Leadership and Academic Success

School leaders can further students’ academic success by modeling learning behaviors like goal-setting, problem-solving, and ongoing literacy development.

Written By dwalker

On July 9, 2013

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As a high school administrator—first an assistant principal and then a principal—I gave a lot of thought to the kind of behaviors I wanted to model for students.  Students rarely see their administrators as full human beings who studied in high school, completed college, and worked hard to achieve their goals.  Yet helping students articulate and reach their goals is one of the most important things school leaders can do to promote academic success for their students. No matter how bright or talented, the kinds of skills and behaviors that support academic success must be taught if students are to graduate from high school ready for college, and if they are to persevere in postsecondary education.


Since lecturing students about desired behaviors rarely works (think about raising your own teenagers), I found taking a more forthright and collaborative approach yielded better results.  One example was to think through with students some possible approaches to resolving issues important to them, like more latitude in selecting courses, retaining an open campus at lunchtime, and providing feedback to teachers that would make their classes more engaging and help them to learn what they needed to be ready for college.  In identifying problems, causes and a range of solutions I was able to model for students how to get things done in school and in the real world.  Talking with them about which strategies worked and which didn’t, how to communicate with a larger audience, seek compromise and take responsibility are worthwhile experiences both in the classroom and eventually as workers and citizens.  Collaborating with students in this way and helping them discover lessons learned is one way school leaders can contribute directly to students’ academic success, even though they are no longer in the classroom teaching students. For a more direct relationship between problem solving and student achievement, see April 2013 blog by CTL’s Roland O’Daniel: Addressing Perseverance in Problem-Solving.

Developing adolescent literary is another critical variable in students’ ability to graduate from high school ready for college. As an administrator I modeled reading, sharing books that I was reading, reading along with selections from English classes, and also demonstrating the importance of writing to communicate ideas through bulletins, newsletters and written pieces I shared with teachers and students.  Harkening back to the idea of the “principal teacher,” the source for current administrative roles, I made a point of showing my commitment to academics and particularly to being a literate person, able to read, write, speak and listen effectively across courses and in my professional life.  While secondary students may pretend to ignore guidance from the adults in their lives, teachers and principals have great influence over how students see themselves as learners and how they develop a sense of their future potential.  Demonstrating through my own actions the central role literacy plays in learning contributed I believe to students’ academic success.  See my October 2012 blog for more on leadership and literacy via the Common Core State Standards: Leadership and the Common Core.

I could offer additional examples but the idea is not a complicated or original one: school leaders who focus on learning and demonstrate their own commitment to literacy, critical thinking and problem solving, promote through modeling academic success for their students.