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School Leadership: The 8 Critical Areas

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There is enough research on leadership to fill oceans. Indeed, we can easily find ourselves swimming in the leadership data and wondering where to focus our energies.

Since most leadership research doesn’t focus on school leadership, how do we know what’s most important for school leaders? After all, schools are unique institutions. It stands to reason that they require a unique kind of leadership.

Thankfully, Independent School Management conducted research on school leadership and found that effective school leaders do the following exceptionally well:

  • Vigorously seek to develop a faculty culture focused on professional development
  • Give public, positive reinforcement to deserving employees and students
  • Promote an ongoing faculty conversation regarding high expectations and support for students
  • Establish a faculty-wide conversation regarding professional development
  • Place great emphasis on having high expectations tailored to each student
  • Demonstrate an inspired and inspirational commitment to the school’s mission
  • Sustain high levels of self-awareness and self-management
  • Exhibit determined pursuit of their own professional growth programs

It’s great to know where to focus to be an exceptional leader. It’s quite another thing to focus on those areas with all the competing demands of school leadership. Even if you can focus on one or more of the areas in which you need to improve, developing and implementing a plan successfully can be very elusive.

How does one develop a faculty culture that is focused on professional growth and development? Sometimes the complaining and bickering seems to drown out the voices of those devoted to learning, sharing and supporting each other. It would be fabulous to have an ongoing conversation among teachers about ways to improve teaching – one that would dominate the discussions in the faculty lounge and infuse teachers with the same passion for learning that we want our students to demonstrate. The question is, how does one create that awesome reality?

The same questions and challenges apply to the other areas that exceptional school leaders focus on. Knowing what makes a school leader exceptional is one thing. Knowing how, when and where to get to the what is quite another.

It’s easier said than done. The urgent constantly gets in the way of the important.

That’s why it’s important to have a leadership coach. Do you know any successful athletes without a coach? A school leader coach will help you address one, some or all of the critical areas above and become an exceptional leader. School leadership coaching is like a personalized leadership development program. The only agenda of your leadership coach is to help you in whatever way you need assistance. Whether you need to develop your skills as an inspirational school leader, develop self-awareness or develop in any other way as a leader, the most effective and cost-efficient way to go is with a school leader coach.

Contact us to get started with your leadership coaching and a personalized leadership development program.

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The Art of Exceptional Leadership

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Are you an exceptional leader, or an average one?

By now, you probably know a lot about school leadership. You’ve taken courses, received training and attended conferences on effective school leadership.

If you’re like most people, much of what you studied remains in your notes and on your list of things to do. Most you simply don’t remember.

That’s okay. The data is overwhelming. We’ve become data junkies living in data junkyards. In education, everything is about data these days – data-driven decisions, data-driven instruction, data-driven leadership. Next thing you know, we’ll have data-driven play. The data will always be there. More will arrive. You can find it anytime and try out new skills and techniques.

Don’t get me wrong. Data has its rightful place. We can and must learn from it. But expertise and skills learned from data analysis do not an exceptional leader make.

Your relationships make you an exceptional leader, or not. Relationships are the key. And relationships are an art form in the truest sense of the word.

When you walk into your school, lead a faculty meeting, talk with parents and chat with students, your relationships are far more important than your leadership skills and expertise. Your ability to connect with people, and to maintain strong relationships built on trust and respect define your leadership. Skills and expertise are the icing on the cake.

The key to healthy relationships is self-differentiation. Emotionally, exceptional leaders are not dependent on anything other than themselves. They are self-sufficient and live without undue anxiety or over-dependence on others. Their sense of worth comes from within and is independent of relationships, circumstances and events.

Exceptional leaders understand that the emotional processes going on within their schools are extraordinarily powerful – much more powerful than ideas, goals or any other leadership tool. The emotional life of an organization is like the wind and waves. The sailor who tries to overcome them will likely fail, whereas positioning oneself to let the natural force assist will take the ship in the right direction.

The art of exceptional leadership is the capacity to be a steady, non-anxious and challenging presence, and to be connected to people but not enmeshed in the emotional processes. In short, the exceptional leader is first and foremost emotionally intelligent. Leadership through presence and self-differentiation is not easy. Be prepared to lose friends and experience the pain of isolation and personal attacks. It comes with the territory.

So do the rewards. And they are endless. Exceptional school leadership creates exceptional schools. Is anything more beautiful?

Contact us for school leader coaching services to help you become an exceptional school leader.

