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The Focused Student: A look at educational leadership and beyond

First Day of School
A an effective school leader “can create a positive, inclusive culture for the school,” writes educator Robert Frank. Above, Paradise Canyon Elementary School student Blake Paulson gives principal Carrie Hetzel a hug on the first day of school for the 2018-19 year.
(Raul Roa / La Cañada Valley Sun)

“Good leadership is all about making the lives of your team members better.” —Tony Dungy

Leadership is the ability to guide, give direction and share a vision that will make the lives of all team members better. Leadership can and does mean different things to different people.

So who is the educational team and where are they going?

Leaders can’t lead if they don’t know who their team is or where they are going and what the vision is. Good school leaders know that the team includes staff, faculty, parents and students. They also know what direction they are going via a board, their vision and feedback from representative stakeholder groups. Unfortunately, in too many schools the parents, community and students are left out unless it’s an accreditation year.


School leadership is not necessarily difficult, but the required combination of qualities can be hard to find in any one person. An effective leader has to understand the system within which they are working. A school system is a lot different than most business models, yet it is a business. That means leadership needs to know about the community it is serving: its needs and demands, the students (customers), and most important the staff and faculty (employees), since they deliver “the direction.”

Another necessary quality is someone who can create a positive, inclusive culture for the school. A good leader has to know when and how to make a decision. What doesn’t make a good leader is someone who is too hands-on, overdone and controlling; or too hands-off, which can lead to aimless wandering. Some will make every decision, and others can’t make any decision. The effective leader finds a productive balance.

An effective leader is a people person. They can interact with adults, community, students and family, explaining to each in an appropriate and approachable way the vision and implementation that will result in success while creating buy-in and support.

Besides leadership qualities, an effective leader needs specific knowledge that includes understanding education, both theory and practice. A leader knows how to navigate bureaucracy and understands educational policy-making from Sacramento to La Cañada. They understand how teachers have been taught and their personalities. Leadership will check in with each teacher or sit in the teacher’s lounge from time to time to hear concerns.


The effective leaders understand how to talk to the staff and mingle with the kids at lunch or break. They know how to walk the grounds with the custodians in order to understand the functioning of the campus, and how to call parents with news (good or bad) about their child. They know how to listen to parents and talk to them, while respecting where they are coming from and their varied situations that are a crucial part of the learning environment for each student. And leaders don’t take things personally. They sort out the realistic from the unrealistic. As parents, we all come from a different perspective. Good leaders understand this.

Leaders need to be creative, always thinking outside the box to solve problems that may come up. They also need to know the community in which they work. Spend some time at Starbucks, shop in the markets, eat occasionally at the restaurants, drop off mail at the post office, read the local newspapers and go to all the home games.

A former La Cañada superintendent of schools, Don Ziehl, used to take all new teachers on a bus ride through the community so they could see the different areas and understand that the community would expect a certain level of service. He fully understood that the parents and students were customers, and while they didn’t run the business, the school needed to be responsive to them.

If an effective leader sounds about as likely as a unicorn, it’s all the more reason to be fully supportive when you are fortunate enough to have such a leader at your child’s school.

ROBERT FRANK is the executive director of the Hillside School and Learning Center in La Cañada. He holds a master’s of science degree in special education and has more than 40 years of teaching experience. His column appears on the last Thursday of each month. He can be reached at

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