Graduate Admissions Blog

How Do We Contextualize the Work of School Leadership?

Anthony Conelli
Anthony Conelli

We have many expectations for a school principal. We hold them accountable to a wide range of roles—from educational leader and staff manager to professional developer and even caregiver. It may sound like an undoable job, but many principals do it all on a daily basis.. These leaders understand that to do this work well, they need to do it within the context of community.

Many leadership development programs focus much of their attention on building an aspiring leader’s ability to define a clear vision and set of expectations. This often centers the work of leadership development squarely on the leader. I believe a more appropriate and powerful approach to training new leaders is to get them to understand from their first day as a student that their work needs to be focused on community-building. It is within the school community that all the components of the leader’s work happens. The leader creates an environment in which teachers have the opportunity to collaborate with other teachers, to learn together, to support each other, to challenge each other, and to work well together. If teachers feel valued in the community and see the value of community, they will replicate that experience for their students and their families. 

Leaders need to actively be a part of this work, too. They need to be a participant, as well as a coach and a supervisor. A healthy community cannot exist if the leader is separate from it. Leaders also need to understand the power of their position. If they want their teachers to work well together, they need to create opportunities for them to collaborate—and own their collaboration. In this, leaders need to be aware of their presence, their comments, and their questions. A poorly placed comment or suggestion during a conversation among teachers can stop the collaboration. Leaders need to give the group space to do and own their work, to develop it together, and to be willing to be accountable for what they create. At strategic points in this, leaders should paraphrase what they hear or to ask a question to move the conversation forward. Most importantly, they need to remember that when their teachers are the ones doing excellent work, it is a reflection on their own good leadership.

Leaders need to be constantly vigilant of the health of the community. They need to examine the systems and structures that support the community to ensure that all parts are working well together. They need to look for places where there may be dissent, disagreement, or dissatisfaction and address it. They need to look for positive moments to highlight and celebrate them with the community.

Leaders need to see the power of engagement and co-construction. Their role is not to create a vision and have the community buy into it. Rather, supporting a vision is about acknowledging that the school community has a shared set of values and beliefs that need to be illuminated, held up, evaluated, and refined. Through supportive work, a stronger and clearer vision can be developed, shared, and owned by the community. 

At Bank Street Graduate School of Education, we work with leadership students to understand the importance and value of community. As part of all of our educational leadership programs, students experience this first hand when they come together weekly for what we call “conference groups,” which provide a forum for shared learning and reflection.They bring to the group what they are learning or grappling with in their courses and fieldwork to further develop their understanding of educational leadership and their learning of self as a leader, an educator, and a person. They develop the skills and habits that help them build community, support their colleagues, and deepen their own knowledge. They learn where conflict often arises in communities and how to manage it. 

Maybe most important, they learn to work together at Bank Street, forming meaningful relationships with each other and providing the foundation for a lifelong professional network of mutual support. Wherever they go, they carry with them not only what they learned at Bank Street, but also the community of peers with whom they shared their graduate school experience.

For more information, visit our program pagesign up for ongoing communication with our Admissions team, or check for an upcoming online Leadership Program Open House.