By Dennis Muizers

How do we learn to be excellent leaders? After 30 years in education, I often wish I could go back with the knowledge and experience I have now. I was a high school principal at age 28 and a PK-12 curriculum director at 32 looking for leadership inspiration. One of the first mistakes I made was incorrectly assuming that teaching and leading were two very different capacities. Thankfully, the reality for educational leaders who want to grow is that excellent leadership examples are happening in classrooms around you every day. It is only with a growth mindset and the willingness to reflect that you can take these examples and apply them to become an effective leader in your school or district.

Let’s take a closer look at the attributes of excellent teaching that can and should be your blueprint for excellent leadership, as well as the reflection questions that will help you hone these attributes.

Excellence Happens by Design, Not by Chance

Your best classroom teachers are intentional. They have lesson plans that drive their work with whole groups, small groups, and individual students. The destinations along the learning journey are not random, but instead defined learning targets which are derived from competency standards. Most states have similar standards for highly qualified teachers. Are you utilizing them with intent in your leadership plan the way your excellent teachers are utilizing their lesson plans?

Leadership Self-Reflection Questions

Excellence is More Likely When You Inspect What You Expect

Your best classroom teachers utilize formative assessments to inform further instruction, reteaching, and enrichment. When asked how often teachers should assess students, Dr. Larry Lezotte, a founding father of the Effective Schools movement, would usually reply, “As often as they are willing to reteach their students who haven’t demonstrated mastery and enrich the students who have.” Just as teachers check for mastery often and in multiple ways, so should you.

Leadership Self-Reflection Questions

Excellence Means High Expectations and Care

Your best classroom teachers recognize that caring for their students does not mean they should lower their expectations or standards for their students.  They hold all students accountable and have adopted a “not yet” mentality for students who are still working to reach higher levels of success.  

In my former district we created an intervention called the Center for Academic Training (CAT). The CAT was a supportive learning environment that was open during the school day as well as an hour before and after school for any middle or high school student. Working directly with teachers, the CAT coordinator ensured that any and all academic materials students would need were available to them if they came in for assistance. The environment created by the coordinator and volunteers ensured all students felt comfortable receiving the assistance they needed without any negative stigma associated with the additional support. Although the CAT was available to all students, there were handfuls of students that were scheduled into the CAT based on academic needs. Campus leaders were very selective about whether students had a CAT period elective; often these were students who needed enhanced academic, social, or emotional support. 

Some of the most touching stories at high school graduations were told by students who had a CAT period elective. These students often talked about how the CAT coordinator held them accountable – more accountable than they enjoyed sometimes – but still clearly cared about them. The coordinator helped them with organization and time management skills, and then expected them to keep it up, supporting when needed. Students learned that at CAT, they had to check and redo assignments several times if they were “not yet” at the level of quality the coordinator expected. In their stories, these new high school graduates were brutally honest and beautifully inspiring: they did not always enjoy having to meet high expectations until they learned to adopt those expectations for themselves.

Leadership Self-Reflection Questions

Striving for excellence

As leaders committed to improvement, we often look for inspiration from clips of inspirational leaders in movies or from recent best-sellers in the business section of the bookstore. However, something we typically overlook are the great examples of teaching in our classrooms that should be the blueprint for our leadership. As you create your leadership plan, I encourage you to focus on these three cornerstones of excellent teaching:

Let these three pillars of excellent classroom teaching guide your leadership, and you will achieve the same outcome that your best teachers accomplish each year—a staff that is growing and developing by design, with evidence of continuous improvement in a supportive and caring learning environment that recognizes and differentiates based on their needs and progress.

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