Educational Leadership Terms

Strategy, action, vision, plans – OH MY.  When entering educational leadership (or even being in it) – you may feel you are walking down the yellow brick road of leadership terms. However, knowing and identifying the main areas and a path to efficiently focus on what matters will help you develop a “real” culture of success and not a smoke and mirrors culture like OZ (Ok enough metaphors).  You also could be sitting in meetings or be part of a twitter chat and hear these terms, and feel you are out of the loop.  I know I have and because of that feeling this post I wanted to share a few common leadership terms and examples for today.

Vision: The shared, vivid picture of a preferred future for our students. Visions acknowledge both the past and the present. The district’s vision is “a picture of the future with some implicit or explicit commentary on why people should strive to create that future?” Vision is guided by responses to the following questions: “What do we want for all our children?”

Strategic Objectives: Levers or Big Rocks – the most important levers (3-5 of them) you think the system can pull to drive improved instruction and student learning. These levers should be big and substantive enough to drive the system’s focus for 3-5 years. The combination of three to five strategic objectives that together have the potential to drive significant systemic improvement in student learning and instruction (and any other outcomes we care about)

Strategic Initiatives:  The specific projects or initiatives (action steps) you will undertake to bring the strategic objective to life. These projects may take three months or several years. The emphasis is on initiatives/projects rather than individual action steps.

** Examples of Objectives and Initiatives below

Theory of Action: A way to check the logic and robustness of your vision by listing the strategic objectives and targeted outcomes. This process provides you the chance to assess if you, as a leader, are facilitating the actions identified to support your strategic objectives. This practice will lead to the growth and development you want, or if there are some gaps that you need to address as you finalize new objectives.

Ethics: In education, we always hear “it is the right thing to do” or “it is the ethical thing to do”.  It wasn’t until I read the ethics law that I understood the backbone of “it is the right thing to do” or “it is the ethical thing to do”.  I have been in education since 1994 and a principal for 11 years and no one pointed these ethical documents out. Ok, ok, I could have put some effort in and considered it.  Probably my professional obligation.  Thankfully taking classes at BC opened my eyes and my mind on the subject.  It is powerful language and adds value to our profession.  Look below at some of the code of ethics in the education profession.

Culturally competent professional:

  • One who is actively in the process of becoming aware of his or her own assumptions about human behavior, values, biases, preconceived notions, personal limitations, and so forth.
  • One who actively attempts to understand the worldview of culturally diverse populations.
  • Actively developing and practicing appropriate, relevant, and sensitive strategies and skills in working with culturally diverse students, families, communities and colleagues.

What I feel are key concepts to becoming a culturally competent professional


Know yourself:

  • Know your own cultural heritage and to valuing and respecting differences.
  • Know your own values and biases and how they may affect minorities.
  • Know your own preconceived limitations and notions about culturally diverse people.
  • Challenge your assumptions!

 Know your staff

  • Knowledge and information about all people you work with is critical.
  • Knowledge of the history, experiences, cultural values, and lifestyles of various socio-demographic groups in our educational community.
  • Continue to explore and learn about issues related to various minority groups throughout professional career.
  • Know and understand the generic characteristics in individuals from diverse ethnic, racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.


  • At the skills level, the culturally competent professional must be able to generate a wide variety of verbal and nonverbal responses.
  • We can no longer rely on a very narrow and limited number of skills in teaching. We need to practice and be comfortable with a multitude of teaching styles and modalities.
  •  Sending and receiving a message accurately means the ability to consider cultural cues operating within a setting.
  • Has high expectations for each student; believes every child is highly capable despite their background, history, or negative life experiences. Teachers use background information to inform how to work more effectively with their student.


  • Educate co-workers and close friends about racism, prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.
  • Know your roots and share your pride in your heritage with others.
  • Be mindful of your language. Avoid stereotypical remarks and challenge those made by others.
  • Speak out against jokes and slurs that target people or groups. Silence sends a message that you agree. It is not enough to refuse to laugh.

Examples of Strategic Objectives and Strategic Initiatives.  Below are some examples I have applied to my work as both building principal and in my current district leadership role. The strategic objectives and strategic initiatives also are prevalent in school improvement and professional learning communities.

Examples of Strategic Objective areas (The big levers)

You would not focus on all of these at once – as the leader you would analyze your current school and the culture and focus on the most important levers (3-5 of them) you think will drive improved instruction and student learning.

