4 keys for effective school leadership in all environments

Leaders must tell their stories and build up the capacity of their teams, keynote speakers say
By: | January 28, 2021
Superintendents and other administrators should take time to step back and reflect on their purpose, Thomas Murray said in his FETC keynote.Superintendents and other administrators should take time to step back and reflect on their purpose, Thomas Murray said in his FETC keynote.

Brianna Hodges

Strong leadership during COVID, and in any environment, requires that administrators stay hyper-focused on their “why.”

Having a clear purpose was the first of the four keys to effective education leadership laid out by Brianna Hodges, consultant and advisor, and Thomas C. Murray, Future Ready Schools’ director of innovation, in their FETC keynote speech, “Keys to Effective Leading and Coaching in Any Environment.”

“Our ‘what’ and our ‘how’ may have changed completely this school year,” Murray said. “But you know what hasn’t? Our ‘why’ hasn’t. What you said in the interview chair about why you desperately wanted the job hasn’t changed at all.”

Superintendents and other administrators should take time to step back and reflect on their purpose in leading their districts, supporting their staffs and serving their students, Murray said.


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Having a clear purpose also allows leaders to better model the approaches they hope to see their staffs replicate.

“If we’re going to maximize our effectiveness, we have to model the desired outcomes,” he added.

The importance of storytelling

As uncertain times continue, Hodges urged educators not to focus on the negatives or on misperceptions about their schools that may be circulating in the community or local media.

“For leading and coaching to be effective,” she says, “we must connect and humanize learning through stories.”

Administrators and educators should clearly communicate the efforts they are taking over the next several months. They must tell stories about their districts’ identities, the innovations they are designing and their instructional initiatives.

A technique called “appreciative inquiry” allows leaders to focus on the strengths of their teams and the possibilities ahead for reimagination and innovation in education, Hodges said.

“This isn’t a time for band aids,” she said. “Appreciative inquiry invites us to create our best future by building on our best past with our best strengths and skills.”

‘Believing in and building up capacity’

To be successful, leaders and coaches must establish reciprocal trust and examine every action with empathy, Murray said.

That includes understanding their staffs’ and students’ “hidden” stories, such as medical conditions that might affect someone’s performance or other challenges.


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“The difference between making a judgement and having empathy is understanding the story,” Murray said. “It’s a person’s story that defines the context in which their learning occurs.”

This approach helps leaders truly get to know their teams, which, in turn, builds trust that is “born of character and competence,” Hodges said.

That includes telling the truth, demonstrating respect, creating transparency and apologizing when wrong, she said.

“Extending trust isn’t naïve,” she said. “It’s trusting your staff, your colleagues and your community to perform the jobs for which they are responsible. Extending trust is believing in and building up capacity.”

Equity is about lenses

Finally, equity is an essential if leading and coaching is going to be effective, Murray said.

That means ensuring that a student’s personal and social circumstances do not prevent them from achieving from their academic potential, Murray said.

He urged educators to ask themselves if they had empathy for “lenses,” or situations, they had never experienced.

“Walk into an AP class,” Murray said. “Which students are represented demographically in that class and which students are not?”


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Administrators should also analyze hiring practices and whether some students are disciplined disproportionately. And they should look at the race of main characters in books that are read aloud or assigned, Murray said.

Education leaders should not settle for a return to normal after the pandemic. For instance, even after students can return to classrooms full-time, educators should think about how students can keep devices and Wi-Fi hotspots that have been distributed for emergency online learning.

As educators know, COVID did not create equity issues, it only amplified problems that have persisted for many years, Murray said. “If our habits have more resilience than our purpose, our desired impact for our students will be shackled.”