How Educational Leaders Can Inspire Students and Staff: A Conversation with Kelley King

Kelley King has experienced education as a student, a teacher, a principal and an educational consultant. She’s worked in special ed and gifted ed; in large urban schools, small rural schools and in public and private schools.

She hit the national scene around 2005, shortly after her Boulder, Colorado, school closed the achievement gap between boys and girls in just one year. Her book, “Writing the Playbook: A Practitioner’s Guide to Creating a Boy-Friendly School,was published in 2013. Since then, King has shared her expertise with dozens of schools worldwide. She currently serves as principal of grades K-5 at San Diego Jewish Academy.

We talked to King to learn more about how educational leaders can inspire their students, staff and school communities.

How can educational leaders create a culture that allows everyone to thrive?

Achievement should never be a zero-sum game. Advocating for boys and boys’ achievement, for example, should never be to the deficit of girls; all ships rise on the same tide.

There are certainly some kids that are more challenging for us to teach, whether it’s the kid who doesn’t speak any English; or the student who comes from an impoverished, illiterate family; or a really active boy who can’t sit still for five minutes. These kids make us work harder; we can’t just deliver the same lesson. We have to think creatively about how to access these kids, how to build on their strengths, how to make the lesson more engaging. And when we have these kids who challenge us to think outside of the box, we end up elevating the level of instruction for all kids.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by challenges. How can educational leaders help educators rise to meet challenges?

A big part of the principal’s role is to help faculty feel like they’ve discovered a problem or issue that needs to be addressed. That discovery creates a great sense of urgency, sustained focus and empowerment and energizes people to work together.

An approach that has been very effective for me is to put the data together in such a way that it paints a powerful picture. For instance, I’ll use trend lines to represent achievement gaps and then ask my staff, “OK, so what are some of the celebrations in our data, and what are some of the challenges?”

When they notice the gap, we talk about it. Why do we think that is? What are the contributing factors? I facilitate a process that allows teachers to create their own meaning. I don’t say, “We have this problem, so this is what we’re going to do.” I bring forth the information that allows educators to engage in the discovery process, and then we collaboratively figure out what to do. We go through a process that allows everyone’s voice to be heard, and then we always establish our next steps, because those details can get lost.

Going through this process builds a lot of trust and appreciation and develops strength in your followership. Building that base is the most powerful way to get people pulling in the same direction.

How has your view of educational leadership evolved throughout the years?

I’ve learned that there are some basic universal truths about leadership in schools. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in an inner-city school in Selma, Alabama, or if you’re in a school in Singapore, Thailand, Iceland or Montreal. There are some things that cross language, racial, ethnic, national and cultural boundaries – some universal truths about kids and learning. The biggest one is that engagement precedes achievement.

It’s also so important to share a common language of learning. You need to engage your community and define what it means to be a learner at your school. Does that mean we sit in rows and we raise our hands and we turn in homework on time, or does that mean that we can find multiple solutions to the same problem, that we work collaboratively, that we have determination? Everyone needs to know what to do if they get stuck, and they need to know what resources are available and how to access them.

What do you think educational leaders should pay more attention to? What should they pay less attention to?

We adults get really busy with the background noise of our jobs but forget to pay attention to student voices. Educational leaders need to spend more time listening to student voices. We need to get students talking so they can inform us about the learning experience and how it can be improved for them.

Educational leaders also should be paying more attention to empowering teachers as professionals. Our job is to help teachers be the very best educators they can.

We need to spend less time on the management aspects of our job. It’s always a challenge to balance the dual hats of leader and manager, but we have to be able to keep that management aspect in the box. A manager is at their desk, building schedules, ensuring recess coverage, writing up reports and attending to all the nuts and bolts. A leader is accessible and visible; they’re spending a lot of time in the classroom.

A head coach is not in his office when his players are on the field playing the game; he’s right there, with his team. We have to be on the field with our players too, with kids and teachers in the learning environment.

Jennifer L.W. Fink is a freelance writer who frequently writes about education, health and parenting. See her work at and