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Transformational Leadership in Education

A teacher uses transformational leadership with her students in a classroom computer lab.

A transformational leader is one who encourages others to find ways to grow and change. Although you might think of it as a strategy for business leaders, transformational leadership can be useful even beyond the corporate world. In education, this leadership style helps educators, from teachers and administrators to counselors and coaches, motivate each other to improve and innovate within their classrooms. It can even help educators find solutions to conflicts within their educational organizations.

We discuss the many applications and rewards of transformational leadership in education below.

What Is Transformational Leadership?

Traditionally, managers simply ask employees to complete assigned duties and expect compliance. A transformational leader, though, pushes team members to get creative.

Transformational leadership became popular in the 1970s and 1980s, following the publication of James MacGregor Burns’s Leadership. The book, according to Sage Publishing, “is still considered the seminal work in the field of leadership studies. [Burns’s] theory of transactional and transformational leadership has been the basis of more than 400 doctoral dissertations.”

In any field, transformational leadership helps teams improve their performance. Here are some specific advantages of this leadership style in education.

Encourages Differences

Consider the following situation. An elementary school hires three math teachers. Each instructor uses the same lesson plans and curriculum. But each of them is different in an important way: each holds valuable knowledge and a perspective about the world that’s unique to them. One was a statistician at a top government agency before deciding they wanted to help students understand math. Another recently worked with underprivileged children in the Peace Corps. And the third was an actor and performer before deciding to become a teacher.

A transformational leader wouldn’t ignore these new math teachers’ diverse skills and abilities. Instead, a transformational leader would encourage these new instructors to share their unique insights. This leader might encourage the former statistician to find engaging ways to teach statistics. They would motivate the Peace Corps volunteer to share their experiences abroad. They would ask the actor/performer to use their creative skills in the classroom.

Any organization is made up of a diverse group of individuals. Some of these individuals may follow unique religious or cultural customs. Others may have valuable skill sets and professional experiences. An organization that embraces differences enables staff members to use their diversity to the benefit of all. This also includes parents and families, who can benefit from the unique education their child is receiving. This approach lends itself to education as well as to the corporate world.

Fosters Participation in School Decisions

How does transformational leadership affect decision making in schools? Suppose a superintendent is considering adjusting the start time for middle schools. They have heard that starting school 30 minutes later leads to better educational outcomes for middle schoolers, and wants to try this in their district. The superintendent could simply make this decision without any teacher input. Instead, they hold a forum on the topic within the school district so educators, parents, and other family members can share thoughts.

The superintendent is showing transformational leadership by encouraging individuals to participate. Participants appreciate that their concerns are being heard and acknowledged and are willing to contribute their ideas.

Emphasizes Morals, Communication, and Authenticity

Over the front entrance of a high school hangs a banner that reads, “Speak your mind. Be part of the school community.” But educators and students at the high school, as well as students’ families, don’t believe the banner actually reflects their school’s real attitude toward speaking out.

How would a transformational leader change this view? The leader could use traditional methods to encourage educators, parents, and students to share their feedback. But these traditional methods might not work in actual practice.

For example, the school could create a suggestion box where students, parents, and educators share their thoughts and concerns. But the suggestions might never be addressed, or even collected, by school leadership. Another traditional method is asking educators directly about their concerns. In this case, educators may mention specific problems—for example, the period between classes is too short to give them enough time to prepare for the next class. But when educators point out the problems they see, leaders often don’t follow through with solutions.

Whether suggestions come in the form of anonymous notes in a suggestion box or directly from polling educators about their concerns, administrators at high schools like this one often fail to address the complaints raised.

Suppose the high school used transformational leadership. Transformational leaders would understand the importance of authenticity and practicing what they preach. Encouraging, listening to, and responding to feedback shows the school cares about the concerns of teachers and students. Also, it communicates the message that the school has strong morals, such as trustworthiness and respect, and sticks to them.

Allows Students to Make their Own Decisions and Have Autonomy

Here’s another case illustrating transformational leadership in education. In this scenario, two science instructors are teaching physics and engineering basics. Each has assigned the same activity— students build toothpick towers and notice the results. The first instructor gives students an extensive set of guidelines for completing the class project, such as how many toothpicks they can use. Their students follow the guidelines and achieve the expected results. The other teacher encourages students to find new approaches to the project on their own. Their students experiment with alternative materials and find innovative ways to design and build their toothpick towers This is possible simply because they, a transformational leader, allowed students the freedom to make their own decisions.

Teachers can’t always give students choices in the classroom or grant them a voice in every aspect of their educational experience. But when they get an opportunity to give students autonomy, it allows both educators and students to thrive.

Transformational Leadership in Education

Educators can choose between two leadership styles: transmissional or transformational. A transmissional instructor focuses on conveying information to students, without inviting their participation. A transformational leader, on the other hand, finds ways for students to share their viewpoints. This open communication then improves student understanding.

Educators who are transformational leaders get positive results, including higher student engagement with their course material and other school pursuits. “Subordinates of transformational leaders have less role conflict, higher task performance, and higher satisfaction with a task than subordinates with non-transformational leaders,” according to an article published in the Journal of Instructional Psychology.

For example, suppose a history instructor wants to teach a lesson about the 2019 protests in Hong Kong. They encourage their students to participate in a classroom discussion regarding the protestors, how the United States should help or respond, and if actions by the Hong Kong government are justified. The lively discussion sparks student engagement. And their engaged students end up doing better on their assignments and showing a deeper understanding of current events in context.

This type of leadership can also positively impact parents of students. For example, an educator may be concerned that the Hong Kong protests are too divisive of a subject to cover in class. That educator could reach out to parents and families to gauge their thoughts on how the topic should be covered.

A component of transformational leadership is celebrating the unique elements that make individuals different. Suppose an elementary school teacher plans a lesson on the holiday Diwali, which is celebrated by Hindus as well as members of other faiths. Merely explaining the customs of Diwali could lead to low participation or engagement. But if a student in the class celebrates this holiday, a transformational leader will encourage that student to share their personal experiences with the holiday. Again, students are engaged and end up doing better work and understanding more as a result.

Professionalism vs. Direct Leadership

Even though transformational leadership is more dynamic and its counterpart, direct leadership, is more rigid, both are equally appropriate choices for educators. Educators who are dedicated and professional can choose either path if they understand that transformational leadership doesn’t mean anything goes and direct leadership doesn’t mean an authoritarian stance that kills student enthusiasm.

In fact, in education, transformational leadership might actually promote a more professional atmosphere. This is because direct leadership can stir up conflict in classrooms, with students and teachers alike pushing back against strict rules and formulaic directions. It can also encourage parents and families to voice their opinion about their child’s educational process. So by encouraging transformational leadership and embracing differences, educators can achieve greater progress and a more positive school and classroom atmosphere. Despite not using a direct style of leadership, educators can still maintain a high degree of professionalism, leading students by modeling trust and respect.

Discover How American University Inspires Educators

Transformational leadership motivates educators and students alike to share insights and opinions that can change the classroom. Graduates of American University’s Master of Education in Education Policy and Leadership program understand how to empower others without overpowering them. They know the importance of helping students to make their own decisions. They can attest to how transformational leadership can help schools evolve. Graduates of this program are prepared to land distinguished positions with competitive salaries in the education field, all while making the educational landscape a creative and inspiring place to bring about exciting changes.

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