K20 IDEALS – Leadership


When looking at the idea of lLeadership in the educational environment, sSchool leaders often find themselves in a critical position to shape the educational culture of their schools. Though it can be challenging to identify a leadership style that works to best support the specific needs of a school, the school leader can be an invaluable source of support and guidance to their teachers as they take on leadership roles of their own (Baker et al., 2019; Marks & Printy, 2003; Torres et al., 2020). This level of engaged leadership helps to improve student achievement not only through the instructional leadership itself, but also from the higher levels of teacher involvement as it relates to school improvement (Stosich, 2020). Though ideas of Leadership can still be presented in a top-down, compartmentalized style of management (citation), there are a variety of other approaches that can allow school leaders to effectively engage with teachers to develop a sense of shared leadership (citation). Departing from a top-down, compartmentalized style of management to a shared leadership model in which many share the load, contribute their unique perspectives, and see the value of their work in relation to long-term goals (Supovitz, 2014). Quality leadership can take many forms, providing opportunities for the leaders to shine along with those they lead. 

Leadership ModelsStyles

As school leaders, there is no single correct approach to leadership in the educational setting. Regardless of the specific style of leadership utilized, all school leaders share the goal of empowering their teachers as a path to increase teacher success and student achievement  (citation). Through an examination of each model of leadership, we can see the priorities that help to drive each type of leader. Provided in no specific order, the leadership models presented here represent a range of approaches that school leaders might initiate take: Each of the following styles of leadership have something to offer in the educational environment, and have been presented in no specific order: 

  • Servant Leadership. Servant leaders put the goals and the well-being of others before themselves (Palta, 2019). The servant leadership model assists in the development of individuals, teams, and organizations by meeting the needs of individuals at Maslow’s most basic levels of need, including psychological, safety, belonging, esteem, and self-actualization (Chen et al., 2015; van Vugt & Ronay, 2014).
  • Distributed Leadership. The distributed leadership model is a “practice [which] builds the capacity for change and improvement. It means mobilizing leadership expertise at all levels of the school to generate opportunities for change and improvement through carefully orchestrated interdependent interaction and practice rather than individual action (Grice, 2019, p. 176).” 
  • Shared Leadership. The shared leadership model does not mimic others, as it has no limits when the work is shared among the staff and the focus remains on the students and their achievement (Chen, 2007; Cobanoglu, 2020; Elmore & Burney, 2000; Torres et al., 2020). 
  • Middle Leadership. The middle leadership model is a tiered system that “serves as a buffer that will insulate policy makers from parents or community activists who could question or challenge their leadership” (Hargreaves & Dennis, 2020). Those who hold this role of middle leader tend to work closely with teachers and foster their growth as educators (Hargreaves & Dennis, 2020; Supovitz, 2014).
  • Collective Leadership. The collective leadership model is the practice of teachers and instructional leaders working together to influence their coworkers and policymakers to improve learning (Eckert, 2018; Eckert, 2019). In order to effect change, instructional leaders should consider student outcomes prior to working on developing a working design model that best suits the staff in the school (Eckert, 2019; Hackman & Oldham, 1980; Murphy, 2005; Smylie, 2010). Once student outcomes are determined, it is important that time is provided for collaboration, reciprocal observation of peers, co-teaching, and planning (Eckert, 2019; Hiebert & Stigler, 2017; Jensen, Roberts-Hull et al., 2016; Jensen, Sonnemann et al., 2016; Jensen et al., 2014; Margolis, 2012).

Leadership in the School Context

The overlap between leadership models can be overwhelming as school leaders attempt to determine which style best suits their educational institutions. In a study that compared a range of leadership styles, a significant finding was that each of these styles primarily focused on fostering the growth and improvement of teachers (Hargreaves & Dennis, 2020) in order to increase student achievement (Cobanoglu, 2020; Torres et al., 2020; Urick & Bowers, 2014). It stands to reason that the way leadership is defined, approached, and executed within a school, district, or program depends on the conditions within the individual sites. Though effective leadership in the school setting will depend on a  variety of site-specific factors, a more thorough understanding of leadership in the school context can give us the tools we need to effectively support our teachers and students as a school leader.

At the center of the instructional leadership model is the school principal who works alongside teachers to support, guide, and prepare them to make instructionally effective and technologically sound decisions (Baker et al., 2019; Marks & Printy, 2003; Torres et al., 2020), resulting in increased student achievement. Administrators need to ensure that educators are engaged in both inquiry and discourse to promote a positive climate in which leaders can flourish. Bellibaş et al. (2022) note that involving teachers in sharing ideas, coaching, and mentoring promotes improved instructional practices for all. Principals also have a professional responsibility to foster teacher leadership to bridge any gaps that might be present (Torres et al., 2020). Teacher leaders can expand upon their classroom successes to reach all learners when they are involved in the decision-making process. 

