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5 Effective Principal Leadership Styles

A principal reviews paperwork at her desk.

Across the US there are educational institutions, particularly in high-poverty areas, that do not provide an environment conducive to learning. For example, data from the National Center for Education Statistics in 2017 revealed a 32-point gap in mathematics scores between fourth-grade students in high-poverty schools and those in low-poverty schools. Closing the achievement gap takes leadership. Principal leaders can apply different leadership styles to implement solutions that improve learning environments and address the shortcomings in schools and classrooms. In addition to principals, other leaders such as teachers, charter school leaders, administrators, and nonprofit executive are in prime positions to provide the guidance needed to turn school performance around.

Leaders in Academic Settings

In every great school, you’ll find academic leaders making a significant impact on the lives of their students. While many of these leaders contribute to a school’s success, the most visible role of all is that of principal.

Principals have oversight of their school’s operations, coordinating daily activities, curricula, staff, and schedules. They are ultimately responsible for the learning environment in elementary, middle, and high schools. They set academic goals and empower teachers with the necessary resources to align their classrooms with those aims.

Other school administrators, such as superintendents, who oversee school operations for an entire district, have an essential role to play in creating effective academic settings as well. Administrators ensure that school environments are safe and comfortable for students, and they manage policies and procedures so that teachers can focus on educating. They also provide appropriate curricula and mentor school employees to become leaders. Other administrator roles include assistant superintendent, assistant principal, and athletic director.

Teaching methods continue to change and evolve. Examples include personalized learning, which provides teachers with opportunities to consider the unique characteristics of students in their lesson plans. New technologies, such as laptops and smartboards in the classroom, have empowered students with autonomy and choice. Another teaching method, hands-on learning, enables teachers to assess students as they participate in projects designed to help them put what they learned in the classroom into practice. Strong educational leaders are able to implement innovative methods such as these in their schools.

At every level and phase of the academic experience, principals, teachers, charter school leaders, administrators, and nonprofit executives all play a crucial role in education, including improving policies, ensuring social justice, and implementing systematic changes.

5 Effective Principal Leadership Styles

Educational leaders have certain qualities that enable them to make an impact. Common traits include a sense of purpose, a desire to relentlessly work for students, clear vision, and an ability to build relationships with the surrounding community. The ability to work with people and build collaboration, balance strategic and operational objectives, and adjust to change are crucial for successful school principal leadership. Leaders look to build the skills of others as well because they understand the ultimate goal: to enable students to succeed.

While the aims of all leaders may be the same, principal leadership styles vary. Below are examples of five principal leadership styles.

Establishing Vision

Effective principal leaders define the path to improved school performance, but they need to set a vision first. For example, a middle school principal introduces an evidence-based program that can help turn around the school’s performance. However, the principal needs the backing and buy-in of the faculty to ensure the program achieves its goal. In championing the idea that every student can succeed and raising expectations for academic performance, principals can establish a vision centered on learning improvement. When teachers adopt the vision, they set out on the path to improved performance. Setting the vision of high expectations for all students has been a key to improving student achievement and closing the achievement gap, according to a report by the Wallace Foundation.

Involving Others

Improving academic performance and learning environments is a team effort. Principals who empower teachers and other leaders in the improvement process help increase the chances that ideas will bear fruit. How principals involve others may vary. Some encourage collaboration, whereby teachers and other leaders proactively and jointly make decisions on school programs and changes. Other principals may be inclined to use a participative leadership style. For example, a principal may decide on the efficacy of a program after learning about it in detail. Then, he or she works with teachers and administrators to implement the program and experiment, providing guidance and development throughout the process. As the program is put into practice, everyone involved shares suggestions for improvement.

Improving Academics

Visionary principal leaders focus on quality and emphasize research-based programs and strategies to help teacher performance. When teachers perform at their best, students learn better. Therefore, effective principals look for training and skills development opportunities to equip teachers with competencies and knowledge to improve learning outcomes. They proactively track student progress to determine how well the curriculum is working, addressing gaps to improve academics. They also spend time with teachers and students in the classroom to assess instruction and to determine what areas need adjusting. Teachers are critical to the improvement process, so goal-minded principals discuss their findings with teachers and collaborate with them on implementing instruction improvements.

Cultivating Leaders

Leaders not only serve but also prepare others for leadership. Through the cultivation of future leaders, principals empower teachers, parents, and administrators to help carry out the school’s vision and mission. The willingness to lead and cultivate leaders provides better outcomes for students. A study by the Wallace Foundations reports, “Effective leadership from a variety of sources—principals, teachers, staff teams and others—is associated with better student performance on math and reading tests.” Successful principals understand that working with others and preparing them to take the lead in some areas does not weaken their leadership standing. Indeed, researchers have found the opposite, that principals who cultivate leaders gain influence.

Managing Academic Settings

Principal leaders and others establish the basics: achievement, orderliness, and safety. Working together, principals, teachers, and administrators manage the academics of students; this involves data and process management at the school. Parents have to be part of the education process as well, so principals and other leaders focus intently on forging positive relationships with parents built on trust and open communication. Schools must also be cooperative and safe to optimize student outcomes and engagement, and students must be involved in setting the tone of the school. A recent Brookings Institution article reports that schools that promote “listening, choosing, co-authoring, and co-responsibility” help to improve student engagement.

Implement Leadership Styles

Teachers, principals, administrators, and other leaders share a common vision for every student: to achieve academically. Yet, without strong leaders committed to establishing environments that are conducive to high achievement, that aim will remain out of reach for low-performing schools. Effective leaders look to do more than manage the daily operations of schools; they seek out opportunities to establish a vision, improve academics, and cultivate leaders. Quality education not only improves the chances of students having successful adult lives but also impacts society as a whole.

For aspiring leaders, the pursuit of higher education can help prepare them for vital roles in academic leadership. Graduates of American University’s School of Education acquire the competencies to create equitable and excellent learning environments. The Online EdD in Education Policy and Leadership program equips senior leaders with advanced knowledge of education policies and methods of education system improvement. The curriculum includes courses such as Collaborative Inquiry Through Systems Thinking, Education Policy Analysis, Social Justice and Anti-Racism, and Building Teams and Growth Culture.

If you’re ready to build academic settings that optimize student outcomes, learn more about how American University’s Online EdD in Education Policy and Leadership program can help you become an equitable leader who creates thriving learning environments.

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