How to be an effective school leader

Female college student making a presentation in classroom.

Learn ways to become a leader in education with Adobe. Learn what makes effective school leaders and teachers.

Effective educational leadership demands a diverse set of abilities, both in the classroom and at the administrative level. Educators must work together to foster a cooperative community with a shared vision and plan — and that requires clear communication, patient listening, and an openness to experimenting with new technologies and approaches.

To see how this plays out on a practical level, let’s take a closer look at the core components of effective school leadership — first at the admin level, and then in the classroom itself. We’ll also discuss how digital transformation efforts can empower principals, teachers, and other staff to lead more effectively.

How to lead a school

Principals and administrators provide the critical foundation for an entire community of students and educators — in fact, a Wallace Foundation study found that “leadership is second only to classroom instruction as an influence on student learning.” And while each school’s unique dynamics demand their own tailored approach, experts agree that all effective educational leaders share certain principles in common.

What are the core principles of effective leadership in education? First and most crucially, successful school leaders lead by example. They spend time in every classroom — not to criticize teachers, but to support them with insights drawn from their own teaching experience. Recognizing that leadership is about people, they look for opportunities to build heartfelt connections with teachers and students alike. Instead of surrounding themselves with “yes” people, they welcome criticism, and prove their sincerity by taking meaningful action in response.

Keeping an eye on the future, effective educational leaders focus on driving change. They realize that every school is a highly dynamic environment, striving to equip students for success in a rapidly evolving world. So they lead by example, constantly seeking out new information across a wide range of domains — from educational innovations to major scientific advances — and sharing their findings with teachers and other staff members.

In particular, change-oriented leaders recognize that students’ career success requires strong technological literacy. They ensure technology gets into classrooms by setting a personal example — completing class evaluations on electronic tablets, digitizing forms and using e-signatures rather than paper ones, and delivering engaging multimedia presentations that inspire teachers to adopt the same techniques in the classroom.

Still more crucially, impactful educational leaders cultivate a culture of forward progress, by building a community of educators united by common goals. They maintain a clear vision for their school — and they work to foster consensus about that vision, giving all teachers a sense of ownership in the plan. The result is a shared set of commitments that bind the community together, while remaining flexible and responsive to changing circumstances.

How to lead a classroom

What about the characteristics of an effective classroom leader? Like great administrators, great teachers know how to listen — and how to maintain a clear vision while welcoming new ideas. They seek to challenge each student without leaving the others behind. And above all, they teach from the heart, recognizing that students learn best when they feel a personal connection with their teacher, and with the subject being taught.

In short, effective teachers prioritize relationships. They cultivate open dialogue in their classrooms, while keeping the class on track. At the same time, they observe other classrooms and connect with their peers, always on the lookout for useful ideas and techniques. They foster a spirit of collaboration with the principal and other administrators — and with parents, who can contribute invaluable insights about each student’s unique needs.

Impactful classroom leaders are always ready to try new things. They proactively integrate new findings and best practices into their curriculum and teaching methods. In particular, they embrace technological change, recognizing that students are easiest to engage via the devices and platforms they’re familiar with. And they support creative problem-solving, critical thinking and media literacy by encouraging students to think for themselves.

On the content side, effective classroom leaders don’t dumb down concepts. They understand that most achievement gaps are rooted in students’ differing aptitudes and anxieties — so they look for ways to make complex ideas accessible. For example, they present information in multiple formats, and patiently help students decode complex wording and technical notation. As a result, their students grow more eager to rise to new challenges, and acquire greater self-confidence and intellectual curiosity along the way.

But most importantly of all, great teachers lead classrooms with genuine enthusiasm, setting a powerful example of personal passion. They make a point of interacting one-on-one with every student — even the quiet ones in the back. And they keep students engaged through a variety of activities, from readings and small-group discussions to audiovisual presentations, hands-on projects, field trips, and outdoor classes on sunny days.

How can Adobe help school leaders become more effective?

Effective 21st-century educational leadership requires far more than just a deep understanding of the classroom. Digital literacy has become an essential skill for teachers, administrators and students alike. Throughout 2020, many students grew accustomed to completing assignments digitally — and today, Adobe Scan helps bring that familiar process into classrooms, by making it easy for teachers to create multi-page digital worksheets from paper printouts, and for students to scan and submit their handwritten work with their smartphone cameras.

But technological literacy in the classroom is just one component of full-scale digital transformation. Many schools are now taking even greater steps toward digitization with the help of Adobe technology. For example, Adobe Sign enables parents to e-sign digital consent forms and liability waivers from anywhere, on any device — while Adobe Scan and Acrobat are helping schools replace their paper health records with secure, searchable health databases.

Across all these areas and more, Adobe is helping schools create seamless admin processes that reduce administrative burdens, freeing staff to focus on leadership. Visit Adobe’s Education Resource Hub for step-to-step guides using digital document solutions to power your school’s digital transformation journey.