Schools Need Lead Learners Not Bosses or Managers

When we asked educators to list the words they associate with school principals, their responses included: boss, disciplinarian, supervisor, decision-maker, manager, evaluator disconnected, and isolated.

Although all these words are not necessarily negative, they don’t paint the most positive picture of school leaders.

None of these labels speak to the notion of being an instructional leader or a visionary, or to accessing twenty-first-century skills to engage in learning. They describe a more traditional principal, a manager who oversees the organization and handles the problems from a comfortable chair in the office.

Perceptions of a principal’s job have not evolved very much from those of the early twentieth century when the principal was expected to manage the school from the office while having very little to do with the children, the teachers, the learning, or the instruction.

While acting as manager, disciplinarian, and evaluator are all real and important aspects of a principal’s job, they are not the only tasks necessary to lead a school successfully. Unfortunately, many principals still focus primarily on those traditional aspects of their work. 

These old-school leaders deal with administrative tasks, rarely interacting with members of the community. Learning is not their priority,  so they spend little time engaging with children and teachers or being present in classrooms. 

They choose not to invest in developing the  “soft skills” necessary to nurture healthy relationships with all members of the community.

They don’t understand a leader’s direct impact on school culture or recognize that every decision they make affects that culture’s trajectory.

Because these administrators see themselves as bosses, they miss opportunities to be effective leaders who bring about positive and sustainable change.

In the Hacking Leadership, renowned school leaders Joe Sanfelippo and Tony Sinanis bring readers inside schools that few stakeholders have ever seen – places where students not only come first but have a unique voice in teaching and learning.

Sanfelippo and Sinanis ignore the bureaucracy that stifles many leaders, focusing instead on building a culture of engagement, transparency, and most importantly, fun. 

They explain how being a Lead Learner is powerful and more impactful than being a manager or a boss.

Be Present and Engaged

Administrators who focus primarily on being the boss are not present enough to be truly effective. Today’s students, teachers, and families require more from their principals.

Communities need school leaders who understand the direct impact leadership has on school culture.  They want leaders who prioritize learning and who lead with heart.

What better way to be engaged with the learning in your school than by actually facilitating the learning?

Today’s administrators must learn to invest in nurturing healthy, positive relationships that are rooted in trust and respect.

Healthy relationships are at the core of any highly successful school or district. Although there are dozens of places to start building relationships in a school community, our primary focus should always be the children, so start there.

Kids intuitively connect with people they trust and respect; make yourself available and earn that trust.  Smile. Be transparent. Listen. Lead with joy.

When we have confidence that relationships are as important to educational philosophy as differentiation, standards, and instructional techniques, we can take connections with our students to a higher level.

Relationships rooted in trust, respect, and compassion can take a nice school and make it an extraordinary space where excitement and passion become palpable.

When our kids know that we value them personally, they will develop higher levels of self-confidence and feel safe enough in their environment to take risks with their learning.

Most educators will readily agree that relationships can have a positive impact on the kids, but it doesn’t end there. We must also develop relationships with adults: Teachers, custodians, secretaries, families, teacher aides, bus drivers, and all other members of the school community need to feel confident in shared trust and respect.

Foster trust by being collaborative. Decisions should rarely be made in isolation; instead, all members of the school community should have some voice, and it is your responsibility to listen to others—to be present—in order to broaden your perspective and make the best decisions possible.

To make genuine leadership the new norm in our schools, school leaders need to invest in relationships. They must be visible and involved in the classroom, the lunchroom, and the bus line. Today’s leaders must move away from the title of administrator and become lead learners who are guided by doing what is in the best interest of children.

Start Leading 

The prospect of becoming an engaged and present school leader can be daunting because there is only one of you and hundreds of everyone else.

This reality is not changing, so start small. Make one consistent change at a time until it becomes a  habit in your practice.

Just listen. Reserve at least two 15-minute blocks on your calendar each day for relationship building. During that time, check in with two different members of the community to find out how things are going.

Open your ears to kids, teachers, parents, secretaries, colleagues, supervisors, and don’t just listen to them—you have to actually hear them. Hear what they say, hear what they feel, hear what they need, hear what they perceive.

Pay attention to every word, because they will share critical information that will strengthen your relationship. Keep a list of the people you have spoken with so you can make sure that everyone is heard.

Ask questions. Find out how things are going in general by sending a question to staff, students, or families. You can do this via a Google Form, a Twitter poll, a query to a Voxer group, or an email.

Your question might be geared towards anything from getting a sense of staff morale to learning about community concerns. Follow up on the information you glean from the responses.

We may not be able to connect on a face-to-face level with all members of the community each day but we can still allow them to be heard using digital platforms.

Make time for lunch with kids. Informal, but planned, exchanges with students can provide critical insight that is not available from any other source.

At Cantiague Tony regularly makes time to have lunch with kids. Sometimes they ask for a lunch date; sometimes they earn it as a reward for something they have done in the classroom; at other times Tony has a free block of time and he pulls a group of kids aside for some lunch and chatting. 

Although not all children feel comfortable having lunch with their principal, inviting students in a group (six or fewer is ideal) will give them enough social support to loosen them up quickly and they will chat it up the entire lunch period.

Even though it’s great to talk about everything from weekend plans to the group’s favorite songs, make sure to be intentional about some of the questions asked during the lunch “meeting” to elicit information from the children about how school is going from their perspective.

Ask them about what they love about the school day; ask them about their favorite times of the week; ask them about the experiences they could do without, and ask them how we could make school better for them.

Remember, schools should be more about the kids and less about the adults. 

Celebrate in public. Construct a real-time narrative that shows the community how dynamic and relevant school can be. You can easily accomplish this right away by creating a social media account for your school.

It might be Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, or any other medium that you already feel comfortable with. Make a post a day to share something amazing that is happening in your space. 

This one account will initiate a re-branding of your school, allowing you to create an identity by telling your story. Your school’s positive social media presence will help to counteract negative impressions that your community might have about school.

Even though the media typically bashes public education and the landscape of education is not always a pretty one, we can have a voice in the discourse. Publicizing daily celebrations can be your entry point.

Get out of your office. Open your calendar and block out time in the day to be visible, engaged, and present. Altogether, aim to spend about an hour’s worth of time outside your office. Transformative leaders don’t change the world by sending emails or scheduling meetings: Get out and engage with students, teachers, and anyone else you encounter. Ask teachers how to support their efforts.

Spend time in the classrooms asking children what they are learning and why it is important—these two questions will give you insight into class dynamics and allow you to collect data you can use to plan for future PD. Play with kids during recess or lunch so they understand they are important to you and that you are always available to them.

The informal conversations that will unfold during these times can be incredibly telling. You’ll get a real perspective on how the school looks or feels to kids. You must get out of the office if you are going to make the shift from administrator to leader.

Lead Learners Can Do a Lot

Although hacking school leadership involves enacting many changes in our practices, the first and most important change transforms a principal from a disengaged administrator to an instructional lead learner who is visible, present, and engaged in every aspect of the school community.

Yes, we still need to make the time to check emails, participate in meetings, and complete everything else on our “To Do” lists, but we can’t be bound to our desks or offices. The kind of leader our schools need leads with the heart and mind, spending time building relationships instead of doing managerial tasks.

Transformational lead learners understand the impact they have on school culture, and therefore they strive to build a culture that has a positive influence on the school’s trajectory.


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