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Elementary School Leadership: Guiding Early Education

An elementary school teacher works with a student.

Teachers change lives. Nearly everyone can tell a story about how a teacher affected them, giving encouragement, building confidence, or introducing them to a field of study that they grew to love. But even the best teachers need a support system to be their most effective. Creating that support is the job of elementary school leadership.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are over 98,000 elementary schools in the US, and each strives to build a culture based on concern for the students, a love of learning, and a spirit of teamwork and engagement that creates a positive and powerful educational foundation. It’s the job of elementary school leadership to foster that culture, developing an environment where children feel safe, valued, and challenged—where learning flourishes and creative thought is cherished. This attitude starts in the classroom but continues up through school leadership and to the district and national levels. It’s what can make an excellent school experience for every child, and it affects every community in the nation.

Types of Elementary Schools

Every child is different, and different kinds of elementary schools serve different needs. Elementary school leadership in each type of school must be sensitive to its focus.

Public Schools

This is by far the largest category of elementary schools. Statista reports that in 2017 there were 29.8 million elementary students in US public schools. Because they are funded through local taxes, resources vary widely from location to location. Each state has its own requirements for both teacher and school leadership licensing.

Private Schools

Private schools are funded by tuition, usually paid for by students’ parents. Private schools may have a distinct focus, such as religious education, special needs, or a specific talent. Because private schools cannot depend on government funding, budget and fundraising skills are an important part of school leadership. Curriculum development and quality assessment are also key to successful private education.

Montessori Schools

Montessori schools are private schools that focus on self-directed education. Children are guided by highly trained teachers to explore their own interests and develop the necessary skills to follow their passions. Montessori schools focus on holistic learning that makes education fun and relevant to each child.

Religious Schools

Religious schools are private schools affiliated with specific faith groups or denominations that incorporate spiritual instruction in their curriculum. Often they get at least partial financial support from churches, synagogues, mosques, or other religious organizations.

Charter Schools

Charter schools are publicly funded but are administered separately from regular school districts. Parents actively choose charter schools for their children, and the schools are expected to be especially responsive to a community’s needs. Charter schools generally do not have to follow the same regulations as district schools. Therefore, they can design specialized curricula that are tailored to their students’ needs.

Levels of Leadership in Elementary Education

Across these different approaches to elementary education, the leadership challenges are similar. Great elementary school leadership begins in the classroom, but the tone and atmosphere of a school is set by its principal and, more broadly, the school district. Even state and national policies have a bearing on the effectiveness of each teacher in the classroom.

Classroom Leadership

A teacher who is an effective leader will not only demonstrate but teach leadership techniques to his or her students. Teachers can assign classroom duties so that students become engaged in the running of the classroom. Group projects help students learn how to work effectively together, honing communication skills, cooperation, and task management. Teachers can use examples from history or literature to illustrate effective leadership and how the concepts they are teaching can be applied. Setting specific goals for the classroom or adopting service projects are other methods that individual teachers can use to instill leadership in their students.

School Leadership

Principals and vice principals are the primary leaders of elementary schools. Principals usually rise up through the ranks, transitioning from being classroom teachers, and they must have earned a master’s degree in education. They are responsible for the day-to-day operations of their school, but they also manage staff and hiring, help to develop curricula, establish the rules and discipline in the school, and work to create an effective and harmonious atmosphere for learning. Effective principals develop and schedule ongoing teacher training and education and solicit their teachers’ input on important decisions about the curricula and the culture of the school. Through fostering creative teaching methods, enabling collaborative approaches among teachers, and promoting communication, principals can build a nurturing environment for teachers that is effective and inspiring.

National Leadership

Both state and national programs can have a huge impact on teacher effectiveness, and education professionals can help develop policies that create change in schools across the nation. Elementary school leadership at the state and national level develops programs such as the Small, Rural School Achievement Program, which helps to fund music classes, anti-bullying seminars, and ESL programs in underfunded school systems. The US Department of Education’s (DOE) Teach to Lead program offers grants to teachers with innovative ideas for learning and to struggling districts to enable them to attract and retain high-quality teachers. The DOE has also developed programs to encourage excellence in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), especially in high-need schools. And there are hundreds of nongovernmental agencies and organizations that work to support education in programs as different as setting up reading groups and partnering with major businesses in mentorship programs.

Becoming a Leader in Elementary Education

Skilled leaders are crucial to all phases of elementary education. A degree in educational leadership will enable graduates to become more effective teachers, enhance their careers, and make a real impact in the field of education. The Online Master of Arts in Teaching degree from American University, which offers an elementary school track, has a guaranteed 100 percent job placement rate for graduates. American University also offers an Online Master of Education in Education Policy and Leadership. This unique program takes advantage of the university’s Washington, DC, location to connect with educational policy makers. Within five semesters, graduates will be able to use their newfound knowledge to address the challenges of educational leadership on every level. Whatever your goals, American University’s School of Education programs can help you navigate the path to success.

Recommended Readings

School of Education Achieves Stand-Alone Status

City Year @ AU

School of Education Launches Dual Enrollment Program for DC Students

Sources

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Elementary, Middle, and High School Principals

Classcraft, “How to Teach Leadership Skills to Your Students”

National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, What Is a Charter School?

National Association of Elementary School Principals, “Train from Within”

National Center for Education Statistics, Fast Facts: Educational Institutions

Statista, Enrollment in Public and Private Schools in the United States in 2017 (in Millions)

US Department of Education, Small, Rural School Achievement Program

US Department of Education, “Teachers and Leaders: America’s Engineers of Learning and Growth”

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