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Leading leaders: lessons from the field.


University programs preparing candidates for school leadership positions are under increasing pressure to align programs with the realities of practice. This research investigates the effects of classroom and field experiences with candidates enrolled in a graduate leadership program. Candidates were asked to rate their supervisory knowledge and skills as well as classroom instructional strategies used during preparatory sessions. Reflection and feedback cycles were integrated into the process. Results indicate that candidates felt the process was beneficial.


The influence building principals bring to bear on student achievement is eclipsed only by the importance of the classroom teacher. School systems are seeking leaders that possess moral commitment, facilitation skills, ability to shepherd change, an understanding of constructivist learning, and a systems perspective (Lambert, 1995). However, the pool of well-prepared candidates seeking the principalship appears to be shrinking (Farkas, Johnson, Duffett, & Foleno, 2001). Superintendents complain about the lack of effective building leaders and the limited pool of skillful candidates. Even bright and well-trained rookie principals often feel overwhelmed when faced with the fast pace and the multitasking required of them. Quickly they learn that leadership is not orderly and neat but quite "messy." It requires constant problem solving and decision-making. In teaching preservice candidates to develop into well-prepared leaders, I looked at different ways of creating authentic learning in courses I was teaching. This paper reports the result of a study that examined instructional strategies and their effect on the development of supervisory competencies and beliefs in preservice principals. Specifically this study evaluates the effectiveness of field based learning experiences and auxiliary classroom strategies in a Master's in Urban Educational Leadership Program. It was an attempt to maximize learning opportunities and better prepare candidates to address the conundrum of leadership.

Preparation Programs and Candidate Motivation

Being rewarded or avoiding punishment has an immediate if not long-term effect on behavior. However, when, in addition to fulfilling requirements and gaining rewards behavior and beliefs align, behavior is perceived as the "right thing" to do thereby moving practice to a higher level of commitment. Intrinsic motivation drives learning for the purposes of making meaning and using new information while extrinsic motivation is what drives learning to fulfill requirements and gain rewards. The two, however, are not mutually exclusive. I set out to tap into candidates' intrinsic motivation and move them towards deeper learning by encouraging candidates to establish specific personal goals relative to short and long term aspirations. With personal goals identified, students were encouraged to create links between these goals and course objectives so they could more readily see their relevance and take more responsibility for their own learning.

Motivation theory stresses the importance of self-confidence; candidates who are more self-confident are more likely to accept challenges. As competence in performing certain tasks increases, candidates become more confident. The reverse is also true. Candidates' perception of the difficulty of tasks affects their self-confidence and desire to undertake it. I needed to design meaningful independent assignments clearly connected to the work of preservice supervisors and principals and the assignments had to be sufficiently challenging so candidates could appreciate their new skills as well as tap into their attitudes and values. I had to consider task difficulty and candidate competence. I also had to develop a reflective process so that our future leaders would appreciate who they are and what they stand for. Self-knowledge is critical to leadership. Effective leaders understand that theory and research inform practice but are not the only forces that drive it. Professional practice is an interactive process and it depends on evaluation of unique environments. Situations are often confusing, unstable, and bogged down because of conflicting values. To be comfortable problem solving in messy terrains suggests that leaders need to be confident with their inner voice (Schon, 1983; Sergiovani, 2001).

However, superintendents are concerned about the quality of principals currently serving as well as with the pool of applicants. This lack of leadership talent is gaining media attention in professional journals as well as in the popular press (Archer 2005; Farkas, Johnson, Duffett & Foleno, 2001; Farkas, Johnson & Duffett, 2003; Levine, 2005; Thompson, 2003; Topo, 2005; Winter, 2005). Superintendents note that although they do not face a serious supply problem, they are concerned about the quality of the principals they see coming into the profession. (Farkas, Johnson & Duffett, 2003). This problem is exacerbated in high poverty communities. Levine (2005) identifies a lack of relevant courses and experiences in preparation programs for principals and superintendents. He specifically cites inadequate clinical experiences and opportunities to work with knowledgeable practitioners. Thompson (2003) found only 35% of the principals felt they had been well prepared for conducting classroom observations even though they also reported that they spent the greatest amount of time doing just that. Inasmuch as instructional leadership is central to improving student achievement, I knew 1 had to increase the relevance of course assignments and create more pertinent experiences. As a former superintendent, I also recognized that confidence would emerge not only from sufficient practice with the leadership skills but, also, with self-study.

