Because Counting Our Blessings Just Isn't Enough

There are questions that resonate, holding our imaginations and keeping us wondering. There are questions that activate our learning, causing us to reflect and helping us to grow.

Do We Need Principals? asked  Josh Stumpenhorst in a blog post last May.

Do We Need (Great) Principals? responded George Couros replying to a question with a question in a blog post published shortly thereafter.

Recently Josh Stumpenhorst may have answered his own question with another post, this time an affirmation rather than a question:  We Need Leaders #cpchat.

Once overcoming my initial defensiveness at the very thought that principals might not be needed, I began to ponder a number of related questions. Do we need principals? Do we need great principals? What makes a principal great? Do we need leaders? Do we need great leaders? What makes a leader great? As a principal and soon to be Head of School, I don’t ask these questions to be provocative, but instead to honestly assess how to design my role in order to make a meaningful impact.

In search of insight, I turned to the research of John Hattie, whose investigation of more than 900 meta-analyses represents the largest collection of evidence based research into what actually works in schools. Citing a meta-analysis conducted in 2008 by Robinson, Lloyd, and Rowe of 22 studies including 2,833 principals, Hattie defines three distinct types of school leadership: transformational leadership, instructional leadership, and learning leadership.

Transformational Leadership, according to Hattie is “inspiring teachers to new levels of energy and commitment towards a common mission, which develops the school’s capacity to work together to overcome challenges and reach ambitious goals, and then to ensure that teachers have time to conduct their teaching.” To me, this sounds quite good: inspiration, new levels of energy and commitment, a common mission, collaboration to reach ambitious goals, and respect for teaching time. And yet, Hattie reports that the impact of transformational leadership on student achievement is a mere 0.11, less than anticipated with no intervention at all.

Instructional Leadership, according to Hattie, occurs among school leaders who “attend to the quality and impact of all in the school on student learning, ensure that disruption to learning is minimized, have high expectations of teachers for their students, visit classrooms, and are concerned with interpreting evidence about the quality and nature of learning in the school.” To me, this also sounds quite good: a focus on student learning, high expectations, presence in classrooms, and attention to evidence about the quality of learning. And yet, Hattie found that the impact of instructional leadership was 0.42, barely above the 0.4 mark one could expect without any intervention.

Learning Leadership, according to Hattie, is leadership that emphasizes student and adult learning and occurs when leaders promote and participate in teacher learning through such approaches as providing coaching over an extended time, data teams, a focus on how students learn subject matter content, and enabling teachers to work collaboratively to plan and monitor lessons based on evidence about how students learn. (see Bausmith & Barry, 2011) In distinction to the minimal impact of transformational and instructional leadership, Hattie found the impact of learning leadership to be an impressive .84, placing learning leadership as among the most significant positive impacts on quality of student learning in schools. (Hattie, John (2012-03-15). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning (Kindle Locations 3889-3892). Taylor & Francis. Kindle Edition.)

Interestingly, Hattie’s insights are not only for principals, our building leaders, but also for teachers, our classroom leaders. Just as John Hattie found a dramatic .84 impact when principals serve as learning leaders, he found the very same dramatic .84 impact when teachers serve as activators of student learning through offering feedback, accessing thinking, supporting challenging goals, and monitoring learning. Alternatively, he found a mere .17 effect size on student learning, less than anticipated with no intervention, when teachers act as facilitators of learning through problem based learning, simulations and gaming, and individualized instruction. (Michael Fullan, Presentation at the 2012 ISTE conference)

Perhaps the roles of principals and teachers, or at least the roles of great principals and great teachers, are not so different after all.

Trained as a transformational leader in the 1990’s, and serving in the mission-driven independent school world in which leaders are expected to inspire teachers toward a common mission, I have undergone a transformation myself in the past several years now striving to be a true learning leader. Hattie’s research, combined with my own experience, has led me to embrace two key ingredients necessary for greatness in principals, teachers, and students alike: coaching and collaboration.

Do we need principals? Of course we do. But, not the principals we may have imagined; not the disciplinarians and schedulers, not the visionaries, and not even the instructional leaders. We need principals who coach and are coached, who support teachers to look at student work together, and who humbly join mind and heart with teachers and students in the sacred task of learning.

Comments on: "Why We Need Principals" (11)

  1. Thanks for another inspirational approach, Shira. I look forward to sharing this post with colleagues.

    • Shira Leibowitz said:

      Thank you, Maureen! In so many ways, you’ve been my guide in understanding and applying John Hattie’s research. I look forward to our ongoing learning together.