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Excellent project-based teaching engages students in meaningful and relevant learning. Students in project-based environments are motivated and involved learners. Teachers use guided inquiry and a transdisciplinary approach to nurture in-depth learning. They focus students’ work and deepen their learning by centering on significant issues, concepts, questions and problems. A project-based approach helps students learn important content, develop intellectual capacities and acquire essential skills, from calculating to collaborating.

The project-based approach to teaching creates for students the need and desire to learn essential content and skills. Project-based learning begins with a vision for a product that requires learning specific knowledge, skills and concepts, thus creating a context and rationale to study the information and ideas. Learning content across disciplines creates context for students, which results in a much higher level of understanding than that attained through traditional teaching of subject areas in isolation.

Project-based learning necessitates inquiry to discover or construct new knowledge and understanding. Inquiry demands that students explore new ideas, consider options, solve problems and share what they have learned. They must work collaboratively and use critical thinking and problem solving skills. Students need to do much more than remember information—they need to construct knowledge, develop understanding and solve complex problems wile working together in a team. Students must listen to each other, articulate their own ideas and present projects effectively.

One of the many advantages of project-based learning is that students have a voice and choice. Students become skilled at working independently and assume responsibility for their work when they have the opportunity to make choices. Another benefit is the process of feedback and revision, in which students critique each others’ work. In the end, students present their results publicly. The process of preparing and delivering a project presentation in and of itself is a significant learning experience for students.

In summary, projects contain and frame the curriculum. The content of projects typically includes several disciplines and multiple skills. Students gain a deep understanding of the concepts that are central to the project. They develop critical skills in a variety of skill areas according to the nature of the project. Projects also foster and an enduring love for learning. They can encourage students to address global and local issues, explore interests and build on strengths, interact with adults in various professions, use educational technology, and present their work to audiences beyond the classroom. Project-based learning usually motivates all students and almost always has a life-changing impact on students who might otherwise find school boring or meaningless.

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The single greatest determinant of student learning is the faculty. Teachers are far more important than the curriculum, facilities, administration or any other aspect of a school’s operations. As such, investment in teachers will yield a high rate of return. Central to determining teacher effectiveness is faculty culture. A healthy faculty culture is essential for students to learn and teachers to teach at the highest levels of their abilities. On the flip side, an unhealthy faculty culture is a disease that permeates the life of the school community and saps energy for learning.

We know that faculty culture and the nature of relationships among adults in schools is a significant determinant of students’ academic and social progress. While subject-area knowledge and teaching skills are necessary, a school’s faculty culture, more than any other factor, determines the level of student learning. Yet, sadly, faculty culture is typically characterized by departmentalization, turf wars and isolation. As Roland Barth states so well, “All too often, the adult relationships are (in that wonderful phrase from preschool education) parallel play. For hours at a time, two- and three-year-olds in a sandbox can be so engrossed in themselves, in their own work and project and tools, that they are oblivious to anybody else in the sandbox. This is thought to be a stage of development through which two- and three-year-olds soon pass on their way to far more sophisticated forms of human interaction. But I’d say that parallel play characterizes most of what I see going on in schools. The self-contained classroom is parallel play. The English department that doesn’t interact with the math department is parallel play. One school doing one thing, the school a mile down the road doing something different, oblivious to each other, is parallel play. Parallel play is endemic. It’s as if we have a case of professional arrested development.” Unfortunately, Barth is correct. Fortunately, schools that invest in developing and maintaining a healthy faculty culture significantly improve student learning, create a dynamic and engaging learning community and establish a competitive edge in the marketplace.

Although schools must ultimately define healthy faculty culture for themselves, traits such as collegiality, trust, validation, creativity, recognition, innovation and humility contribute to creating and sustaining a healthy faculty culture. Conversely, cynicism, suspicion, defensiveness, poor communication and isolation are examples of traits that create an unhealthy culture. A faculty culture characterized by enthusiastic commitment to learning and personal growth, collaboration, and unremitting devotion to each and every student’s success is essential for student learning to thrive. We need to elevate learning at all levels above all other concerns, activities and goals, and value dearly experimentation, new ideas, adventure and discovery. Teachers must teach teachers, observe each other, give constructive feedback, and collaborate across disciplines. Learning is at its best in a school culture, created by adults and students, which values leaning above all else. In fact, research clearly demonstrates that student learning correlates directly to adult learning. Assessing, analyzing and improving faculty culture is all about learning together as a faculty and staff.

The process of defining and building a healthy faculty culture involves both administrators and teachers. The first step is to assess the existing faculty culture. Several faculty culture assessment tools are available to assist with faculty culture assessment. The Faculty Culture Profile by Independent School Management is one good example. The second step is to analyze the information and develop an action plan to address the issues and improve faculty culture. Total faculty involvement and strong leadership from the school’s head and other administrators are essential. The analysis of the results of the assessment will likely surface some difficult issues. Dealing with these issues openly, honestly and respectfully is critical to building a healthy faculty culture. The process of addressing the problems must be forward looking and solution oriented. While it is necessary to identify current conditions and the reasons for their existence, the action plan to build a healthy faculty culture must be completely focused on steps that can be taken going forward.

