What Does Supportive Leadership Look Like?

03/30/2015 11:01 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2015

National Public Radio did a recent story looking at why teachers stay on the job despite the inherent difficulties and relatively low pay. It cited a 2012 survey of teachers, which found that 68 percent of teachers cited "supportive leadership" as "absolutely essential" to retaining good teachers, with another 29 percent saying it was "very important."

The story went on to quote University of Pennsylvania professor Richard Ingersoll, who studies the teaching force. Teacher retention, he said, "is an issue of management. This would not cost money to fix."

Ingersoll and the 2012 Scholastic/Gates survey were merely confirming what other teacher surveys and studies have shown for years.

But it's important to understand what good school management -- or leadership -- looks like, because it looks different to different people.

I have argued that it involves organizing all the systems in a school to support teaching and learning. That means everything from making sure students who need it get extra help to ensuring that teachers have the time and ability to collaborate.

This is not a simple task and involves a lot of moving parts, but it is important to understand if we are to think about how schools can help all students learn to high levels.

All of this was running through my mind when I read the NPR story, reminding me of the example of Conrad Lopes.

Conrad Lopes is the kind of school leader l think of when I think of "supportive leadership."

He was the founding principal of Jack Britt High School in Fayetteville, North Carolina -- a large, high-performing, integrated neighborhood high school where there is virtually no achievement gap between black and white students and between students from low-income families and middle-class families. When I visited a few years ago, I spoke to many teachers who said that the school's leadership sets the tone and culture of the building, which makes them happy to come to work and keeps teacher turnover very low.

Lopes has retired from Jack Britt but his former assistant principal, Denise Garison, is now principal and under her leadership Jack Britt has improved its achievement and graduation rates. Jack Britt is an example of a school where all the systems work to support teaching and learning.

Take one of the simplest of all systems in a school -- attendance.

"If students aren't in class," Lopes said, "the teachers can't teach them."

That is pretty simple and straightforward, but Lopes organized a system around this central idea.

"Every Thursday I would run an attendance report," he said. "If it was early in the year, I'd look for any student who had missed two days."

"On Friday I'd call each of the students down -- not from a core class, but from an elective class -- and I'd say I was concerned, I would ask what was going on, and see what could we do to support him."

The two would often come up with a plan for how the school could support the student -- whether it was additional tutoring, counseling, linking the student to outside social services, or changing classes.

Lopes might have had 20 or 30 such meetings every Friday. "They didn't take long. Maybe three to five minutes each," Lopes said, in part because he didn't want students to miss much class.

I asked him if his system had an effect.

He replied that he had first instituted the system when he was principal at a previous school, which had the best attendance in the county; then, when he left to open Jack Britt, Jack Britt had the best attendance in the county.

At every subsequent high school where he has worked, he said, he has instituted that system and attendance improved.

"When the principal meets with you and says he is concerned about you, that's a big deal. It has an effect," Lopes said.

That is just one way that Lopes put into action the very general principle of "supportive leadership." In this case he set up a system to ensure that kids were in class while also ensuring that kids who might have been having problems at home got the help and support they needed.

And, not to throw too much into one example, but note that he was also keeping track of the evidence. If attendance hadn't improved with this system, he would have tried something else.

That is a relatively simple example, but it gives a sense of the way highly successful schools ensure that all their systems work toward one goal: supporting teaching and learning.

To read more about Conrad Lopes and other highly effective school leaders, see the book I co-authored with Christina Theokas, Getting It Done: Leading Academic Success in Unexpected Schools (Harvard Education Press, 2011).