What’s it like to be a School Leader?



Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has published a report named “Understanding Demand for Evidence – Based Solutions Among Schools Leaders” at the beginning of this year, within which the role and problems school leaders often encounter are explained and discussed. Through the report, we had understood more clearly the challenges principals face and their needs when working towards the solutions.


First and foremost, let’s define the nature of a school leader. Many principals see themselves as chief problem – solvers as there are countless issues coming to their concerns on daily basis from comforting a troubled student to assessing the whole school year’s plan. To run a school smoothly, not only strong academical together with managerial knowledge and skills are highly needed, capabilities to empower people around them are also indispensable for a school to operate smoothly and efficiently.


Our next step is to identify and classify the problems school leaders usually face because each type of issue might need different sets of solutions. According to the report, a taxonomy of four primary problem categories are explained below:


1. Process management


Principals may not have access to full and accurate data, abrupt changes in master schedules and several demands from the governmental agencies. Besides, lack of effective consensus building strategies can bring lots of stumbling blocks to school leaders.


Examples: We can’t introduce a new program without disrupting the schedule.


2. Resources


Financial, Academic and human resources are the ones that can spin school headmaster upside down in operation. They have to make hard decisions on which aspects of the plan they should prioritize.


Examples: We have too many things going on at any given time, what do we start with?


3. Engagement


Principals find it hard to fully empower their subordinates, both administrators and teachers. How to engage every single person into the school’s culture and mission is always leaders’ main concern.


Examples: My teachers do not believe they can make a change.


4. Instructional Practice


School leaders are thought of as teachers of teachers. They need to make sure what happens inside a classroom can best respond to students’ needs.


Examples: We need to teach students who are in survival mode.


So, with the above taxonomy of problems, school leaders must have a framework operating as filters to help them evaluate solutions and choose the most suitable ones. The report introduces Solution Filters Triangle with 3 elements including:





  • Value system: they are principals’ North stars as they define what the school wants to provide to their students and the community. Though values between schools can be different, there are some common grounds such as: nurturing environment, empowerment, constant improvement and holistic view of students.

  • Data: it is the solid base where the leaders can rely on to know what is happening at their school and also the evidence for their decisions.

  • Relationships: Principals cannot solve problems alone, only when they work closely with their team, empowering them then issues can be fully identified and eliminated.


Above is a glimpse of what it is like to be the head of a school. Leaders in education environment face a wide range of problems yet could be classified and solved with proper tools. For the next articles, we will introduce more tools with deeper analysis.

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