Traits of Effective School Leaders 

Expanding upon the needs of leadership for school leaders, we can look at the traits to contribute to effective school leadership. McREL (Rouleau, 2021) shares that for school leadership to be effective, the focus needs to be split between student learning and the support of staff in order to achieve equitable learning outcomes. Drawing from McRELel’s components ideas of school leadership as they relate to student achievement, they McRel identifyidentifies 21 specific leadership responsibilities that positively correlate with student success (Rouleau, 2021). Exploring these responsibilities, we can break them into 3 broad categories: Building a Healthy School CultureLeadership in promoting teaching, Supporting Educational Goalssupporting meaningful teacher leadership, and serving as an active partner with teachers to support the school mission leveraging data from professional learning communities (PLCs) to drive change.

  • Build a Healthy School Culture by:Leadership in Promoting Teaching
    • Involving teacher input with important decisions and policies (James-Ward & Abuyen, 2015).
    • Advocate for the school to all stakeholders, acting as a spokesperson as needed (James-Ward & Abuyen, 2015).
    • Actively foster shared beliefs and a sense of community and cooperation (James-Ward & Abuyen, 2015).
  • Support Educational Goals through:Supporting Meaningful Teacher Leadership
    • Having knowledge of current curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices that can be utilized (James-Ward & Abuyen, 2015).
    • Monitoring the effectiveness of school practices as they correlate to student learning (James-Ward & Abuyen, 2015).
    • Providing teachers with the materials and professional development necessary to prepare them for success (James-Ward & Abuyen, 2015).
  • Support Teachers as a partner throughLeveraging Data from Professional Learning Communities to Drive Change
    • Protect teachers from issues and influences that would detract from teaching time and focus (James-Ward & Abuyen, 2015).
    • Adapting leadership practices to best meet the needs of the situation and the individual, embracing constructive criticism to work toward improvement (James-Ward & Abuyen, 2015).
    • Demonstrating a willingness to change and actively challenge the status quo (James-Ward & Abuyen, 2015).


It is important to understand what these elements of quality leadership look like in districts and schools. The reality of today’s learning climate is one of having much to do in little time. However, the challenges related to time and breadth of work are eased when schools embrace a culture of shared leadership and collaborative problem-solving. The following practices can help to expand leadership roles and empower educators:


  • Offer teachers the opportunity to take on leadership roles in the building. Teachers who have been empowered to lead experience a greater sense of connectedness to the school community (Celep, 2000). 
  • Encourage teachers to share their strengths and mentor others. If they feel valued and connected to their school and the profession, there are powerful implications for long-term retention (Celep, 2000).
  • Principals and instructional leaders should focus less on the management and compliance of collective leadership and more on increasing coaching for themselves to improve their ability to lead instructional improvement (Honig, 2012; Stosich, 2020). 
  • Analyzing data is everyone’s responsibility. Empower teachers to take ownership of the data, make actionable decisions, and incorporate this decision-making into the school day through PLCs. The PLC structure allows for teachers to collaborate around diverse student data that is focused on school-wide goals and learning (Hallinger & Heck, 1998; Miles & Louis, 1990; Robinson et al., 2008; Torres et al., 2020).
  • See no job as too small. Educators have a better view of their leaders and a greater desire to stay in their current roles in a servant leadership model in which leaders are willing to share the load (Johnston, 2021).
  • Provide professional development related to teacher leadership and data analysis (Darling-Hammond et al., 2009; Jensen et al., 2016). 
  • Provide ample feedback and time for reflection throughout the process so that teachers can grow and improve their leadership skills (Eckert, 2019; Ericsson et al., 1993).


Educational Advocacy. As the primary instructional leaders within their schools, principals need to be adaptable and flexible when entering a new school, keeping their fingers on the pulse of the school and remaining aware of any undercurrents that could detract from the teaching. To do this, they must be willing to:

  • Be a change agent for teachers (Hallinger & Murphy, 1985).
  • Actively challenge the status quo where applicable (Hallinger & Murphy, 1985).
  • Advocate for and protect teachers from issues that could detract from the main focus (Jacob et al., 2015).
  • Leverage the instructional leaders already in place such as the librarian, grade-level or department chairs, and instructional coaches (Hallinger & Murphy, 1985).
  • Maximize teachers’ knowledge of current practices and involve them in the design and implementation of important decisions (Rouleau, 2021).

Responding to Change for Growth. Leadership teams must be flexible in their response to the individual needs of students and the collective needs of their communities (Grice, 2019). Adapting to change can be accomplished through looking at trends in school-wide data over time and administering climate surveys to understand changing demographics and emerging needs that could then be addressed by the leadership team through specific, targeted professional development experiences (Lyons et al., 2020; Grice, 2019).