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Language Immersion in Arabic and Chinese

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The demand for K-12 international educational programs that include language training is increasing dramatically in the United States. Arabic, in particular, is experiencing dramatic growth. Designated a “strategic” language by the U.S. government, Arabic faces unprecedented demand for instruction in schools across the U.S., from kindergarten upwards. Not long ago, Middle Eastern languages comprised only 2 percent of all foreign language classes in the United States. A Modern Language Association survey revealed a 92 percent rise in Arabic enrollments between 1998 and 2002 — to 10,600. From 2002-2006, the number of students enrolled in Arabic courses in college increased from 10,584 students to 23,974 students—a 126.5% jump.

The U.S. Department of Education has responded to meet the demand for new Arabic education. Federal funds for various international education programs are up 33 percent since 2001 to $103.7 million in 2004. Specifically, grants for foreign language and area studies rose 65 percent during this period. A myriad federally-funded opportunities are available for students and educators to learn Arabic in the United States. The U.S. government is also encouraging schools to start language training sooner. “We’re living in a global society,” said Wilbert Bryant, deputy assistant secretary for higher education in the U.S. Department of Education. “We must be able to speak the languages of many countries. The only way is to start at K-12. It’s the only way to remain competitive and retain our position as the superpower in the world.”

In addition to Arabic, the rise of China is driving new demand for Chinese language speakers across business and social sectors. Yet schools throughout the United States are largely unprepared to meet this need, lacking qualified teachers, programs, or creative uses of modern educational technologies, according to a study by Asia Society. The report, entitled “Expanding Chinese Language Capacity in the United States,” calls for a national commitment to new investments in teaching Chinese language and culture. Created by Asia Society’s education division, the report documents a growing consensus among national security and business leaders, educators, and foreign language experts. Its analysis of the current status of Chinese language instruction concludes that the current infrastructure to support recruitment of students and teachers as well as the growth of high quality programs is woefully inadequate.

As China grows into a major world player, Chinese language skills are becoming critical to national prosperity and security. Yet, a recent study shows only 24,000 students in grades 7-12 study Chinese, a language spoken by 1.3 billion people. In contrast, more than one million students learn French, a language spoken by only 80 million people. “Our nation’s schools are locked in a time warp. By ignoring critical languages such as Chinese and the essential cultural knowledge needed to succeed, our school systems are out of step with new global realities. This report urgently highlights the need for an expanded national commitment to world languages and international studies,” said Charles Kolb, President of the Committee for Economic Development.

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Danny Hollinger serves as President of Hollinger International, an education and leadership development firm focused on helping clients establish new schools and education programs, improve existing schools and education programs and strengthen leadership. Dr. Hollinger specializes in International Baccalaureate Programmes, leadership development and coaching, strategic planning and governance.

In addition to consulting, Dr. Hollinger is launching a new education blog. A visionary education entrepreneur with a distinguished track record in designing and delivering highly successful educational programs and services for students from diverse economic, cultural and linguistic backgrounds, Dr. Hollinger is looking forward to contributing to education reform through blogging.

Prior to consulting, Dr. Hollinger founded, built and led two international schools – transitioning them from start-up to full-scale operations. He developed pioneering dual-language immersion, International Baccalaureate Programmes in Arabic, English, French, Greek, Mandarin and Spanish. Dr. Hollinger created and led high-performing and collaborative faculty, management and leadership teams. He established partnerships with corporations, foundations, governments, schools and universities worldwide, and acquired and developed five campuses.

Dr. Hollinger serves on George Mason University’s FAST TRAIN Advisory Board and Next Generation Education Foundation’s Board of Directors. He also served on the Board of Trustees of the Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington.

Hollinger Associates International specializes in the following areas:


· Establishing New Schools and Education Programs

· Improving Existing Schools and Education Programs

· Implementing International Baccalaureate Programmes

· Teaching World Languages Effectively

· Improving Student Performance and Annual Yearly Progress

· Providing Professional Development Services for Inquiry-Based, Interdisciplinary Teaching


· Developing Compelling Visionary Leadership

· Creating a Vibrant, Innovative Organizational Culture

· Building Collaborative, High-Performing Teams

· Selecting and Supporting Talented Leaders

· Planning Strategically

· Developing Strategic Governance

· Coaching Leaders

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