School Leadership: Part 1- Effective vs. Toxic

Syeita Rhey-Fisher
Syeita is a teacher, author, writer and advocate for educational equity.

Aug 05,2016

Do you know what effective school leadership looks like? Well, below I describe two vastly different leadership styles that I served under during my tenure in the classroom. Both leadership styles take place in two distinct urban public schools in the same district.

School Leadership style 1 

This leader operated with a closed-door policy and was not accessible to interact or engage in a professionally stimulating manner. This leader rarely visited our classes and was chronically absent. Directives were issued without any type of quality training or was not followed-up with ongoing support. There was a lack of communication amongst administration which caused great confusion. This leader would typically seek to place blame on anyone and everyone else (teachers, coaches, parents, etc.) but never held themselves accountable for anything. Consequences were administered inconsistently and a clear line was drawn revealing which staff was favored and in their inner circle. This leader also declared war on union supporters and focused their efforts on targeting any teachers they felt posed a threat to the status quo. Teachers did not have any options, choices were always made for them so that it was difficult to embrace and buy into important directives. The culture was set-up where teachers described the experience of teaching as “sink or swim;” and that they were “just trying to survive.” This led to a school culture where everyone competed against each other instead of working cooperatively towards one unified vision.

School Leadership style 2 

This leader behaved more as a collaborator and partner than my superior; I felt my role was just as important as theirs. After observations, I would receive constructive feedback in a timely manner. During debriefs, I was invited to drive the conversation, discover my own faults and inconsistencies, then offered multiple solutions so that I could choose which one fit me best. I was allowed to have ownership over my practice and remained part of the decision-making process for my class. Recognizing particular skills I possessed, the administrator frequently sought my input, acknowledged and gave me credit for my contributions and continuously encouraged me to be involved in various leadership activities. I felt like it was their mission to build the leadership capacity in me. I in return became more confident and involved in several school community endeavors. The culture of the school was that teamwork and collaboration was extremely important. Teachers were encouraged to common plan and work in grade level data teams as well as vertically across grades. I knew that if I had an amazing best practice that I wanted to share with this leader, the first question they were going to ask was… “did you share this with your team.” This encouraged me to always share my creative and innovative ideas.

The Results

I know the answer to which was more successful is pretty obvious. But here it is anyways… Leadership style 1, which was the recipient of a remodeled school building, newer curriculum with more resources experienced a decrease in student scores and an extremely high teacher retention rate.

In contrast, leadership style 2 led to sustained student improvement and a significantly lower teacher retention rate. It was housed in a run-down school and lacked sufficient resources and financial support. 

When there is a breakdown in leadership and the culture of a school is toxic, there is no amount of money in the world that can fix it! Leadership is important. But effective leadership is essential to student success.

How do you improve a toxic school like the one described in leadership style 1? This question will be addressed in School Leadership: Part 2- Toxic School Crackdown.

Other articles by this author