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Five Questions You Should Ask Your Leader

By George Couros

I was recently asked by a superintendent if I had some questions to ask his principals to start off the year. I gave him five, based on the following areas: 1. Fostering Effective Relationships 2. Instructional Leadership 3. Embodying Visionary Leadership 4. Developing Leadership Capacity 5. Creating Sustainable Change In my opinion, the principal is probably the most important job in an educational organization. There are many studies that reiterate this, but key is the fact that they have the most authority while being closest to kids. This is not to say that teachers aren’t important; they are absolutely vital. But a great principal will help to develop great teachers, and a weak principal will do the opposite. As the very wise Todd Whitaker says, “when the principal sneezes, the whole school gets a cold.” Though the following questions were developed for superintendents to ask principals, they are questions any educator, parent, or even student should be able to openly ask their principal. Fostering Effective Relationships 1. What are some of the ways in which you connect with your school community? When asking a principal this question, it is important to look for answers that go beyond the basic responses citing staff meetings, emails, etc. Look for actions that go above and beyond. For example, one of the best principals that I knew spent every morning welcoming staff and students to the school at the main doorway. He would ask questions about their family, talk to them about their lives, and get to know them in a much deeper way than what was expected. Although this principal has been retired for a few years, many of his staff refer to him as legendary because of the way that he made connecting with kids and community a priority. Instructional Leadership 2. What are some areas of teaching and learning in which you can show leadership in the school? Covey talks about two important areas for leaders: character and credibility. Many principals are great with people, yet really do not understand the art and science of teaching or have lost touch with what it is like to be in the classroom. Although leaders need not be masters of all things, they should be able to walk into a classroom and teach kids. They should also be capable of leading the staff in workshops that focus directly on teaching and learning. If teachers sense that a principal understands what they do, any initiatives adopted by the leader are more likely to garner their support. Embodying Visionary Leadership 3. What do you want teaching and learning to look like in your school, and how do you communicate that vision? Many leaders will communicate a big-picture take on what schools should look like but can’t clearly translate that into a coherent vision for teachers and students. It is important to be able to clearly communicate and discuss the elements of learning that you wish to see in the classroom. Many new educators walk into schools thinking that “quiet and order” are appropriate classroom expectations, so even though they are doing some powerful work that looks quite messy, they are worried that it does not fit in with their boss’s ideal image. Due to this, many will often try to make their work conform to a principal’s perceived expectations, simply because these were never effectively communicated. Developing Leadership Capacity 4. How do you build leadership in your school? Many principals are great at developing followers, but fewer are great at creating more leaders. There’s a notion that has been kicking around for years that you’ve got to do everything to keep your best talent at all costs. In reality, it is important to develop people, even if that means they will eventually leave. Great schools are often “leadership” hubs that are continually losing great people, but they gain a reputation of being places where leadership in all areas is developed, which actually tends to attract more great educators. Wouldn’t you want to work with someone who is going to try to get the best out of you? Great leaders develop more leaders. What is your plan to make this happen? Creating Sustainable Change 5. What will be your “fingerprint” on this building after you leave? When my former superintendent asked me this question years ago, it really resonated. She explained that she should be able to walk into my school and see the impact that I have had as the leader of the building. This is not to say we throw out what the former leader has done—quite the opposite, in fact. Great leaders do not come in to maintain the status quo, but rather bring their unique abilities to a school to help it accede to the next level. They build upon the school’s existing foundation, but work with others to ensure that their impact lasts long after their time serving the community. This is where all of the other questions above truly come together, but it takes time and dedication to make it happen. The old notion that teachers and students are accountable to a principal is one that is thankfully dying. Great principals know that to be truly successful, it is the principal that is accountable and serves the community. They create a powerful vision but also ensure that they do whatever work is needed to help teachers and students become successful. I encourage you to talk to your principal, no matter what your role, and ask her/him their thoughts on some of these questions provided. The Principal of Change ( Twitter: @gcouros

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