February 17, 2022
Dara Fontein

Your Guide to Transformational Leadership in Education

10 minutes

The last few years have been tough. Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, school closures, worldwide remote learning, a divisive election, protests for racial justice, and brewing conflict in Eastern Europe, the role of education has never been more important—or more uncertain. Yet more than two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the education space is still in a state of constant change. 

In a faculty-led discussion by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, senior lecturer Jennifer Cheatham said, “As a leader, in the years before the pandemic hit, I realized the balance of our work as practitioners was off. If we had been spending time knowing our children and our staff, and designing schools for them, we might not be feeling the pain in the way we are. I think we’re learning something about what the real work of school is about.”

Transformational leadership in education is helping the sector evolve and adapt.

It accelerated some critical changes to how we approach teaching and learning, even as the pandemic exacerbated the impact of the inequities of race, disability, and income on learning outcomes. 

Transformational leadership in education will help educators design support systems that can reduce inequity on multiple levels and create a more resilient educational infrastructure for the future.

→ Download Now: How to Win at Educational Leadership

What is transformational leadership?

Transformational leadership is a style whereby leaders influence, inspire, and encourage employees to deliver positive change.

A transformational leader will work with teams beyond their immediate self-interests to identify needed change and create a vision to guide that change. They typically set an example at the executive level and strive for a strong sense of organizational culture, employee ownership, and autonomy in the workplace—motivating individuals without micromanaging.

Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos are among the most iconic transformational leaders in industry. People who worked for them said they were constantly challenging everyone to think beyond their assumptions and consider products and services people didn’t even know they needed.

In education, transformational leadership is a model that educators—deans, principals, professors, teachers—can use to lead by example. It places a high value on creating community bonds, encouraging both students and educators to greater levels of achievement. 

In fact, transformational leaders in education often inspire and nurture future transformational leaders of industry, government, and all aspects of society.

Transformational civil rights leaders Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and Ida B. Wells created a powerful legacy that—even after their deaths—encouraged others to follow in their footsteps and work toward a better society.

Instructional leadership versus transformational leadership in education

The instructional leadership model shaped much of the thinking about effective educational leadership disseminated internationally since the 1980s.

However, during a period of school restructuring in North America in the 1990s, transformational leadership began to eclipse instructional leadership’s popularity.

In transformational leadership, the principal’s role shifts toward fostering a collective vision and motivating members of an organization to achieve extraordinary performance.

Instructional Leadership

Transformational Leadership

Clear school goals are created and communicated by the principal.
Clear vision is created and communicated by the principal.
Personal and shared organizational goals are clearly linked.
Professional development is provided to teachers.
Teachers are intellectually stimulated and encouraged to try new things.
No explicit focus on culture.
Proactive focus on culture-building.
Principals take active role in curriculum coordination, supervision, evaluation, instruction, student programs, etc.
Principals delegate ownership of curriculum coordination, supervision, evaluation, instruction, student programs, etc. to their staff.

Why transformational leadership in education is important

The benefits of transformational leadership aren’t always as obvious as those of instructional leadership. For example, transformational leadership isn’t necessarily about finding new ways to teach math or science. Rather, transformational leadership is about driving broader, cultural change in alignment with the goals of the school and the success of all students.
Some of the outcomes of transformational leadership in education include:
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Educational equity

Transformational leadership is evident in schools that successfully adapted to the challenges of the pandemic. And, while the pandemic proved that most students learn best in a traditional classroom—led by a teacher, surrounded by classmates, and stimulated by in-person activities—it also demonstrated that remote learning is a great way to meet diverse student needs. 

The transformational leadership that spurred the adoption of remote teaching created learning opportunities that didn’t exist pre-pandemic. For example, teenagers who have jobs, teenage parents, children with certain medical conditions, or kids who simply prefer learning virtually found remote learning to be more inclusive.

2

Improved educator morale and motivation

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Research indicates that transformational leadership positively affects teachers’ commitment to their schools, performance, job satisfaction, and other areas that help facilitate overall school success. This leads to better morale and motivation to go above and beyond their job description—and the typical course curriculum—to create more interesting and dynamic learning experiences for students.
3

Better student experiences

Student voices can be easily lost when it comes to creating and implementing strategic plans—especially the voices of at-risk students (i.e., minority students, students with low socioeconomic status, students from unstable families, or students with learning disabilities).
Transformational leaders in education consider the lived experiences of all the young people they teach and drive change that results in better experiences for everyone.
For example, student experiences were integral to Dobbs Ferry Union Free School District’s work with race, diversity, and equity. The district’s transformational leadership team used ThoughtExchange to empower students, giving them the freedom to design an Exchange and collect feedback directly from their peers. The districtwide Race Matters Committee is now using that feedback to develop its DE&I Plan.
“If we want our students to have the courage to speak up, then the adults around them need to demonstrate that we have trust in them.”
Lisa Brady
Superintendent, Dobbs Ferry Union Free School District, New York State
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Strengthening school culture