It is vital for the preservice principal to systematically assess what he or she believes about people, self, and the role. Our beliefs about people shape the way we behave in various aspects of our lives. Our beliefs guide our interactions, expectations for self and others, and the way in which we organize work environments. In other words, we interact according to how situations and people are perceived. If principals believe their staff is well intentioned and competent, they are more likely to create an environment of trust from which change can occur. Although personality plays into the effectiveness of charismatic leaders, I do not believe leadership is genetically determined. Experiences in the field, accompanied by self-study, promote the development of effective leaders. University programs can enhance leadership development by considering the following questions:

* How can we create learning opportunities that promote deeper approaches to learning and that connect classroom experiences with on the job realities?

* How can we improve competence and self-confidence, foster active candidate participation, and encourage candidates to monitor their own learning?

Teaching Strategies

Learning is an active process whereby learners construct new ideas or concepts based on their thinking about their learning. If we believe that knowledge consists of learning about the real world, then real world experiences need to be structured so that learners carry out their own mental processes and construct their own meaning. Based on these assumptions, independent assignments as well as classroom learning experiences were designed to address authenticity and relevance. My goal was to help candidates learn to be leaders as distinct from learning about leadership. Clinical supervision, part of the graduate curriculum, is a process that focuses on the importance of trusting relationships and effective communication. It is based on the assumption that leaders can facilitate professional growth by listening carefully and thoughtfully, by encouraging refection and problem solving, and resisting the urge to tell teachers what to do. There is no formula to follow while working through this clinical process; each situation is as different as the people engaged in the process.

Preservice principals and supervisors do not have experience with clinical supervision and, initially, many do not trust it while others think it impractical. For some, it is uncomfortable because it is not formulaic. For others, it is the antithesis of their own experience and goes against many beliefs they hold about human nature. There is no script to which candidates can refer, as the process requires them to ask open-ended questions and respond to the reflections of another. So whereas procedural skills are learned with relative ease, it is only after preservice leaders reflect on a series of classroom and field experiences that they begin to unravel their personal beliefs and attitudes that interfere with their effectiveness. As so many candidates discover, one of the most difficult aspects of the process is to become reflective listeners: to turn off their judgmental voices and stifle ever-ready advice.

In light of my desire to increase intrinsic motivation and create more relevant learning, assignments and experiences were revised while others were added. I reviewed each activity in light of the two questions cited above. At the conclusion of the semester, candidates evaluated the course activities and their learning. The following strategies were incorporated and/or refined in courses I taught:

* Case studies

* Group activities and peer tutoring

* Learning by doing (simulations/role plays, fish bowl exercises)

* Self, peer, and professor assessment

* Video tapes of field experiences

* Weekly reflection journals

Research Questions:

The questions that I posed to myself were the following:

1. As a result of course experiences, in which areas of supervision did candidates' confidence improve?

2. Which experiences did candidates identify as most important in increasing their confidence in supervisory practices?

3. Which learning experiences did candidates perceive as most important in increasing their supervisory competency?

4. Which learning experiences did candidates perceive as most important in increasing their understanding of the supervisory role?

Design and Methodology

Participants in this study were part time graduate candidates enrolled in the educational leadership masters program at an urban university. Twenty-four candidates enrolled and twenty-three completed the course. All 23 participants were full time educators employed by a private or public school, most in urban districts (20). Of these, 7 were males and 16 were females; 15 described themselves as teachers and 8 as other school employees such as guidance counselor, child study team clinician, dean, or coordinator/coach. Candidates were primarily tenured employees (13 of 23). Prior to formal observation using clinical supervision, candidates were prepared for the experience through readings, lectures and fish-bowl exercises. This latter exercise called for pairs of volunteers to enact the supervisory conference while the rest of the class observed them. This process enabled candidates to identify specific conferencing behaviors, reflect on the way in which they facilitated (or failed to facilitate) communication, and suggest alternatives. Following this preparation, each candidate had several opportunities to role-play a pre-conference and a post-conference in response to videotaped teaching cases. Students were asked to reflect on their own thinking during conferences. What were they learning about themselves and their attitudes?

