How to Become a School Leader: Proven Tips from Successful School Leaders
By Deva Dalporto
School leaders are in high demand these days and many districts are going above and beyond to find, cultivate and hire amazing talent to fill their administrative positions. And with online classes and flexible school schedules, it’s easier than ever to get the required degrees. So if you’re interested in becoming a school leader, it’s a great time!
We interviewed five successful school leaders who told us how they moved from teaching to leading. Here are their top seven tips for teachers who are interested in becoming a school leader!
- Set career goals. If you want to be a school leader, it’s important to set goals and know where you ultimately want to end up. “Knowing the direction you want to go in is important,” said Dr. Melinda Fronrath, Program Professor at Nova Southeastern University. “Do you want to become a Content Specialist and get your master’s in your content area? Or do you see yourself in a principal role at some point in your career? Once you figure that out, you need to set three-, five- and 10-year goals for yourself. And then you need to figure out what degrees you need to have to make that happen.”
- Be a leader from the get-go. If you ultimately want to be an administrator or school leader, it’s important to start leading on a small level today. “Get very involved in your school. Take initiative and get on as many committees as you can to get the experiences you need,” advised Dr. Susan Atherley, Principal of Alexander W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts. All of the school leaders we interviewed dove in and accepted leadership roles even in their early years of teaching, what Dr. Fronrath calls “leading without a title.” It’s important to express to your principal and colleagues that you want to jump in, learn and lead. Offer to help with the budget or run an after-school program. Volunteer to be a department chair or a grade-level chair. “During my years of teaching I took on a lot of leadership roles in addition to my work in the classroom,” said Dr. Robert Clark, Assistant Superintendent of the Burlingame Elementary School District. “For me it was never, ‘These are my 32 kids and this is what I do.’ I was always working outside the classroom.”
- Get your degrees and be prepared. Do your homework and find out what degrees you need to get the job of your dreams. Then enroll ASAP! If you have all the needed credentials, you can pounce when a position opens up. If you don’t have the required credentials, you may miss out on great opportunities. “It’s good to get your degrees so that when opportunity comes knocking for a promotion, you have the degree and can take advantage of it,” said Dr. Fronrath. And luckily, it’s easier than ever for working teachers to get advanced degrees these days with all of the online classes, weekend courses and night classes available.
- Know what you’re giving up. As a school leader, you’ll have less time in the classroom interacting with students and more time dealing with the teaching staff, parents and other administrators. “It sounds cliché, but I miss that day-to-day energy with the students, those moments when the lightbulb comes on,” said Dr. Clark. “Working in the district office, I miss the energy of having a group of kids on campus. I miss that constant wonder and awe of youth.”
- Cultivate your people skills. Good school leaders are flexible, responsible and thrive in stressful, demanding environments. They’re good multi-taskers, excellent listeners and have good people skills. “As they build their administrative teams, most principals are looking for people with great soft skills who know how to de-escalate situations,” said Dr. Fronrath. “People who are good listeners and know how to watch their words.”
- Take care of yourself. When you land a leadership position, remember to take care of yourself! Most school leadership positions are demanding, require long hours and can be stressful. “The work never ends and I often end up working 70- or 80-hour weeks,” said Cameron MacPherson, Academic Dean at Hays High School in Texas. “I work much more than I did as a teacher. And I have a lot more weight on my shoulders. If my school doesn’t do well, I have to take responsibility.” Because of the demands of the job, many busy administrators fall into the trap of all work and no play. “I’m not someone who is good at creating a work-life balance,” said Dr. Clark. “It’s easy for me to sit for 12 to 14 hours a day working.” Dr. Atherley suggests that when you land the gig of your dreams, you remember to take care of yourself! “I do yoga and I make sure I go three times a week,” she said. “You somehow have to save time for yourself and do something that fulfills you, whether that’s going to church, the movies or playing tennis.”
- Enjoy the perks. As a school leader, you’ll make more money, have more influence and garner more respect from your peers. You’ll be able to make a real impact on a larger level. “One of the best things about being a leader is being able to spread your influence and affect more students as well as help guide district decisions that affect everyone,” said Robert Krech, a Math Specialist at West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District. “If you teach a lesson in your class, that’s 20 to 30 students you’ve helped. If you teach a roomful of teachers how to do the same lesson, you’ve multiplied that effort over a lot more students.”