Effective leaders communicate with passion, show determination, and get things done. More than ever, we need secondary school principals who are effective leaders.

So, what does it mean for education when a quarter of the country’s principals leave their schools each year, and nearly 50 percent leave in the third year (according to a 2014 School Leaders Network study)? It means that we must reframe the role of the school leader. Using the four frames recommended in Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal’s book Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, this article re-examines the role of leadership in today’s high schools.

Structural Frame 

When a product must be manufactured with machinelike precision, or when the outcome for every item produced must be exactly the same, a simple top-down structure works. But schools are not producing hamburgers. Instead, as Ken Robinson points out in his book Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education, students are unique individuals with their own histories, challenges, and assets; therefore, schools cannot be structured like fast-food restaurants.

Principals of the future must be able to organize effective Professional Learning Communities (PLC) by creating groups that have the authority to develop real solutions. Self-directed teams produce better results and have higher morale than groups working under top-down control. Bolman and Deal describe the characteristics of self-managing teams as having the ability to assign jobs to members, plan and schedule work, make decisions, take responsibility for quality and outcomes, and take action to remedy problems.

To reframe the role of leadership, principals should ask themselves three important questions: 

  • Is the school structured in a way that acknowledges the complexity of the environment and treats teachers as engaged professionals? 
  • Are they providing a structure that facilitates each teacher’s ability to work in collaborative and self-​managed teams? 
  • Is the process structured to be able to assess its effectiveness?

Human Resource Frame 

The importance of the teacher-student relationship has long been documented and discussed, but what of the principal-teacher relationship? Principals must carefully examine all the relationships at their school, never forgetting that relationships are what make schools work. 

According to Bolman and Deal, principals must start by believing in the idea that people develop in “self-actualization trends.” This means that as people age, they become more self-aware and mature. Therefore, principals cannot treat teachers, or other staff members, the same way they treat the students. Principals must treat their co-workers in a professional manner—taking ideas seriously and valuing input from all sources.

Another important factor in developing relationships is giving and getting feedback. Administrators regularly give teachers feedback, evaluating them on teaching practices, classroom management, and lesson plans. But in order to reframe education, principals must see feedback as a two-way conversation.

To self-assess their own effectiveness, principals can ask themselves four important human-resource-based questions:

  • Do I see signs that staff feels like I am treating them like children? 
  • Do I have enough staff to do the jobs I am asking them to do? 
  • Do I take the time to get to know my staff members as people, not simply as employees?
  • What can I do to help my staff feel more empowered, valued, and self-actualized at work?

Political Frame  

Principals must understand both power and politics. View the school system as an organization made up of diverse individuals and groups dealing with scarce resources, instead of simply an organization controlled by a legitimate authority, Bolman and Deal recommend. Instead of ignoring, minimizing, or degrading politics, it is more advantageous for principals to recognize that exercising power will be a natural and ongoing part of the job. Bolman and Deal believe that to be successful, principals and administrators must develop four key skills: “agenda-setting; mapping political terrain; networking and building coalitions; and bargaining and negotiating.” 

Agenda-setting is especially critical for new principals. Immediately upon entering a school, a new principal must focus and set plans of action into motion. Mapping political terrain is all about knowing the system. Before setting plans into motion, a principal should be prepared by assessing where the “problems” will be and creating strategies for dealing with them. Networking and building coalitions is not about having the best idea or being right; it is about having relationships with those who will assist and those who will oppose. Bargaining and negotiating work best when a principal is open and invested.

When principals face dilemmas, they should try asking questions such as: Who will be affected by this decision? From whom do I need support? Who may oppose the idea, and how do I engage them in the process? By reframing politics so it is simply a facet of the job, leaders can depersonalize, learn about, and utilize it.

Symbolic Frame 

Principals must touch the spirit of their school and inspire the whole team. Symbols are useful and represent powerful ways to share a vision; they take complicated or generalized ideals and turn them into concepts that people can understand and support.

One of the keys to creating a strong symbol is to tie that symbol to a story, metaphor, or hero. Bolman and Deal believe that stories train people, recognize accomplishments, foster action, communicate values, and help build a cooperative, positive, and focused school culture. 

To develop effective symbols that are connected to the heart of their school, principals can ask themselves: What are the values of our school? Who are the heroes at our school? What important stories about our school should people know? What metaphor best describes who we are?

Practical Example 

Consider the bell system for class dismissal. Some educators vehemently oppose moving students to and from classrooms based on a bell system. Others believe that without bells, teachers might release students too early, leaving kids unsupervised. Each of these perspectives is legitimate—bells can disrupt important learning moments. 

Reframing offers principals a practical approach to finding a solution to the bell problem. First, examine the structure. What is working and isn’t working with the current bell system? What bell structure do other similar schools use? Next, use the human resource frame to investigate which staff members are most passionate about keeping the bell system the same and which are most passionate about changing it. Then, apply the political frame to understand the reasons why some teachers may be opposed to or supportive of the bell system. Once principals have reframed the bell issue, they can make a decision and use the symbolic frame to convey their message to the rest of the staff. 

Amanda Bastoni is a career and technical education teacher at ConVal Regional High School in Peterborough, NH, and is earning her EdD in K–12 Education from New England College. 

Making It Work

Three steps for reframing the role of leadership at your school:

  1. Gather a team of administrators, teachers, and leaders who are excited about exploring the goal of reframing. Explain why you want to re-examine the role of leadership at your school. Give this team time to research reframing. 
  2. Work with your team to decide how you will gather data and collect results. Consider conducting a schoolwide survey that asks three simple questions about leadership: What’s working? What’s not working? What’s missing? 
  3. As a team, sort and dissect the data. Using the data, create one action step that can be implemented for each of the four frames. Make sure that each action step has a measurable outcome that can be reflected upon.