Schools are complex and dynamic systems fueled by many team players, from excellent teachers to efficient building maintenance.
At the helm of this vehicle? Educational leaders.
Whether a kindergarten or a university, every school needs its leaders to achieve school improvement. Strong, innovative, and considerate transformational leader types inspire future generations. In this blog, we will explore the importance of leadership in schools, including types of leadership roles, the impact of effective leaders on school success, and prized school leadership skills. But what is educational leadership?
What Types of Leaders Are Found in Schools?
Educational leaders are more than just principals. While those positions are incredibly vital, they are simply one leadership role within a school’s complex hierarchy.
To that end, an educational leader is anyone who fulfills a school’s mission by managing its operations—and that could mean curriculum policy, staffing, financial resources, or more.
While every school has different staff hierarchies, you can find these common leadership roles across many educational institutions:1
- Principals and assistant principals – Principal roles are the head administrative positions for grade school institutions. Typically, principals manage both administrative and teaching staff, working to uphold curriculum quality, define school values, and enforce disciplinary actions. An assistant principal will usually support their head principal in these tasks. Both roles are usually the public “face” of the school, as well.
- Dean of students – In universities and colleges, deans of students are the leader of all student services. This includes overseeing enrollment, student engagement programs, campus activities, counseling, academic offerings, and more.
- University registrar – This administrative role handles all matters related to university student records and enrollment at both colleges and universities. This may include enrollment policies, class schedules, admissions, and transcripts. Overall, the registrar has a lot of power over the academic life of university students.
- Department head – Almost all academic subjects (English, math, etc.) will have a department head for both grade schools and higher education. This leader oversees all staff and student activity within a department, often managing any department curricula, advocating for department funds, and communicating with teachers in the department. Department heads may also be teachers themselves within their own department.
- School superintendent – In local communities, state governments will group grade school institutions into a school district. These school districts are overseen by the school superintendent, who typically appoints principals, implements academic and conduct policies, monitors district financial resources, and communicates with the school board.
What Impact Does Leadership Have on the Success of a School?
Teamwork is the essence of many institutions, schools included. But without an effective school leader at the forefront, teams can be left directionless, divided, or unmotivated. That’s where a strong captain can take the lead and create a lasting positive impact.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of leadership in schools.
Not only do strong leaders create a better academic environment for students and faculty, but they also create measurable outcomes that demonstrate improvements. According to research, educational leaders improve school success factors like:
- Student learning – Research shows that principals in at least the 75th percentile of effectiveness increase a student’s “learning capacity” by four months in a single school year, while ineffective principals lower achievement by the same amount.2 Similarly, school administrators are found to have the second greatest effect on student learning, following classroom instruction.3
- Teacher engagement – Like all employees, teachers are likely to feel engaged when valued by leaders. Over the course of three years, “highly talented principals” are 2.6 times more likely to have an above-average rate of engaged teachers.4 As a result, teachers are more likely to stick around. Principals who create collaborative, efficient, and productive environments have better teacher retention.5
- Parent involvement – The more involved the parents of students, the better students perform. One study found that parent involvement boosts student academic achievements and self-confidence.6 Schools with strong leaders involve parents more, indirectly supporting these student success markers.7
On the flipside, poor leadership often leads to weaker school success markers—low staff morale, high teacher turnover, lower student achievement, and more.8 Without a strong leader, schools face a stronger battle for success.
How Can School Leaders Promote a Positive School Culture and Climate?
The phrase “positive school culture” is often thrown around when discussing academic environments. But what actually is a positive school culture? And how can a leader help create one?
A positive school culture is an atmosphere where students and staff feel valued, respected, and encouraged. According to the US Department of Education, a positive school climate correlates with higher attendance, test scores, and graduation rates.10 In short, positivity is the key to success.
Educational leaders have immense power to create a positive culture in schools. Here are a few ways that leaders can shape their school’s atmosphere: 11
- Build relationships between staff, teachers, and students to establish common respect
- Establish a shared vision that creates comradery and establishes expectations
- Role model values that staff and students should hold (compassion, respect, etc.)
- Encourage teamwork among all individuals academically and administratively
- Celebrate achievements for both staff and students
- Set appropriate consequences to show a connection between actions and results
- Create rituals or traditions that build a unique school culture and identity
- Value inclusivity to make every student and staff member feel welcome
What Role Do School Leaders Play in Equity and Inclusion for All Students?
Every student deserves a quality education, regardless of their identity. Fortunately, school leaders can help make this dream a reality.
According to research, principals and school leaders are key players—if not the most important player—in creating an inclusive and equitable school environment.12 By setting their school’s values, policies, and culture, an educational leader has incredible power over the inclusion of diverse students and faculty members.
This could include diversity among:
- Race & ethnicity
- Mental disabilities
- Physical disabilities
- Economic class
So, how can school leaders help every individual feel welcome under their roof? From the top-down, a leader can bring these inclusive goals and practices to their workplace:
- Providing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) training to school staff and teachers
- Discouraging and holding accountability for acts of discrimination or prejudice
- Holding student forums on DEI issues related to the student body
- Reaching out to parents of diverse students
- Offering resources, tools, and individual counseling to disadvantaged students
What Qualities and Skills are Essential for Effective School Leadership?
It’s clear that school leaders can shape the lives of students, teachers, and other education workers. But how do they create these incredible strides? What is the difference between a weak and a strong leader in schools?
Like any field, educational leaders need a particular toolkit to build success. Let's dive into the essential qualities and skills school leaders need to create positive, long-lasting change:
- Vision – You could say a leader is the practical dreamer of any team. In schools, a leader must clearly know what achievements and missions the school should set. According to one UK study, a core trait of good school leaders was “a clear vision and sense of direction” and an ability to focus staff on the most important tenets of their work.13
- Collaboration – Being a leader means knowing when to let others lead. Research shows that school leaders who promote collaborative practices among teachers and students can boost school performance.14 This could mean integrating academics and social services, asking different teacher departments to spearhead projects, or aligning missions between schools within one district.
