High performing schools and their leaders: The secret we discovered!

Over the past 4 years I have worked with hundreds of schools and thousands of school teachers, leaders and teams. My initial research focused on the characteristics that we know drive high performing teams in organisations and I looked for links to see whether the characteristics on display in corporations were the same as those on display in the highest performing schools.

The very first thing we reviewed was all of the ideas about how to measure performance in schools. We decided after much research, review and debate that a high performing school was a school who displayed the most growth in student and staff learning year on year.

Despite standardised test results being one of the measures we reviewed, we found that using this data in itself limited our field of inquiry and skewed the results. We were also able to review work samples, class data, staff and student absenteeism, student engagement and inclusion, differentiation in the classroom, teacher/student relationship, collective efficacy, wellbeing, staff performance and professional development.

As we unpacked the layers of information we also discovered some incredible insights about leaders and individuals who make up these dynamic high performing school environments. These ‘high performing’ schools were made up of a number of high performing individuals who displayed high performance characteristics. They were also led by school leaders who created an environment and establish values that made continued high performance possible. One of the top values was CLARITY.

The dictionary definition of clarity is, “clearness and freedom of indistinctness or ambiguity.” Our research found that not only do high performing school leaders have individual clarity, but they have extended their thinking to include clarity of school vision.

So, what does this mean and how do you get it? We reviewed hundreds of school leaders’ feedback data and spent countless hours interviewing Principals and their teams and this is what we discovered.

  • High performing school leaders are consistent. They know their values, their strengths, and the vision for education and pedagogy in their schools. They have a growth mindset, exercise constant positive self talk and encourage those around them to have the same.
  • High performing school leaders are intentional. Every and all interaction has purpose and they are constantly thinking and reflecting on the best way to engage with a person based on the context and situation. They use coaching and modelling to show others how to do the same.
  • High Performing school leaders are aware of their limitations and barriers. They know what they need to improve, they seek feedback and hone the skills that are most often on display. They create a feedback culture at school and constantly create opportunities to build professional trust amongst staff.
  • High Performing school leaders are constantly reviewing ways to serve their teams. Asking how they can support and develop individuals to help them become better. They are aware of the small tweaks in practice that can create a big impact in classrooms and they work with their teams to constantly improve.

My final takeaway and I believe the most interesting, from years of research and continued work with leaders in schools is that those considered the highest performing don’t just review their strategies, set a path, gain clarity and then check in once a year. They check in every day, in every action, and every interaction. They pursue excellence and improvement in the mundane and the routine and they never stop measuring impact on their client, our kids, the leaders of tomorrow. They lead from the front, walk the talk and their visible actions rather than their words set the course for others to follow.