Who Matters Most?

By John Van Pelt  |  February 25th

While the research clearly points to the fact that teachers have the most significant impact on student achievement, school leaders can take solace in the fact that they come second in the ability to influence student learning. Kenneth Leithwood suggests that “to date, we have not found a single documented case of a school improving its student achievement record in the absence of talented leadership.” School leaders do make a difference.

In their book, Linking Leadership to Student Learning, Kenneth Leithwood and Karen Seashore Louis suggest that one of the most significant ways school leaders have an impact on student achievement is through their influence on teachers’ motivation and working conditions. It is worthwhile to spend some time thinking about what we as school leaders do to enhance teacher motivation and/or improve working conditions.

In my role as a principal, I am much more comfortable thinking about school needs, strategic directions, financial opportunities, and performance markers than I am about how my teachers are coping with the demands of their jobs while balancing family life. Regretfully, I am not quick to write notes of encouragement or notice who needs additional support. I tend to defend my lack of thoughtfulness by noting that my job has other priorities. But then I wonder who is doing this work on my behalf.

So how can I improve working conditions and teachers’ intrinsic sense of motivation? What can I do to promote a positive staff culture and work environment? Perhaps I do need to write a note of encouragement or spend more time in the staffroom or hallway. Maybe I need to be intentional about checking in with teachers on a regular basis. There might be structural items that I can advocate for on behalf of the teachers that will make an even bigger difference. Maybe I have to create more prep time, or maybe I have to relieve teachers of responsibilities when new initiatives are introduced. I certainly do not have all the answers, but I think it might be valuable to spend some time considering this.

What I do know is that my job is a lot more fun when the people that I work with are happy and not consistently frustrated by stress and anxiety or a sense that their leaders do not care. The question I pose to you (and myself): What are you doing to create an environment that honours and blesses the people who have the biggest impact on student learning?

Leithwood, Kenneth, Karen Seashore Louis. (2012). Linking Leadership to Student Learning. San Francisco: John Willey and Sons, Inc.