School Leadership in Practice

As we consider School Leadership and the principles that help to inform our decisions, we want to look at the ways in which we can apply these ideas in our day-to-day. Building upon both the needs of the school context and what we see as traits of effective school leaders, these are several ways in which we can apply leadership to effectively cultivate a supportive school environment that empowers both teachers and students:

  • Collaborative Decision-Making. Collaborative decision-making is critical for any improvements to occur and requires a joint effort. Administrators should ensure that as many teachers in diverse roles as possible have influence on the decision-making process (Pietsch et al., 2018; Stosich, 2020; Torres et al., 2020). Leadership teams help to support educator inquiry and collaboration (Cobanoglu, 2020; Eckert, 2019; Hargreaves & Dennis, 2020; Torres et al., 2020). When teachers and administrators come together and agree upon data-based improvements, it leads to positive changes in school climate, student achievement, and school preparedness for continued growth and change (Lyon et al., 2022; Torres et al., 2020). 
  • Collective Responsibility. Once teachers become more confident in engaging consistently and regularly with other staff around shared goals for students and the school, they can begin to engage with the families and communities they serve (Shields & Hesbol, 2019). This process by which teachers and administrators work together to include these individuals is called collective leadership (Eckert, 2019). The community is a team unified around the goal of student success.
  • Empowerment, Trust, and Self-Efficacy. Elmore and Burney (2000) posit that “most of the knowledge required for improvement must inevitably reside in the people who deliver instruction, not in the people who manage them.” Providing teachers with collective leadership not only leads to the bigger picture of shared instructional leadership but also that of collective responsibility. When teachers know that they have an equally important role in the success of all students in the school, they feel empowered by the trust that is placed in them. Thus, their self-efficacy in terms of instructional decision-making grows. This idea of knowledge sharing in inter-organizational teams—for example, grade level to grade level, specialist with grade level teachers, exceptional children teachers with grade levels, etc.—enables teams to stretch their creativity in lesson design, to consider ideas such as cross-curricular lesson planning, and to consider how to push their students to think more critically about the world around them. Moreover, as the creativity within these teams grows and develops, so does that of the individual teachers (Gu et al., 2016). 
  • Building Capacity. Cultivating instructional leaders takes time and dedication. Educators need to see that administrators are committed to giving them a voice and ownership of the direction of the school, as the work becomes more important than the individual (Eckert, 2019). Capacity building can work as professional development and team building integrated into the school day to ensure the time of teacher leaders is valued and honored.

Service Learning.


Leadership and school-wide decision-making has continued to evolve in important and positive ways over time. As principals develop leaders among their staff who can share expertise and lend their talents, the workload is shared. Teachers empowered with a voice in the goals, mission, and direction of learning will experience greater satisfaction in their work, leading to retention. When leadership teams understand that flexibility is key and make choices based on data and feedback, both teams and students benefit. Through team-based leadership, schools can create the best possible learning environment for all students. 


Works Cited

Bellibaş, M. Ş., Polatcan, M., & Kılınç, A. Ç. (2022). Linking instructional leadership to teacher practices: The mediating effect of shared practice and agency in learning effectiveness. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 50(5), 812–831.

Celep, C. (2000). Teachers’ organizational commitment in educational organizations. National Forum of Teacher Education Journal, 10E(3), 122. 

Cobanoglu, N. (2020). Investigation of shared leadership and organizational commitment in primary and secondary schools: Malatya case. International Journal of Educational Methodology, 6(3), 613629. https://doi.org/10.12973/ijem.6.3.613

Darling-Hammond, L., Wei, R. C., Andree, A., Richardson, N., & Orphanos, S. (2009). Professional learning in the learning profession. National Staff Development Council, 12.

Eckert, J. (2019). Collective leadership development: Emerging themes from urban, suburban, and rural high schools. Educational Administration Quarterly, 55(3), 477–509. https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.ou.edu/10.1177/0013161X18799435

Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological review, 100(3), 363.

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James-Ward, Cheryl & Abuyen, Joy. (2015). McREL leadership responsibilities through the lens of data: The critical nine. Global Education Review, 2(3). 82-93

Jacob, R., Goddard, R., Kim, M., Miller, R., & Goddard, Y. (2015). Exploring the causal impact of the McREL Balanced Leadership Program on leadership, principal efficacy, instructional climate, educator turnover, and student achievement. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 37(3), 314332.

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Servant leaders put the goals and the well-being of others before themselves (Palta, 2019). In another form, distributed leadership empowers others to take on decision-making (Grice, 2019). This is similar to shared leadership, where leadership roles are taken on by the staff best suited to the work (Cobanoglu, 2020). These leadership styles often share key characteristics with middle leadership, where tasks are part of a tiered system (Hargreaves & Dennis, 2020). This is also true of collective leadership, where spheres of influence are used to effect change by making the most of each personal network within the organization (Eckert, 2019). All of these styles emphasize a departure from top-down decision-making to empowering others to take on more responsibility within the school.