In the K-12 school setting, each candidate held a conference with a teacher prior to the lesson, observed the classroom teacher teach, and then held a feedback session. Both the pre- and post-conferences were videotaped. Candidates critiqued their own videotape and that of a fellow graduate candidate using a video conferencing rubric and check sheet that also had been used in practice sessions. They also submitted written reflections. Upon completion of their observations, candidates exchanged and critiqued taped conferences with another candidate. Upon completion of their observations, candidates met individually with the professor to review the videotape, critiques, and the written observation report. The following assessments were used:

* Instructional Supervision Survey (ISS) administered at the beginning and end of the semester

* Instructional Feedback Survey (IFS) administered at the end of the semester

* Candidate Reflections

The ISS assessed candidate perceptions of their confidence level with regard to supervision of instruction. The survey consisted of 16 items, utilizing a 4-point Likert-type scale. Some items asked general questions (e.g., I am able to identify specific behaviors leaders use to effectively work with teachers.) while others were more specific (e.g., I am able to participate in a conference with my supervisor about my lesson.). Of 23 students, 21 completed the surveys. The IFS is an open-ended questionnaire that assessed student judgment about the value of assignments and class experiences. This assessment required candidates to respond to three questions:

1. In what ways has your understanding of supervision changed as a result of this course?

2. Describe ways in which assignments and/or activities increased skills you will need.

3. Describe a new activity/assignment you would recommend to help future candidates better prepare for educational leadership.

Candidate responses were tallied and themes were identified. Of 23 students all completed the survey. Responses were analyzed for themes. Candidates also reflected on each phase of the supervisory process in writing. The prompts instructed students to assess the process in light of their own personal and professional needs, strengths, and goals. Reflections were analyzed for themes. Responses obtained from each assessment were tallied and themes were identified from the open-ended questions.

Instructional Supervision Survey

At the beginning of the semester most candidates in the class had only limited confidence in their skills and knowledge base. This was not unexpected and enabled me to develop greater focus for my teaching. Data from the first administration of the ISS was shared with the class so they too could understand their relative strengths and needs. For example, there was relatively high confidence for I am able to observe a lesson in my own subject area or grade. Therefore, 1 suggested that candidates who were very confident challenge themselves by choosing to observe a class in another content area or grade. The lowest possible score on the Survey is 16 while the highest possible score is 64. The higher the score the lower the perceived level of confidence. On the pretest, the lowest score was 29 while the highest score was 54. Scores were distributed across the range. The mean pre test score was 40.4. On the posttest, the lowest score was 16 while the highest score was 40. However scores were clustered between 16 and 29, with one outlier at 40. The mean posttest score was 21.6 about half of the pretest mean. Confidence increased from the first administration (beginning of course) to the second administration (completion of course) of the survey in every area. The percentage of "very confident" responses increased from 12% to 48% while the percentage of "'confident" responses showed virtually no change and remained at 78 percent. However the two measures of lower confidence, "somewhat confident" and "not confident" both decreased; "somewhat confident" decreased from 38 percent to 1% and "not confident" responses decreased from 13% to less than 1%. Responses moved across the scale from lower to higher levels of confidence as candidates engaged in relevant experiences.

Changes in responses to the survey administered at the beginning and at the conclusion of the course are dramatic; the differences reflect increased candidate confidence in classroom observation practices. This pre- post-survey evidences "value added" learning experiences for these candidates. Of importance is the final question that states, I am able to participate in a conference with a supervisor about my lesson. In the initial administration, most candidates felt confident about their ability to participate in a conference with a supervisor about their own teaching. I did not anticipate much change here. But as a result of their experiences in the course, virtually every candidate felt very confident about experiencing the process from another point of view and developing the communication and goal setting skills associated with clinical supervision.

Instructional Feedback Survey

Student narratives include statements that provide some insight into some of the changes observed in the confidence survey. Nineteen candidates identified 10 strategies that were most useful to them. There was no minimum or maximum number of strategies the students could select. The four mentioned most frequently were:

* Viewing and critiquing my own pre- post- conference video

* Experiencing the classroom observation process

* Fish bowl activities

* Feedback from classmates

Four themes emerged from narratives.

1. Candidates articulated an increased appreciation of the preparation of leaders and their specialized knowledge. To paraphrase a candidate, leaders do not come by these as a result of years of successful teaching.