With foresight, intentional action, and reflection, transformational leaders can shape the shared values and culture of their school. Ebony Bridwell-Mitchell—an expert in education leadership and management—articulated six steps for transformational leaders in education who seek to sustain, or change, their school culture:
  1. Look in the mirror—everything you do influences school culture in a powerful way. For example, if you want to build a collaborative, inclusive culture, undertake collective decision-making or ask teachers, students, and parents for feedback and advice.
  2. Select staff wisely—the teachers and administrators you hire will shape your culture.
  3. Teach what you’d like to see—if you want high-achieving students, nurture high-achieving teachers.
  4. Broadcast your vision of the culture clearly.
  5. Make your vision tangible through special school rituals, symbols, mascots, and the design of physical and virtual spaces.
  6. Focus on social networks and connections to ensure no one is isolated from the community.
5

Innovation

Transformational leadership in education is what will ensure the longevity of education systems for millennia to come.

Transformational leaders are quick to try innovative new technologies, teaching methods, or processes—and they are the changemakers that ensure the adoption and success of these innovations within their schools.

6

Community participation in school decisions

School principals or superintendents have the authority to make changes within their roles. However, transformational leaders consult stakeholders before enforcing changes. 

They hold forums on the change topic so educators, parents, and other family members can share thoughts and feedback. Participants appreciate that their concerns are being heard and are more willing to contribute their ideas and commit to the collective decision.

Transformational leadership examples in education

Professor of Education at Trinity University, San Antonio, Thomas J. Sergiovanni wrote many papers on leadership in education. He wrote that “excellent schools need freedom within boundaries” and described five tools, or internal forces, available to educators to lead in a transformational way:
1

Technical

Sergiovanni described the technical forces as sound management techniques. He was referring to planning and time management technologies, organizational structures, and contingency planning. However, in modern educational institutions, technical forces could also refer to digital transformation and technology that create momentum for change and help leaders influence broader audiences online (e.g., prospective students, remote students, alumni, peers, parents, school board members, etc.).
2

Human

Human forces are the relationships that underpin successful transformative leadership. According to Bernard M. Bass and Bruce J. Avolio—two influential voices in transformational leadership theory—transformational leaders harness social and interpersonal relationships to provide support, encouragement, and growth opportunities within the school and to build and maintain morale. Some of the techniques transformational leaders use to achieve this is participatory decision-making, also known as collective decision-making or group decision-making.
3

Educational

Sergiovanni highlights the importance of applying educational expertise as an education leader. This means that the transformational leader assumes the role of “clinical practitioner,” bringing professional knowledge to help identify problems, encourage solutions, and drive change, and is well-read on external forces and trends that affect the macro education landscape.
4

Symbolic

The symbolic forces available to transformational leaders include the ability to explicitly assume the role of “leader” and ensure the organization stays focused on its goals—particularly if those goals relate to transformational change. Leaders should be omnipresent—whether in-person or remote—and remain top of mind with the audiences they are trying to lead, influence, encourage, and motivate.
5

Cultural

The aim of cultural forces is to unite all school stakeholders around the shared mission of the school. Transformational leaders can use cultural forces to define the school as a distinct entity with a clear, identifiable culture, knitting together members of the educational community with shared goals and values.

Tools to inform transformational leadership in education

Transformational leadership in education can fail if “big picture” leaders miss some of the detail needed to reach their end goals or if conscious or unconscious biases affect their decision-making. 

Technology can help educational leaders avoid these pitfalls.

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For example, Michael Gomez, Ed.D., District Coordinator of Assessment, Accountability, and New Teacher Induction for Saddleback Valley USD, exemplified transformational leadership when he adopted discussion management software. The technology helped him gather diverse perspectives and nuanced data from his entire district so he could gain the most accurate and authentic feedback he needed to inform his plans. 

Like most districts in the U.S., Saddleback Valley’s community is made up of many different language groups. To capture the voice of all community members—including parents and caregivers of English learners—Gomez needed a platform that would allow all participants to share ideas with each other without a language barrier. 

ThoughtExchange helped him achieve this in an efficient way. By running an Exchange with district stakeholders, he can make informed decisions that are more likely to be supported by the community.

“ThoughtExchange was an efficient, effective, inclusive, transparent operation that helped us know exactly what they thought, and what their questions or concerns were.”
George Kazanas
Superintendent of Schools, Midway ISD, Texas

Similarly, George Kazanas Superintendent of Schools at Midway ISD in Texas used ThoughtExchange to reach out to teachers to gain insights to help the district navigate the changing environment in 2020 and 2021. By listening to their staff in an Exchange, the district re-established the trust required to build an effective safe-start plan that addressed their staff members’ key concerns. 

If you’re interested in learning how to strive for and maintain transformational leadership in your school, get in touch with us.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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Dara Fontein
Dara is a copywriter and content creator born, raised, and currently based in Vancouver, British Columbia. She’s written for companies including Hootsuite, lululemon, Article, and ThoughtExchange. When not playing around with words, Dara can be found updating her cat's Instagram account and wandering the aisles of home decor stores.

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