Soft skills for strong school leadership

"I think for any relationship to be successful, there needs to be loving communication, appreciation, and understanding." -- Miranda Kerr

Education experts and researchers agree that school leaders can have a positive impact on student performance. But how? What are these individuals doing to help drive outcomes?

One answer is that they motivate their teachers to be high-performing educators—to investigate better ways of teaching, test new theories of learning and instructional practice, and adopt educational reforms. Leadership activities which promote teachers’ reflection—such as giving feedback, making suggestions and modeling—and professional growth also have positive effects on teacher motivation.

In doing research for my dissertation a few years ago, I conducted a survey of teachers to see what principal behaviors had a positive impact on teacher motivation. I organized these behaviors into four leadership categories:

  1. Instructional/technical (understanding and implementation of instructional procedures that promote learning). Examples include: curriculum and instructional oversight.
  2. Instructional/interpersonal (training and inspiring teachers to provide strong instruction). Examples include: leading by example and offering affirmation.
  3. Organizational/technical (understanding and implementation of procedures that promote organizational efficiency and function). Examples include: maintaining order and discipline and managing change.
  4. Organizational/interpersonal (interacting with teachers and other constituents as the organizational head). Examples include: communicating clearly and frequently and being visible and accessible.

The survey findings indicated—though not to a statistically significant degree—that both “interpersonal” categories (numbers 2 and 4 above) were most motivating for teachers. This means that teachers are less motivated by what their principals know (technical) than by how they choose to interact (interpersonal).

This may not come as a surprise to you. But it remains a fact that most principal training programs spend most of their time focusing on the “hard skills” of instructional leadership—including content mastery, instructional expertise and curriculum design—rather than softer skills, such as relationship building, communication and active listening.

How can principals build stronger relationships with their teams? A good place to start is by just getting to know each team member as an individual. Try to learn and understand their strengths and their goals, professional as well as personal. What are they passionate about? What are their concerns? People appreciate when you take an honest interest in then and demonstrate care. They also love it when you can identify specific qualities and behaviors that make them special.

I remember once sitting around the table with my faculty advisory committee. The committee consisted of four teachers from different grade levels and disciplines in the school and was designed to offer me feedback on various programs and change initiatives as well as be my ears on the ground. At one point the conversation moved to hand written thank you notes that I had penned for each staff member over the summer and left for them on the first day of teacher meetings. The text was largely the same for each note, with one unique line for every staff member that highlighted a personal quality. It read: “I really appreciate the way that you…” and would focus on something like a teacher’s passion, creativity, contribution to the team, etc.

One committee member was young and relatively quiet within the group. At one point in the conversation, the topic of the notes came up. She commented on how much the note that she received meant to her. She had posted it on the wall above her desk and looked at it often for inspiration.

Another way to build relationship is through one-on-one meetings. You can meet in your office but consider other places that might work better. Drop in at their workspace or classroom for an impromptu chat or make time to go offsite together; these places can help even out the playing field. If you talk in their space, look for items that can give you clues about them, such as pictures on display, an inspirational quote or some cute collectibles on their desk. These could serve as interesting conversation builders and also give you valuable insights to tuck away for a later time. Meeting offsite offers a change of pace as well as more focused conversation, far removed from the school hubbub.

Once you have succeeded in developing positive professional relationships, it is more likely that people within your school will candidly update you on internal developments, warn you about potential challenges or landmines, and even tolerate your mistakes more willingly.

Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, (@impactfulcoach) ) is president of Impactful Coaching & Consulting. Check out his leadership book, "Becoming the New Boss." Read his blog, and listen to his leadership podcast. Download his free new eBook, “An E.P.I.C. Solution to Understaffing.”

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