Principal meeting with his staff
Leadership Insights

PD for Principals: Why Shared Leadership is Essential to Maximize Staff Talent

By Terry Wilhelm February 10, 2015

As discussed in maximizing staff talent, an important beginning step is to help principals identify the talents of teaching and support staff, as well as the administrative team if the school has one. I suggested having principals consider all the individuals in their staff roster and listing their strengths, then reflecting on the following questions:

  • Were there any surprises as you considered each individual?
  • What opportunities are you providing for each person to contribute to the work of the current initiatives of your school in his or her areas of strength?
  • What next steps can you take to increase these opportunities?

Failure to maximize staff talent can hurt student achievement

A secondary-school principal I’ll call Bonnie had a leadership style I would best describe as “close to the vest.” She seldom shared instructional leadership with her assistant principals, including information on district initiatives or the site-specific instructional plan that she had developed for the district leaders.

The APs’ chief task was to handle discipline, and without a strong base of progressive discipline in place at the classroom level, office referrals consumed most of their days. They also handled all non-instructional administrative tasks such as taking responsibility for textbooks and coordinating testing.

Student achievement scores flattened, then began to decline. Bonnie had applied for several district positions, but had not been selected. Although the district leaders were unaware of it, she had begun to work toward her license to become a paralegal, and had become increasingly detached from the school.

The benefits of shared leadership

Bonnie’s assistant principals had considerable talent. The more experienced AP — who had an endless fountain of ideas about how to improve student learning through bolstering course-alike teacher teamwork and empowering teacher leaders — would often make suggestions to her principal, only to find that no action materialized.

Bonnie eventually left her principalship to become a paralegal, and her more experienced AP was selected to replace her. By then, student achievement and staff morale had plunged, and engineering a turnaround took several years.

Involvement in principals’ development can illuminate problems

This school’s decline could have been avoided if district leaders had been more attuned to Bonnie’s inability to share leadership. Using strategies like the staff analysis and reflection questions listed above, a district leader might have realized that in the case of this school, a wise move might have been — after helping Bonnie identify specific strengths in her staff — to coach her to begin sharing leadership with her APs, at the very least.

This coaching might have allowed the APs to assume responsibility for working with specific grade levels, including sitting in on teacher collaborations. Then they’d have the data to present mini-workshops to the staff as a whole on just-in-time topics that the entire administrative team saw as immediately needful. The APs might even have contributed by sitting in on certain meetings with district leaders.

No principal can lead a successful school alone

Unfortunately this didn’t happen, due to one principal’s inability to relinquish control of any significant aspects of instructional leadership at her school and difficulty accepting input from her administrative team. Since no principal can successfully lead a school solo in today’s world of increasingly demanding outcomes and accountability, Bonnie’s students were the ones who lost out. They never got opportunities for robust learning on a continuously improving achievement trajectory.

It is important for district leaders to realize that with some principals, simply making suggestions is not a viable strategy. Active involvement— sitting in on school staff meetings, meeting occasionally with the administrative team instead of only the principal, and taking other steps to empower leadership and encourage advancement in school staff members — is the only effective route to school improvement when a school leader is truly insecure.

Additional resources

Here’s How to Keep Your School’s Leadership Pipeline Full

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone”: Q & A with Monique Woodley, EdD ‘18

Principal as Instructional Coach: Shared Tasks Vs. Delegation to Develop AP Leadership

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