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Leadership Insights

Transformational Leadership in Schools

By Jennifer Gunn September 6, 2018

A new school year is a fresh opportunity to revisit, reconnect, and reimagine your school’s mission and vision. It’s the perfect time to open up your leadership practice and share the work with your team to truly and sustainably make a change. Hear from the leading experts on school leadership to learn how to become a transformational leader for your learning community!

What is transformational leadership?

Transformational leadership in schools is when a leader empowers members of the learning community to improve from within. The transformational leader does not simply run a school, merely keeping it afloat. Instead, such leaders seek to make things better through genuine collaboration between the school’s members and stakeholders.

“Transformational leadership fosters autonomy in all individuals, empowering them to problem-solve and innovate without seeking permission and instead trusting their expertise,” says Elisabeth Bostwick, educator and co-founder of the #LeadUpTeach chat on Twitter, who has two books coming out this winter. “Traditionally speaking, some schools continue to place emphasis on hierarchical leadership models where top-down decision-making reigns, often negatively impacting teacher motivation as they may be left feeling that their voice doesn’t matter. Within a school where transformational leadership flourishes, individuals are confident that their voice matters, elevating collective efficacy and increasing learner achievement.”

Transformational leaders are captains who trust their crew to help design and carry out improvement. They create a culture of innovation and motivate teachers and students to continuously progress, ever aiming to create the best learning environment for students.

“Fearless leaders need the self-confidence and courage that allows them to reach out to others. They are acutely aware that transformation is not a one-person performance—that they must take aim at their goals not as lone heroes but as members of a unified effort, says Yvette Jackson and Veronica McDermott in their book Aim High, Achieve More: How to Transform Urban Schools Through Fearless Leadership. “They realize that their role is to be present—to show up for students, staff, and community—and then to get out of the way to allow students, staff, and community to take up the challenge. They make the structural and institutional arrangements that promote risk-taking and alter the culture of the school.”

Challenge the status quo

Transformational leadership begins by getting reflective. School leaders and teachers often rely on tried and true practices that may be comfortable, but ineffective. To truly transform a community we must question and sometimes abandon habits, beliefs, practices, and mindsets that no longer work.

“A shift in mindset empowers leaders to create change, not respond to change,” writes Eric Sheninger, author of Learning Transformed: 8 Keys to Designing Tomorrow’s Schools, Today and senior fellow at the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE). “It is this shift that can begin to lay the foundation for transformation. How do we do this? By beginning to challenge the way things are done; by replacing the word ‘no’ with the word ‘yes’ more often; and by focusing on the ‘what ifs’ instead of the ‘yeah, buts.’”

Leaders can start to pioneer change by reflecting upon and identifying their current practices and then considering how to challenge them to make room for new ideas and methods. Says Sheninger: “Transformational leaders consistently make observations, listen intently, leverage a growth mindset and, most importantly, take action to improve the organization.”

Build together, day by day

It would be amazing if we could stop time and have the hours and headspace to truly get things done, but the reality is schools don’t stop. Leaders must effect change while knee-deep in the myriad things happening at once, all while working alongside a very busy teaching staff. Concordia Cavalier John Paul Sanchez, EdD says that transformational leaders need to “be able to rebuild the ship from the inside out. We as leaders are the stewards of the culture. We get to work within the culture for the purpose of transforming the culture.”

There will never be a perfect or less-chaotic time to start to change the way things are done. The work has to happen in the midst of the commotion, keeping your school’s culture and values at the forefront of this collaborative effort. How can you start? Identify goals with your team and create a series of steps and a timeline.

Set and stick to meeting times with your staff to discuss and work on these goals even when daily challenges make it difficult. Reflect at the end of each day. Check in to make sure you’re progressing and not reverting back to what’s familiar. Keep encouraging your staff to continue the work and celebrate successes.

Be intentional, not reactive

On any given day, a school leader is pulled in many unpredictable directions — usually due to immediate needs that can’t be ignored. This constancy can lead to a habit of jumping from crisis to crisis with no real mission or underlying progress. Transformational leaders must become more intentional with their time and their vision — and with that work, it’s likely that day-to-day disorder will lessen.

“As I grew in the principalship, I came to the gradual realization that a random and haphazard approach to events was not compatible with effective leadership,” says Baruti K. Kafele, a former principal in New Jersey, in his book The Principal 50: Critical Leadership Questions for Inspiring Schoolwide Excellence. “I needed to ‘step up my game’ in a big way — to think and act with intentionality. In fact, over time, ‘intentionality’ became my byword. I learned that if we as a school community were going to meet all the pressures and demands that were thrust upon us, we had to be able to spend our days acting on our intentions rather than reacting to situations.”

Be clear about your school’s goals, beliefs, practices, and long-term innovations. When we pour our focus into our mission, the commotion and confusion decrease as the culture solidifies. As emergencies arise, view and handle them through the lens of your transformational work. Consider ways that you can advance your practice so that you are an example of growth.

Be ethical and compassionate

Transactional leaders rely on fear and reward to get their staff to function and produce results. However, transformational leaders emphasize collaboration, ethics, and compassion to form a collective momentum to grow and succeed.

“Relationships rooted in trust, respect, and compassion can take a nice school and make it an extraordinary space where excitement and passion become palpable,” says Joe Sanfelippo and Tony Sinanis in their book Hacking Leadership: 10 Ways Great Leaders Inspire Learning That Teachers, Students, and Parents Love. “Foster trust by being collaborative. Decisions should rarely be made in isolation; instead, all members of the school community should have some voice, and it is your responsibility to listen to others — to be present —  in order to broaden your perspective and make the best decisions possible.”

Maintaining that trust sustains the work. When Rachael Hoffert, EdD began her doctoral journey with Concordia University-Portland, she said, “The first course I took was called ‘The Ethical Educator.’ In that class, we really looked at transformational leadership and how academic knowledge is so important, but so is integrity and compassion.”

When a leader is trusted, compassionate, and open-minded, real change can happen. Says Dr. Brad Gustafson, principal and author of Renegade Leadership: Creating Innovative Schools for Digital-Age Students “Transformational leaders take time to develop trust and understand their team’s talent.” Patience and dedication truly pay off.

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Jennifer Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education. She is a curriculum designer, a teaching coach, and high school educator in New York City. She is also co-founder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference for teacher-led innovation and regularly presents at conferences on the topics of adolescent literacy, leadership, and education innovation.

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