- Data utilization – Teaching successfully in the 21st century requires more than guesswork. Effective school leaders know when to consult data on educational practices to shape policies, empower teaching staff, and direct faculty. According to the Wallace Foundation, effective school leaders use data-based research to provide solutions and prompt discussions around school issues.15
- Emotional intelligence – Every leadership role involves people—and managing people requires robust emotional intelligence. Educational leaders must be able to read people, understand their motivations, and respond appropriately and compassionately. Practicing empathy and emotional validation will motivate employees, thus encouraging better performance.
- Communication – Educational leaders have to engage teachers, students, parents, and even wider communities daily. This makes communication an essential “people skill” for school leaders (or any leaders). School leaders should be able to practice active listening, clear expression of ideas, and fluid communication styles.
- Professional development – Schools are only as strong as their teachers. By encouraging skill development among staff, leaders can create a better educational experience for students, and a more motivated and loyal staff. Research finds that leaders who set common goals, enforce teaching standards, and nurture trust among staff improve teacher efficacy.16
Become a Strong Leader with Alliant International University
Strong leaders in education are more than figureheads—they’re also the visionaries that shape a school’s entire culture, mission, and success. If you’re interested in positively impacting the lives of students, teachers, and communities, then a leadership role in schools may be in your future. Here at Alliant International University, we can help you get there.
Our Doctorate in Educational Leadership (EdD) is designed to build the driven and passionate school leaders of the future. With courses on community engagement, leadership development, and diversity and inclusion, we can help you build the knowledge you need to lead the way in education. If you’re ready to make a change, we’re ready to give you the tools.
- Indeed Editorial Team. “9 Careers in Educational Leadership (With Tips for Finding Them).” Indeed Career Guide, October 1, 2022. https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/finding-a-job/careers-in-education…. Accessed on April 20th, 2023.
- Wallace Foundation. “How Principals Affect Students and Schools: A Systematic Synthesis of Two Decades of Research.” Wallace Foundaiton. https://www.wallacefoundation.org/knowledge-center/pages/how-principals…. Accessed on April 19th, 2023.
- Wallace Foundation.“Executive Summary - How Leadership Influences Student Learning.” Wallace Foundation, September 1, 2004. https://www.wallacefoundation.org/knowledge-center/pages/executive-summ…. Accessed on April 19th, 2023.
- Hodges, Tim. “Six Things the Most Engaged Schools Do Differently.” Gallup.Com (blog), April 6, 2022. https://www.gallup.com/education/231743/six-things-engaged-schools-diff…. Accessed on April 19th, 2023.
- Wallace Foundation. “How Principals Affect Students and Schools: A Systematic Synthesis of Two Decades of Research,” n.d. https://www.wallacefoundation.org/knowledge-center/pages/how-principals…. Accessed on April 19th, 2023.
- Erdener, Mehmet Akif. “Principals’ and Teachers’ Practices about Parent Involvement in Schooling.” Universal Journal of Educational Research 4, no. 12A (December 1, 2016): 151–59. https://doi.org/10.13189/ujer.2016.041319. Accessed on April 19th, 2023.
- Mleczko, Agata, and Alison Kington. “The Impact of School Leadership on Parental Engagement: A Study of Inclusion and Cohesion.” International Research in Education 1, no. 1 (August 16, 2013): 129. https://doi.org/10.5296/ire.v1i1.3844. Accessed on April 19th, 2023.
- Wallace Foundation. “Executive Summary - How Leadership Influences Student Learning.” Wallace Foundation, September 1, 2004. https://www.wallacefoundation.org/knowledge-center/pages/executive-summ…. Accessed on April 19th, 2023.
- “Positive School Culture and Climate.” PDST. https://www.pdst.ie/positive-school-culture-and-climate. Accessed on April 19th, 2023.
- “School Climate Improvement”. National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments (NCSSLE). https://safesupportivelearning.ed.gov/school-climate-improvement. Accessed on April 19th, 2023.
- ASCD. “The Steps to Creating a Positive School Culture,” May 27, 2021. https://www.ascd.org/blogs/the-steps-to-creating-a-positive-school-cult…. Accessed on April 19th, 2023.
- Khaleel, Nida, Mohamed H. Alhosani, and Ibrahim Duyar. “The Role of School Principals in Promoting Inclusive Schools: A Teachers’ Perspective.” Frontiers in Education 6 (April 12, 2021). https://doi.org/10.3389/feduc.2021.603241. Accessed on April 19th, 2023.
- Education Development Trust. “Successful School Leadership Latest 2020 publication”. Education
Development Trust. https://www.educationdevelopmenttrust.com/our-research-and-insights/res…. Accessed on April 19th, 2023.
- Wallace Foundation. “Successful School and District Leadership - How Leadership Influences Student Learning.” Wallace Foundation, September 15, 2004. https://www.wallacefoundation.org/knowledge-center/pages/successful-sch…. Accessed on April 19th, 2023.
- Wallace Foundation. “Five Key Responsibilities - The School Principal as Leader: Guiding Schools to Better Teaching and Learning.” Wallace Foundation, January 1, 2013. https://www.wallacefoundation.org/knowledge-center/pages/key-responsibi…. Accessed on April 19th, 2023.
- Neufeld, Andrew. “School Leadership and Student Achievement: Supporting a Framework of Leadership Actions Known to Improve Student Outcomes”. BU Journal of Graduate Studies in Education. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1230742. Accessed on April 19th, 2023.