  2. said:

    I love your insight! In working with my principal, whom are wonderful, we are discussing Hattie and the importance of feedback not only to our students but to our teachers as well. How timely your thoughts are and congratulation again on your appointment of Head of School. I think you are my angel.


    Sent from my iPad

    • Shira Leibowitz said:

      Thanks, Becky! I look forward to continuing the conversation about feedback to students, to teachers, and even to principals and Heads of School. We all need the feedback to learn and to grow. I really appreciate yours!

  3. Jamie Neibling @jamieneibling said:

    A thought provoking post as we strive to become the educational leaders that our teachers and students need us to be. I know that I will be reflecting on your words for some time to come as I continue to seek to understand and grow in my role as a teaching and learning coach. This has provided some clarity and insight for me. Thanks!

  4. Elaine Suchow said:

    Collaboration is indeed a key ingredient for success and coaching aids the collective group as well as the individual to reach new heights. Our schools need excellent, visionary, collaborative leaders capable of making transformational change. Whether we call these leaders Principals, Head of School, Executive Directors – doesnt’t matter, WE NEED THEM. Wishing you well in your Head of School endeavors. Thanks for the great article.

    • Shira Leibowitz said:

      Thanks, Elaine! I agree; coaching can be effective for groups and for individuals. I also agree that title is not what matters. All of us in schools can work together to support learning. I appreciate your feedback!

  5. I recently attended sessions by Phil Warrick of the Marzano Institute. they have an excellent book on Supervision that helps school leaders become better instructional coaches.

    Coaches often videotape examples of good form or game play. Then they spend time helping players self-evaluate against a standard (say, the golf swing of Tiger Woods). The trouble with education is that there is no “perfect swing” that all styles can emulate.

    However, good teaching can be broken down into domains (Danielson started the idea) and domains can include rubrics with observable outcomes. In the end, it’s not about the style as much as the outcome. The outcomes are detailed in _The Art and Science of Teaching_.

    Yes, we need coaches. We also need to coach the coaches on what they are looking for so that the feedback to teachers can be both specific and helpful.

    • Shira Leibowitz said:

      Hi Janet,
      I fully concur that coaches need coaches; and need to continuously be learning and growing. I also concur that principals need coaches, helping us to be learning leaders making the strongest positive impact we can for our schools. Teaching, and coaching, and being an effective lead learner, are tasks far more complex than those who do not spend their days in schools can easily understand. Marzano and Danielson are both thinkers to whom I have turned often; and our school has created rubrics based on Danielson’s, adapted to reflect our own Standards for Professional Practice. We used these rubrics this year for the first time as one component of our ongoing reflection. I filled out the rubric and teachers each filled out the rubric as one among several tools for self-evaluation. As I filled out the rubric I tried my very best to be cognizant of “principal bias”; or the potential to see in teachers what we expect to see. I looked back at my written feedback to teachers throughout the year to complete the rubric, basing my feedback on what I had observed. For me feedback is not only specific, it is also non judgmental. It is input to support teachers to grow in “the art and science of teaching” (to use Marzano’s language). There is not only the science, but also the art and the unique ways teachers bring themselves to their teaching. For me, feedback effectively offered can help teachers reflect and become ever more effective versions of themselves. I have learned from my coach to word my feedback using non-judgmental sentence prompts. I notice. I wonder. What if? How might? This is somewhat different than the feedback of a coach working on one specific area, and serves to complement the work of our instructional coaches. I continue to seek feedback from our teachers and from others engaged in similar efforts, striving to be more effective in activating teachers’ professional learning. I truly appreciate your insights!

  6. I’m learning how little I know about good feedback. Being new to admin, I thought the walk-throughs where a good plan (and they definitely have heir place), but I didn’t know how to get solid observational information. Your term “principal bias” is one I’ve never heard – but I can already seeing myself having it. The checklists will help.

    I like what you said about teachers self-evaluating. It also sounds like you have a cognitive coaching model in place where you do more questioning than talking. All good reminders for me as I struggle to put all this together. Thanks!

    • Shira Leibowitz said:

      Hi Janet,
      Teacher evaluation, in the context of professional learning, is an ongoing work in progress for me. In the years I’ve served as a principal, I’ve observed and experienced thinking and practice on teacher evaluation and feedback evolve quite dramatically. The class visits with written nonjudgemental feedback combined with two to three formal reflective meetings with teachers has made a positive impact. There are components that have been very successful and others that I will continue to refine. It helps me not to struggle to put all this together alone; but to share and learn with other principals.

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