School Leadership, What Makes a School Great?- Part 4

School Leadership: What Makes a School Great?- Part 4


School leadership is a selfless act.


School leadership is about taking care of those that are entrusted to you.  It is a selfless act and is not about receiving a title or acknowledgement. Cared for, happy employees are more productive in their work and feel invested in the community they work in. Great principals give recognition to their faculty and are respectful of the work they do. Furthermore, they set challenging stretch goals, set the standard of how to be an ongoing learner and are willing to try new things and experiment without revamping everything. Principals should have their finger on the pulse of the school and be aware of what is going on in various classrooms and distinct relationships in the school. A great school leader has the judgment about what traditions to preserve and when to experiment with something new. They are flexible, especially in their thinking and look for creative solutions to problems as opposed to being stuck in doing the same thing over and over again.

Peter Bregman, writes for the Harvard Business School Review, and coaches business people on leadership. He believes that there are distinct characteristics that great leaders have, including being generous and gifted. Coupled with those characteristics I’ve highlighted some other essential skills that great school leaders should have in great schools. Great principals and school leaders need to be generous, gifted, courageous as well as open, judicious and consistent.

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Great School leaders are

  • Generous

  • Gifted teacher and conductor

  • Courageous and Open

  • Judicious with the ability to filter and question

  • Consistent.

  1. Generous: Bregman writes a great “leader needs to put the good of the company above their own department, team, or agenda. They must be good-hearted, mutually respectful, and gracious, resisting the urge to dominate…” Part of being generous with others also means taking an interest in and learning about the personal hobbies and skills of your faculty. A good administrator does just that. Great school leaders develop their Faculty and school population. They spot the strengths within their faculty and nurture them in order to retain teachers and cultivate them. Great school leaders give teachers valuable and actionable feedback. They cultivate all of their teachers to be leaders, themselves and are attuned to the needs of their team. Great schools have several excellent school leaders and teacher leaders that the principal is purposely grooming with opportunities for professional development and growth.

For example the late Fred Rubino, ( former principal of IS 318 and an acting Superintendent in Brooklyn, recognized that a member of his faculty, Elizabeth Spiegel was an overwhelmed English Teacher, but a gifted chess coach. So, he created a required chess class for 6th graders, from which Spiegel was able to develop a National Championship team. They took home 3 National Championship titles in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade. They were the only school in the country to do so, because of Principal Rubino’s devotion to developing the program and faculty.

A good administrator also makes sure that their faculty has time away from the school to reflect and take vacations. Great school leaders make health and wellness a priority at the school. Faculty and kids who are unhealthy are not able to learn most effectively. Great principals foster a collaborative community of learners where everyone is both a teacher and a student.


  1. Gifted teacher and conductor: Simply put, leaders need to be good at what they do. Smart, prepared, and well-informed, they need to engage in conversations with curiosity and capability. But to be on a team, they need to go beyond that. Principals need to be gifted communicators and gifted learners, mastering conflict without being offensive, and adapting to their own changing roles as the institution grows. They ask for feedback in order to continually grow and learn. School leaders give constructive feedback, observe classes and offer positive and negative criticisms in a healthy way. They seek opportunities to develop their faculty. One way principals demonstrate leadership is by empowering teachers to observe each other, collaborate on lesson plans and give constructive feedback in a community of learners and teachers.

NY Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, wrote The Shanghai Secret, when he visited an improved school in Shanghai noting that principals and teachers in China agreed “nothing — not class size, not technology, not length of the school day — pays off more than giving teachers the time for peer review and constructive feedback, exposure to the best teaching and time to deepen their knowledge of what they’re teaching.”

But more importantly, great principals set the standard of how to be a great teacher by being in the classroom themselves.

  1. Courageous and Open: A great principal has the courage to be a bold decision maker who approaches the tough decisions head-on. They ensure that the curriculum, faculty, and physical buildings are all aligned with the mission, even though they change and adapt slightly every year. They ask the tough questions like, “Does this budget match the school’s priorities and goals to improve the education of our students?” However, asking those questions means they need to be receptive to the answers, “willing to listen to something that might make him feel afraid or insecure or defensive.” Bergman says, “We often attribute courage to the speaker, but what about the receiver? The one who must not just take in the information but process it and come up with a plan of action. If he is a great receiver, he will take in the information or message thoughtfully…[which] takes tremendous courage.” In order to receive… you need to be free, open, and unguarded. 
 Reiterate what you’re hearing, ask questions, be curious. Not curious in an ‘I-will-find-out-enough-information-so-I-can-prove-you-wrong’ way. But rather in a way to understand what the person is saying and to understand what’s underneath what they’re saying” for the betterment of the school.


  1. Judicious with the ability to filter and question: Great school leaders have the judgement to recognize the difference between new “flashes in the pan” from new “worthwhile experiments;” their judgment is solid and isn’t influenced wholly by trend. These school leaders use data, research and experience to make decisions about the direction of the school.  Yet, they need to have the courage to take risks. Great school leaders respect tradition while inviting in new ideas.  Open to change and growth, they are an ongoing learner who stays abreast of the research in education and the new teaching methods published education journals.  They are vulnerable and open to challenge and criticism, willing to consider anything. This requires a tremendous amount of confidence. The kind of confidence that allows them to be questioned by others — even take blame and feel threatened — without becoming defensive.   Great principals encourage feedback from all stakeholders parents, students and teachers.


  1. Consistent: A great school leader set the tone for executing the mission of the School. Is it clearly articulated to the faculty, staff, and students? They encourage a culture of collaboration, communication, and empowerment, ensuring a consistent message throughout the school
  • Do the standards for discipline seem consistent and fair throughout the school? For example-Do you see similar guidelines in various classrooms or are some classroom guidelines stricter than others? Is failing or making mistakes celebrated in a healthy way? Are high expectations are communicated for all students in a culture that celebrates learning from mistakes as well as successes.  A community of learners treats all students’ strengths and weaknesses with respect.
  • Do Students feel that they can be agents in their school? Do they = have a voice and a governing body? Do all members of the community have equal opportunity to have their positions heard?
  • What is the Annual Theme of the school? Are there summer books that the whole community reads together? Are a diverse range of School Wide Events and Holidays celebrated in particular ways? Which school achievements are acknowledged and how; are a variety of students included? Are arts performances, team championships and publications celebrated equally.

After all, principals and school leadership set the tone and culture for the school with a clear vision of how to communicate and implement the school’s mission. School leaders choose the people to hire, allocate the budget and determine the schedule and curriculum.  Great schools have a culture of high expectations and effective discipline that’s enforced through caring and designed to nurture all types of students.

If you haven’t had a chance to check out the other 3 parts of the “What Makes a School Great” series, please do. There’s more to see!

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4 Responses to “School Leadership, What Makes a School Great?- Part 4

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    • Sharon Thompson

      Thanks for including Dream Workshop’s article in your scoop on School Leadership. This is part of a blog series about What makes schools great? You might be interested in the earlier posts:


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