4 Effective Strategies for Principals From ‘Leader of Leaders’ Author William Collins

William Collins, author of "Leader of Leaders"Of any individual in a school’s ecosystem, the principal is the one whose vision and attitude set the tone, as well as how high the expectations bar is set. Being principal may once have meant acting as a manager of sorts, delegating tasks to subordinate employees in a hierarchical manner, with all responsibility resting heavily on Atlas-like shoulders.

But if the 20th-century principal’s style was defined by a transactional leadership style, today’s most dynamic school leaders practice a transformational approach.

“The days of the principal as the Lone Ranger are gone,” says William Collins, a former principal who now coordinates an educational leadership program at St. Lawrence University in New York, and is co-author of “Leader of Leaders: The Handbook for Principals on the Cultivation, Support, and Impact of Teacher-Leaders.”

Schools need teacher leaders

Every school has a whole crop of leaders in the form of teachers, though many of them are still nascent. We’ve reached a point where we need distributive leadership, Collins says.

“If you have a faculty of teachers who are part of a process, and have a big picture of where the school is going, they have some inclination to want to be leaders,” Collins says. “Schools won’t have to look outside.”

For disillusioned teachers, heading to another school district is often not financially viable by the mid-career years. Keeping them invigorated means that they can better serve the principal, other staff, and ultimately, the children. In “The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future,” author Linda Darling-Hammond writes that teachers cite a good principal as the top reason they choose to stay in a given school.

How principals can guide others

“The principal makes the climate in the school,” Collins says. Here are his suggestions for principals to become more effective through guiding others to lead.

Flip the pyramid

The traditional school hierarchy has a large base of students at the bottom, a middle layer of teachers, and a few administrators at the top. In this model, ideas and change come from the top, and dilute as they trickle down.

Collins suggests turning the pyramid onto its point, so that the principal and teachers support children.

High Tech High, an innovative charter school in San Diego, inverts the pyramid, but goes a step further by adding some support to ensure that it doesn’t topple over: They use one pillar of school culture, and one of rituals and routines. Unlike the typical horizontal pyramid slices, these two pillars run the full vertical length of the pyramid.

Go for small wins

Sometimes the low-hanging fruit is not what a principal would classify as top priority — but allowing staff to identify and address needs can speak volumes about the principal’s commitment to valuing what each individual brings, as well as real school transformation.

“If you start by doing incredibly small things, that can mean a great deal to the staff,” Collins says. Publicizing and celebrating victories also helps to create momentum.

Encourage teachers to follow their bliss

Legally, Collins’ school had to have a mentoring program in place.

But one teacher with exceptional interest in new teacher induction was given rein to attend relevant conferences, build a mentoring team, and develop a new model for monitoring new teachers.

Harnessing her passion meant that the robust new program went well beyond the spirit of the law: All new teachers met once a month with their assigned mentor to discuss a practical series of topics, such as what to anticipate at the first open house, what to look for with first report cards. Prior to the first evaluation, new teachers and mentors went through a mock one to clarify expectations.

Not only did this approach mean that the organizing teacher-leader harnessed her passion to meaningfully build support networks for new teachers, she ultimately saved the principal countless hours that he could allocate to other tasks.

Take the long view

It takes at least three years for a committed principal to truly change a school’s culture. Research shows that the fourth through eighth year of a principal’s time at a school is the sweet spot for sustainable change that will last beyond his or her tenure.

“Schools that have a revolving door — a high number of principals in a short amount of time — never get the traction to make sustainable change,” Collins says. For maximum results, principals should commit to a new school for a minimum of three to five years to make sure that the changes are lasting ones.

Rebecca L. Weber is a journalist who covers education, the arts, the environment, and more for the New York Times, CNN, USA Today, and other publications. Visit her online at www.rebeccalweber.com or on Twitter @rebeccalweber.