Spring 2024

We Need Great Leaders

Jonathan Coupland is a principal at York Street Public School in downtown Ottawa. I had the privilege of visiting his school, where he shared the myriad issues he confronts daily, including human trafficking, racism, tensions among students due to the Israeli/Palestinian and Ukraine/Russia crises, students who rely on school for meals, drug issues, and more. These challenges, I’ll guarantee, were not part of Jonathan’s preparation for this job. I was in awe of how he handles these heart-wrenching issues. Leading here requires a special kind of person. Both he and his vice principal expressed immense pride in serving their students and the community. This led me to ponder, “What happens when he leaves?” It’s hard to imagine a queue of candidates eager to fill his shoes, highlighting the scarcity of individuals prepared for such daunting roles.

My previous article titled “Who Would Want to Be a Leader?” sparked significant interest on my blog and in this publication, underscoring the prevailing leadership crisis. The dwindling number of applicants for leadership positions is alarming, and as one superintendent confided, the quality of these applicants has declined. While better compensation may be enticing, it cannot diminish the overwhelming nature of these roles. We’re in a crisis that demands urgent action.

Unfortunately, like many provinces, school districts struggle with long-term planning, focusing instead on immediate concerns. Developing effective and sustainable leadership pipelines necessitates a long-term commitment. The benefits of investing in great leaders today might not be apparent for years, yet it’s crucial to understand that exceptional leaders aren’t cultivated through brief training programs. Leadership training that extends beyond basic management and instructional skills is vital. Incorporating coaching and insights from outside the educational sector could equip leaders to face the increasingly complex challenges confronting principals and school administrators.

Many school districts have launched programs to foster leadership from within yet achieving the desired outcomes—exceptional leadership—remains elusive. The significance of such initiatives is profound; without dedicated efforts to cultivate outstanding leaders, we risk intensifying the current trends of educator burnout and shortages. A critical aspect of job satisfaction, often cited directly or indirectly, is the degree to which individuals feel supported and valued, underscoring the pivotal role of leadership. Leaders who actively support their staff, nurture a positive atmosphere, and strive to mitigate stress can drastically reduce teacher burnout and enhance retention.

Reflecting on personal experiences, my daughter, a former teacher, encountered varying levels of support from principals at different high schools, which directly influenced her job satisfaction and future job preferences. My own 14-year stint as a classroom teacher blessed me with competent principals, yet the escalating demands on today’s leaders call for not just good, but great leadership. The distinction between good and great leadership has become stark, with the latter being crucial for creating a supportive and motivating work environment.

Addressing this leadership challenge requires more than just identifying those with innate leadership potential; it involves comprehensive development of leadership skills across the board. As highlighted in my original post, teachers also play a vital role in this ecosystem by occasionally stepping up to support and inspire their leaders. A piece of advice that resonates with me emphasizes the importance of leaders appearing to enjoy their roles. Despite inherent challenges, conveying a sense of enjoyment and fulfillment can inspire others and dispel the notion of the role being burdensome. The great leaders I admire seem to revel in their roles, tackling the same challenges as their peers but prioritizing student well-being above all, thus preserving their joy.

The educational sector is replete with competent leaders—those adept at managing budgets and providing instructional guidance. However, the distinction between good and great leaders is profound; it lies in the ability to not only address disruptive behavior but also to support and reassure teachers of future support. Great leaders stand by their teachers, a fact well known among their staff.

My visit to York Street Public School, alongside Director Pino Buffone, was enlightening. During our drive, Pino discussed various district challenges, yet his pride in the district mirrored Jonathan’s pride in his school. Meeting with the school leadership team, it was evident Pino was a staunch supporter, ready to address challenges and uphold his school with pride.

In conclusion, the path to exceptional leadership is complex, requiring a blend of innate talent and cultivated skills. Fostering a culture that celebrates the joy and satisfaction derived from one’s work is crucial in attracting future educators and leaders. While the distinction between managing and leading is clear, the essence of extraordinary leadership transcends this dichotomy, embodying the capacity to inspire and uplift others. The era when schools could thrive under merely good leadership is waning; the urgent need for great leaders is more pronounced than ever.

Dean Shareski is a Senior Partnership Consultant for Advanced Learning Partnerships. He is the author of Embracing a Culture of Joy. As an educator he has been serving students, teacher and school leaders for the past 32 years.