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[Educator Network] What Does Being a Supportive Leader Look Like?

[Educator Network] What Does Being a Supportive Leader Look Like?

In the past few months education has moved from an emergency situations, to the confusion of how-to, and then into the realm of a political hot potato. Teachers have been glorified for what they do and then criticized for not doing enough, often in the span of a single news cycle. Having a supportive principal can make all the difference for a teacher, but what does a truly supportive school leader look like? How can principals build a supportive and responsible environment? How can principals create a community with educators, students and parents?

Administrators and leaders have the additional challenge of forging ahead even when the way forward is constantly in motion. The goal is to educate students while keeping everyone safe, but the means to achieve that goal are shifting. Principals and administrators are leading with the best intentions, they listen, remain curious, prepare for the unknow and work hard. The ability to fail and learn how to fail, to pivot and plan are skills in action.

Leaders can do this. As co-founder of The Carlyle Group, David Rubenstein wrote a book that gave 12 leadership traits of successful leaders. He has since added a 13th as a direct result to CEO’s management in a pandemic. He writes that in times of emergency, leaders get a lot of comfort from people closest to them. In How to Lead: Wisdom from the World's Greatest CEOs, Founders, and Game Changers, he writes: “You lead by wanting to lead, by preparing to lead by having made a mistake, by persisting, but also, by having a vision of where you want to go to take people certain places. You have a drive. You can’t be a leader with no drive and no vision. You can’t take somebody somewhere if you have no vision of where you’re going.”

What does that mean in education? What can principals do to provide for their school staff, students, and community? Here are a few suggestions:

Allow Time for Peer Collaboration

Designated and protected time for teachers to meet and collaborate during the regular school day. By safeguarding this time, educators are given time to focus on professional growth and student engagement. This means not simply finding time in the course of a day to carve out opportunity for PLCs (Professional Learning Communities) but must include defending this time. It is during PLCs that educators are given dedicated time to review student data, develop creative lesson plans, and reduce their sense of professional isolation. When school leaders support collaboration with both time and resources, they show support for the ideal of lifelong learning. By intentionally building in time for educators to meet and plan, administrators are allowing for instructional growth and forward motion in education. Teachers can share or explore approaches and understanding.

Ask Questions and Seek Their Advice

Just because you are a leader doesn’t mean you have all the answers all the time. Part of being an effective and supportive leader, in fact, demands that you are not only asking questions, but asking the right questions to the right people, listening sincerely and responding thoughtfully. When your staff recognize that you approach them with a positive tone, come prepared and engaged, and give them credit for their council, they will appreciate it. To do all of this, start with a positive tone, identify the type of advice you are seeking and be sure you are asking someone that can help. Be intentional with the questions, everyone has a passion and knowledge, by knowing your audience you can ask the right question to the right person.

Offer Professional Development Opportunities and Resources

Provide applicable professional development. Value their time by building in and on professional interests. Create a plan for implementation and follow it. Your team will be so much happier when what they are learning has a purpose, a plan and some accountability. Create sharing opportunities and relevant resources. This is also a time to leverage the strengths of your team.  Opening opportunities for sharing clever approaches, unique skills and expertise of your educators builds ownership.  To do this successfully, you must get to know your teachers.  Strive to build a trusting relationship that is balanced. Keep professional but take an interest in who your teachers are.

Be Consistent and Fair

Professionally you want to back teachers as long as you believe they are being effective, ethical, and moral. Coach them on areas for improvement.  Sometimes you cannot solve all the problem, but consistent effort, consistent support, consistent rules and fairness in these decisions can define your approach. Teachers may not always agree with the decisions but if you are consistent and do not play favorites, there is a level of security and understanding.    

Build Community

As you get to know and understand your educators, community follows. Move from there to supporting school community and culture with students and parents. To do this, stay visible by hosting virtual open houses, opportunities for your community to ask questions and find answers, or just be heard. Communicating religiously but not without intention also helps you to stay connected to the people around you and focus on their needs and feedback. Finally, enlisting parent feedback, such as through hosting open-ended virtual community forums allow for honest and timely conversations. It’s easy to listen when things are good, but more important when things are rough. To gather feedback, there are literally dozens of freely available tools, including some, like the U.S. Department of Education, created ED School Climate Surveys, that come with web-based platforms that can be easily used in a remote-learning context.

Leading is never uncomplicated, and this year has had its fair share of challenges, but the way that leaders have responded by supporting their staff is something teachers will always remember and appreciate, and students will benefit from. There are no easy answers. Transparency is critical. None of us have done anything like this before. Even if we were in the digital world prior to March 2020, the kind of work we are doing now is very unusual. If educators and administrators work together to build a community, if decisions are made with intention, transparency and grace; and if we gather strength from the community, there is hope. We have been thrust into innovation and change, however, how we embrace this change depends largely on how we are lead through it. Look at the challenges as an opportunity to focus on leading with elegance and understanding. What a perfect time to flourish!

winnie.oleary's picture

Winnie O’Leary has spent over 25 years in education, as a classroom teacher, school board member, a family advocate, special education teacher, curriculum writer and currently a Curriculum Manager for Edmentum. Her experiences have allowed her to work with districts all over the country where she finds something new and exciting every day.