Leadership Lessons From the NASSP Digital Principals

Guest post by Winston Sakurai

Over the past few years, I have had the pleasure to get to know, learn from, and study some of the most innovative educators in the nation: the NASSP Digital Principals. This cohort of school leaders has a passion to improve the educational experiences of students and use sound leadership strategies mixed with a bit of technology in order to deliver on that goal. They share common practices—most notably, harnessing the power of the members of the school community—to drive student success.

What can school leaders learn from our digital leaders? How do our Digital Principals lead the way in creating innovative learning experiences and supportive school environments? Here are just a few key themes of their practice.

Empathy, Empathy, Empathy

One of the first things I learned from the Digital Principals is that leadership starts with empathy. There is a heavy-duty desire among these leaders to understand the needs and the lives of their staff, students, and parents. It’s not a coincidence that many of them live and work in the communities where they grew up. Digital Principals Bill Ziegler and Glenn Robbins returned to the same area, or in Ziegler’s case, to the same high school he attended. There is a deep connection to wanting to make their schools the best, and they have made a personal investment to work toward that goal.

Empathetic educators ensure the growth and success of each person they encounter. When a teacher has a need, reflect upon what it was like being a teacher, then make decisions that benefit both the school and the faculty member. This process works likewise for students.

Empowerment and Risk-Taking

Another important lesson I’ve learned from our Digital Principals is that innovation happens when leaders empower those around them and create a culture for risk-taking. It is essential to adjust to the needs of students to transform schools because the world is constantly changing. But school leaders cannot be the experts on everything, so you must trust the people around you to help improve your school.

Innovation cannot be forced on teachers from a top-down approach. Rather, effective leaders must first foster the growth of teachers in order to promote innovation and improve student learning. Students can also help and lead the way in creating and implementing innovative ideas.

In addition to empowering others, our digital leaders create environments that allow others to challenge the status quo and break down barriers to learning. I’ve learned to take risks and allow others to take risks. An important part of a risk-taking environment is not to penalize failures but see them as opportunities to learn and grow together. Innovation is not something that just happens the first time; it takes many iterations to get it exactly right. Unless there is opportunity to prototype and refine, the greatest ideas are never born.

Collaborative Leadership

The nature of being an innovator means always being on the forefront of change to improve student learning. This forward-thinking mentality can cause unsettled feelings among faculty and staff who are wary of the unknown and see change as a threat to their current practices. How our Digital Principals combat this challenge is through collaboration. In order for innovative ideas to get off the ground, leaders need to bring the team together. Without this collaborative process, they will not be successful.

The innovation that results from the team is unique, outside the box, and what some might call “a little crazy.” It means trying to make schools exciting places for students to learn by understanding what they want to learn. It means not tolerating toxic educational practices that don’t engage or empower others. It means taking the time to learn and figure out what the real problems are together. Innovation and creativity within schools requires a growth mindset culture where people are free and supported to implement innovative ideas. It takes courage, risk-taking, and the ability to reach out to stakeholders to ensure collaborative work.

Find out more about this innovative group of school leaders and connect with our Digital Principals by visiting www.nassp.org/recognition/digital-principals-of-the-year.

Winston Sakurai is the upper school principal at Hanalani Schools in Mililani, HI. He was a 2016 Digital Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @WinstonSakurai and join him every Sunday night at 9:00 p.m. (ET) for a Twitter conversation using the hashtag #prinleaderchat.

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