the administrator monitoring the relevance and direction. Of course, as in a family, there will always be disagreements, but our pact is to end discussions on a point of agreement, no matter how small.
      Identify your administrative style for dealing with people, and then expand on it. I like bright, positive, creative, cheery learning environments, so I built a school climate on that preference. Use your preferred style to develop something unique about your school. Is your school the oldest, the newest, the most high tech? Who was its namesake? Make your school unique, even if it isn't. Our school is the only formerly all African American school in our county that was not closed down or converted to offices or warehouses. Our founder was an African American teacher who personally transported her students to give them an education. We had a great pioneer to inspire our community theme.
      One of our successful new principals enjoyed holding small town meetings with staff, parents, and children. These town meetings became very upbeat forums for positive change and input. She created a community theme—a small town growing together and forming a democracy.
      Develop your community theme as if it were your family's last name. Our theme is "Rain, Sleet, or Snow—The Sun Always Shines at Louise Archer School." It's corny, but everyone buys into it. The sunflower has become our official flower, and—voilà!—sunflowers decorate the school, the courtyard, and even the shirts and hats of students and teachers. Our discipline code—kindness and caring as the Louise Archer Way—connects to our community theme. We keep the generous traits of our pioneer namesake always in view, honoring her once a year in a gala celebration that brings the entire community together—with press coverage, of course. Similar theme expansions take place throughout our county. The excitement and positive school-community spirit are contagious.
      Turn a negative situation into a positive one. A colleague once told me that this advice was the most helpful tip that I passed on as a mentor administrator. Taking a potentially damaging situation and transforming it into a positive experience can often bind a staff and community together. Look at the negative picture and envision the steps to create a new and more optimistic scenario. Having everyone (whether parents, teachers, or students) walk away with a "little win" in the process is an art, but it is also a skill that anyone can learn.
      One new enrichment specialist was disappointing our staff with her skimpy schedule and lack of assistance to classroom teachers. This disappointment became the talk of the lounge, so I knew I had to discuss the situation with the new specialist. My approach was to confront her with the problem and to suggest ways that she could use her talents to turn the situation around. She shared her difficulties of feeling new on the block and of not getting enough access to classrooms. She felt she wasn't needed or wanted. During our conversation, I drew on her talents and offered my support. At the next faculty meeting, she shared her feelings. We turned this problematic situation into a positive experience, and she became part of the team. For staff, parents, and students, becoming an integral part of the family or team is crucial, so a straightforward approach laced with praise and appreciation really works.
      As with students, positive encouragement is a magic formula for parents and teachers. Praise parents not just for the wonderful things they do for and with their children, but also for the difficult decisions and hard stands they take. Celebrate special moments with your parent community and your teaching community. Teaching doesn't pay enough to motivate the fabulous teacher or office staff on the dollar alone. Many of the staff who have transferred into our school have remarked that one of our school's most appealing attributes is the recognition that staff receive from the administration and their colleagues. I try to make a daily practice of personally complimenting or recognizing a staff member who I feel might need a personal, positive boost.
      We end our school year with a social event, usually a picnic, where everyone spends at least an hour complimenting, thanking, or toasting individuals who helped in some personal and special way during the school year.
      Return those phone calls. Our rule is to make every effort to return a phone call from colleagues, the area or central office, and especially parents—on the same day. For colleagues and officials in the area office, such calls show respect; for parents, a call eases anxieties and cures or curtails any problem in its early stage. E-mail seems to be replacing phone calls, but no matter how promptly it arrives, a written message can never replace the sound of a human voice. In response to parental concerns, being overly defensive doesn't work. Giving a little in the debate goes a long way in building parent-school relationships. Sure, we all feel the same way—where do we find the time?—but in the big picture, a five-minute phone call to make a positive suggestion or to set up a meeting may save a two-hour heated conference the next day or a call from the superintendent's office asking what happened.
      Never drop a bomb on Friday. Don't drop it on a colleague, a staff member, or a child, and especially don't drop it on a parent. A bomb is an important but negative message that may require time to develop a possible solution. This type of communication is often sent in the Friday take-home folders. Children may forget about the problem, but parents tend to mull over the issue, often talking to the wrong people for advice. Big issues require immediate follow-up. Unless you plan to make weekend phone calls, don't let a weekend widen the gap between announcing a problem and developing a solution.
      Have fun. The school that plays together stays together. Make your typical school community events or staff gatherings special. We have transformed our humdrum annual spaghetti dinners into a multifaceted community event that involves staff, parents, and children. After teachers and parents share their hobbies at our Reading Expo, for instance, many children read eagerly about such diverse topics as bicycling, seeing-eye dogs, deep-water fishing, or unusual collections. Our staff enjoys celebrating our collegiality in many ways—reading or researching together, participating in fitness and wellness groups, and attending cultural events. People to people, we are learning together. Other principals and I also enjoy camaraderie through these types of activities. They keep us human.
      The heart of school leadership lies in developing positive personal and community relationships. Some leaders are born with these skills, but leaders can learn these skills, too. Learning, after all, is what educators believe in. Not all seven suggestions may appeal to every administrator's style, but every administrator needs to focus on people. People are the heart of our profession.

      ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

      Let us help you put your vision into action.
      Discover ASCD's Professional Learning Services
      From our issue
      Product cover image 100286.jpg
      The Changing Context of Education
      Go To Publication