A district leader meeting with staff in the teacher lounge
Leadership Insights

District-Level Leaders: Continuous Leadership Improvement

By Terry Wilhelm April 29, 2014

Just as principals are responsible for ensuring that each classroom teacher performs at his or her best, principal performance and growth requires highly effective district leadership. Principals must encourage opportunities for advancement, provide needed resources to teachers, and communicate effectively; districts must do likewise for schools and their principals.

How district leaders can find out what’s really happening with principals

Some district superintendents provide living examples of what the business world terms “management by walking around.” One superintendent — in addition to leading classroom walkthroughs with their executive cabinet and principals at one or two schools per month — makes it a practice to drop in during breaks and lunch at various schools and just sit in the staff lounge.

Initially, teachers were guarded in their conversations, and few openly engaged her about issues of concern, but as it became clear that this would be a routine occurrence, they became increasingly open. This superintendent also met monthly with the principal group for 30 minutes prior to principal meetings — that is, prior to the rest of the district officials’ arrival. They do not enter the meeting room until she departs.

She says that this helps her stay in touch with what is really happening with principals. Over time, the effect has been a reduction in district office red tape, and a likelihood that new rules and protocols for sites will be carefully considered before they are suggested in cabinet. This has also reduced the number and frequency of conflicting messages to sites, since the expectation has been established that the cabinet clears most new communications.

A tool to prevent turf wars and red tape: the 360-degree survey

In most bureaucracies, including school districts, there is a constant tension between forces and voices for accomplishing tasks quickly — in this case, in the interest of the schools and students — and equally strong forces and voices for ensuring compliance, consistency, and protecting specific interests, especially the time of those who must complete those tasks. This is how silos form and how red tape proliferates.

Sometimes it is the lieutenants themselves who are the barriers, because they want to protect their turf. A useful tool for an organization with many silos and turf wars is the regular use of a 360-degree survey as part of the annual personnel evaluation of every leader. Many such instruments are available, ranging from very simple to very complex. One of the simpler products is the Flippen 360 Profile, developed — and used internally for its own management — by The Flippen Group.

Effective districts evaluate, monitor, and support principals in order to hold them accountable for increasingly rigorous levels of student learning. However, no district can accomplish this without ensuring its own internal effectiveness, which must include evaluating and monitoring district leaders in relation to standards as high as those by which schools and school leaders are measured.

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