2. Candidates also recognized the importance of the work done by leaders, specifically identifying classroom supervision. Candidates recognized that effective leaders foster student and teacher growth and specifically, they improve student achievement.

3. Candidates identified their personal growth and increased self-confidence. Several candidate comments illustrate these sentiments.

* I gained a lot of self-confidence in my skills from the feedback of the professor and candidates in the class.

* Feedback from classmates hit home--its hard not to heed your peers. I began to reexamine my work.

* Video assessments of pre and post conference provided opportunity to compare my work with others and improve performance.

* I learned a lot about myself as a future supervisor.

4. Candidates appreciated the relevance of assignments as preparation for real work.

* It is the type of class that you moan and groan and complain about certain assignments, but in the end you're glad you took it because of the real-world applications.

* I walked away with an entirely new perspective on the supervision process and work that I will need to do.

* I am grateful I experienced this. I know what it feels like.

Candidates practiced the skills they would need in class and conferred with one another to provide feedback. They commented on the value of this group work and fish bowl activities and some expressed interest in experiencing more of them. These active learning experiences served as opportunities for candidates to practice difficult tasks in a safe setting. The data collected from multiple sources suggests that candidates' confidence and competence in supervisory skills were greatly enhanced during one semester. There was personal growth as well as greater understanding of the process. Based on this initial survey, the use of real life experiences appears to be beneficial when accompanied with reflection. When candidates had an opportunity to be in the role and examine their work in that role, they felt empowered and ultimately more confident.

Implications for Instruction

The themes are consistent with recent research on principals' perception of the preservice experiences they need to be better prepared to undertake the responsibilities of school leadership (Farkas, Johnson, Duffett & Foleno, 2001; Farkas, Johnson & Duffett, 2003; Levine, 2005). Field experiences enhance college teaching and preparation of leaders.

* I believe real life assignments are important but only when they are accompanied by sufficient opportunities for reflection and feedback. Candidates found great significance from peer feedback with which they may find it easier to connect. In addition, peer comments provide a glimpse at what candidates find important which may have increased their motivation to change.

* Instructional strategies based on real work put responsibility for learning on the candidates. Candidates who go out into the field had live up to a different set of expectations; they took time to adequately prepare for this experience.

* When the purpose of instruction is enhancement of critical thinking and problem-solving skills, real life experiences are beneficial. We want candidates to gain experience in contexts that are not one hundred percent predictable.

* The use of video taping and critiquing real life assignments is meaningful and consistent with constructivist learning. It bears relevance for aspiring practitioners and provides an opportunity to enact new roles in a safe environment.


Archer, J. (16 March 2005). Study blasts leadership preparation. Education Week.

Farkas, S., Johnson, J., Duffett, A., & Foleno, F. (2001). Trying to stay ahead of the game: Superintendents and principals talk about school leadership. New York: Public Agenda. Retrieved on February 19, 2005, from leadership/leadership.htm

Farkas, S., Johnson, J. & Duffett, A. (with Foley, P). (2003). Rolling up their sleeves: Superintendents and principals talk about what's needed to fix public schools. Retrieved on February 19, 2005, from

Lambert, L. (1995, Feb/Mar). New directions in the preparation of educational leaders. Thrust for Educational Leadership. 24(5). Retrieved on October 17, 2004 from Academic Search Premier, 10552243.

Levine, A. (2005). Educating school leaders. Retrieved on March 18, 2005 from

Schon, D. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner. New York: Basic Books.

Sergiovanni, T. (2001). The Principalship: A Reflective Practice Perspective. Boston, Mass: Allyn and Bacon.

Thompson, M. (with Legler, R). (2003). Principalship in the Midwest: The role of principal preparation programs. NCREL Policy Issues, Issue 14. Retrieved on March 18, 2004 from htttp://

Topo, G. (14 March, 2005). Training programs for principals inadequate. USA Today.

Winter, G. (15 March 2005). Study finds poor performance by nation's education schools. The New York Times.

Helen A. Friedland, Ed.D, New Jersey City University

Helen A. Friedland is associate professor of educational leadership and special education. Prior to her university affiliation, she was a public school superintendent.

Niki Young, California State University, Stanislaus

Amy Andres, California State University, Stanislaus

Young is the Interim Director of the Faculty Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, and a Lecturer in Communication Studies. Andres is the Coordinator of Library Instructional Services.
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Author:Friedland, Helen A.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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