Reflections on Instructional Leadership


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Last week NAESP honored National Distinguished Principals (NDPs) from 50 states, representative principals from private schools and Department of States American Overseas Schools. The NDPs spent two days in DC, sharing a bit about their stories and their triumphs and celebrating with their peers.

At the celebration in DC, the principals each gave two-minute elevator speeches about their schools.  Their stories are remarkable.  Many have been principals for over a decade, some are being honored as a NDP for the second time and several have also received other prestigious awards such as the U.S. Department of Education Blue Ribbon Schools Award.  Many of the principals represent very diverse communities, and at many of the schools over 50% of the children are living in poverty.  Several of the award winners have turned around more than one previously failing school.

In searching for common threads among these stars, here are a few threads that became more apparent as we learned more about these exceptional leaders:

  1. They are committed to their jobs, their schools, and their communities.

  2. They realize their job, through thick and thin, is to motivate, inspire, and encourage.

  3. They believe in collaboration, empowering others, and creating a positive school climate.

The NDPs also spoke about the importance of hiring the right staff, of creating a culture where everyone believes that all children can learn, and of helping students succeed.

Each of these principals has demonstrated exemplary instructional leadership– however, to achieve the gains they made, each of these principals did not focus solely on academic achievement.  They led through creating cultures and climates of respect and caring.  They led through creating and leading “teams.”  These were not solitary efforts and their wins did not come from a “top down” authoritarian approach.  These great leaders have a lot to share beyond the four walls of their schools. I feel honored to have been in the audience, listening to their stories. I dream that at some point in the not too distant future, in an environment of caring and support for schools, children, and school leaders, we will consider how to advance schools through listening to these principal sages in our midst.

This was my second year with NAESP’s NDPs– my second year to sit in awe and learn from instructional leaders who are faced with increasing mandates and demands, from those who have navigated their ships through some turbulent waters.  As I reflect on what I learned and what else I would like to know, I also grow more curious about how the NDPs have impacted the perspectives and policies surrounding instructional leadership at NAESP.  I wonder how NAESP Executive Director, Gail Connelly, and other NAESP leaders, many of whom have 30 or more years experience with the NDPs, might sum up the roles and influence of the NDPs.

As a researcher I am curious about the previous NDPs— where they are and what trails they have blazed over the years.  I am also curious about what we might learn by conducting a more formalized research project. If we were to interview a randomly chosen sample of these leaders, asking them questions about their successes, their achievements, and their views on current educational trends, would their responses parallel groups of other educational leaders? of other principals?  And, what has happened with their career paths? How many are now district administrators? How many have stayed in schools?  What is on the horizon for them, their schools, their students?  If they were to define new standards for the field, what would they emphasize? If they were to reflect on the future of education, what might we learn from them?