6 Critical Traits of Effective Educational Leaders
Although myriad studies and books on effective leadership exist, many of today's leaders are facing heightened levels of uncertainty, anxiety, inequity, and angst. While it is reasonable to assume that unprecedented challenges necessitate the creation of a whole new playbook, in most cases, the opposite is true—now more than ever, leadership should rely on proven research and practices.
For educational leaders, it is important to consider the frameworks, goals, and mission statements that were in place before COVID-19 to determine which elements are still applicable and which need modification. After all, even amid the disruption of COVID-19, the end goals of equipping students for success and facilitating equitable instruction remain the same.
With this in mind, the following six traits have been identified by researchers as influential in driving student achievement and vital in building effective leaders:
1. Articulate a clear vision and plan for the academic success of all students.
High academic achievement is tied to educational leaders who create and articulate a clear vision for student success, along with a plan to achieve this vision (Hayet, Woods, & Martin, 2016). More specifically, these leaders build consensus so their vision is shared by all stakeholders—namely, caregivers, teachers, staff, and community members—then develop a plan that outlines rigorous standards and expectations, proven instructional strategies, and the availability of high-quality resources and appropriate support.
2. Cultivate community networks that share the vision of student success.
Effective educational leaders establish and cultivate community networks that are committed to the academic success of all students and include people, organizations, and businesses that will advance “equitable outcomes in and outside of schools’ walls” (Green, 2017, p. 20). This should be top of mind for educators working to address the digital divide by developing community partnerships that facilitate internet connectivity and digital device accessibility in the COVID-19 era.
3. Promote teachers’ professional development and leadership skills.
As Leithwood and Jantzi (2006) suggested, “Positive emotions arise when an event promises to help meet a personal goal; negative emotions when chances of achieving one’s goal are harmed or threatened. Such emotions may arise from frequent positive feedback about one’s work and a dynamic changing job.” For educational leaders, this translates to knowing teachers' career goals and delivering authentic, non-judgemental feedback based on objective data. As a result, leaders will be well equipped to talk with teachers about instructional practices (Gordon, Oliver, & Soli, 2016) and provide professional development that is relevant to each educator's personal needs and/or career goals. It is important to note that empowered teachers are not in control of everything; rather, they are invited to share their opinions and be part of decision-making (e.g., by helping to choose their own professional development). Ultimately, this feeling of empowerment helps cultivate educator buy-in for new initiatives.
4. Rely on data to drive decision-making and measure progress.
To monitor progress and measure student growth, effective leaders must not only use quantitative data but engage in constructive conversations around it. However, because of challenges surrounding timely availability, accessibility, and teacher understanding of classroom and differentiated instruction, data often does not impact instructional practices (Earl & Katz, 2002). As a result, leaders must strive to make data timely, accessible, and connected to classroom practices to ensure that progress is measured and appropriate instructional decisions are made. Moreover, leaders need to establish frameworks for systematically reviewing collected data, such as the Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) model, the Response to Intervention (RTI) approach, and decision-making charts for individual student data teams. The use of these frameworks will be discussed in more detail next.
5. Maintain high standards for instruction.
For students to achieve their learning goals, it is critical to both set a high bar and ensure it is not subsequently lowered—particularly for populations that have historically struggled, including at-risk readers, low-income students, and ELs. In lieu of lowering the bar, educational leaders must adjust instructional strategies to help students meet existing standards, a critical component of which involves using the aforementioned MTSS and RTI models. Having models like these in place will enable educators to monitor student progress and identify areas of need, then adjust instructional intensity to facilitate progress and achievement.
6. Foster the social and emotional learning (SEL) of students and teachers.
Even under the best of circumstances, school experiences can be stressful. With this in mind, effective leaders should nurture students and adults alike as they learn to manage their emotions, set and achieve positive goals, develop empathy for others, maintain positive relationships, and take responsibility in their decision-making (CASEL, 2020).
If you’re interested in learning more about developing your leadership skills, read the Four Key Factors of Effective School Leadership white paper by Lexia Chief Learning Officer Dr. Liz Brooke.
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