  • Data-Driven: Provide regular data on student learning, educator, school and system performance and have educators collaboratively analyze them and apply learning to improve practice
  • Collaboration, Communication and Problem Solving: Promote 21st century collaboration, communication and problem solving skills between and among parents, administrators, teachers and students
  • Performance Management: Provide ongoing feedback about performance to students and adults in the system, support improvement, and create accountability for results
  • Readiness to Learn: Provide social and emotional supports required to ensure all students can fully engage in their learning
  • Common Core: Align curriculum, instructional practices, assessments and teacher professional development to the demands of the Common Core State Standards Literacy: Build a K-12 system of literacy development that focus on comprehension, effective written and oral communication and content-based literacy
  • STEAM: Integrate science, technology, engineering, arts, and math using project-based curriculum planning, instruction and assessment
  • Resource Allocation: Align system resources (time, people, money) to support strategy implementation
  • Hire and retain top talent and build a system of continuous improvement and career pathways
  • Equity and Excellence: Ensure all students have equal access to high-quality content and instruction that is differentiated to meet their needs.
  • Infrastructure: Provide the tools, infrastructure and systems to support district initiatives and learning environments.
  • Community Engagement: Build relationship with the community so that parents and community members are involved more in the public schools.

Examples of Strategic Initiatives

  • Develop and implement literacy assessments
  • Revamp principal development to focus on instructional leadership
  • Build community partnerships to support students’ social and emotional health
  • Refine nutritional services to ensure healthy meals
  • Implement anti-bullying curriculum
  • Provide professional development on new educator evaluation system
  • Enhance the functioning of the leadership team
  • Develop teacher leadership opportunities Upgrade technology infrastructure in all schools


Strategy for reaching consensus on selecting your big levers

Fist to Five is quality voting. It has the elements of consensus built-in and can prepare groups to transition into consensus if they wish. Most people are accustomed to the simplicity of “yes” and “no” voting rather than the complex and more community-oriented consensus method of decision-making. Fist to Five introduces the element of the quality of the “yes.” A fist is a “no” and any number of fingers is a “yes,” with an indication of how good a “yes” it is. This moves a group away from quantity voting to quality voting, which is considerably more informative. Fist to Five can also be used during consensus decision making to check the “sense of the group,” or to check the quality of the consensus.

Fist to Five is accomplished by raising hands as in voting, with the number of fingers raised that indicates level of agreement.

  • A fist means, “I vote NO.” or in consensus it means, “I object and will block consensus (usually on moral grounds).”
  • 1 finger means, “I’ll just barely go along.” or, “I don’t like this but it’s not quite a no vote.” or, “I think there is lots more work to do on this proposal.” In consensus this indicates standing aside, or not agreeing but not blocking the consensus.
  • 2 fingers mean “I don’t like much this but I’ll go along.”
  • 3 fingers mean, “I’m in the middle somewhere. Like some of it, but not all.”
  • 4 fingers mean, “I like this direction.”
  • 5 fingers mean, “I like this a lot, I think it’s the best possible decision.”

 Fist to Five Process:

  1. When a proposal has been brought before a group, it has been well discussed and refined as needed, a vote for passage is taken.
  2. People raise their hands with the number of fingers that indicate their degree of agreement with the proposal. Hands are held VERY high and the room is scanned by all. That way everyone is checking the sense of the room and not individual opinions.
  3. The vote can stand as taken, with all fists and fingers counted, the majority winning. Or, people with fists and one finger can be asked to speak to their objections and offer possible solutions to overcome their objections. This is attempted, and then a second and final vote is taken, which is the final vote.
  4. It is often wise to check early in the proposal dialogue, as sometimes a group is ready for consensus or a vote earlier than expected and a lot of time can be saved. An early check might find all 4 and 5 fingers except for two 1’s, meaning the proposal would be voted in, or in the case of consensus, no one would block consensus and only two people have needs to be met. Only those people then speak and their objections addressed which saves a lot of time.
  5. A low-quality vote (lots of 1s, 2s and 3s) tells you the decision is probably a stop-gap measure and will need to be watched closely or revisited soon. It is generally wise to attach a date for review to a decision that is low in quality. Some groups find it saves time in the end to not accept a vote that is affirmative but primarily 1s and 2s as the proposal is generally troublesome and comes up again anyway.
  6. If it is obvious that the vote is wildly split, with no real majority, despite a winning “yes,” the group knows it has more work to do, and that the decision may not endure. They can expect more controversy and know a plan must be made to address the polarized views.
  7. When Fist to Five has been used for a while, a transition to consensus, if desired, is quite easy.

This post was a lot of sporadic information but I tried to pack in information to reach a wide variety of educators.  Kinda like a buffet – just take what you need and hope you like it.  I know there were many times as an aspiring administrator that I felt like I was the only one who didn’t know the term talked about and that feeling drove this post to support others who are new to the profession, applying for a role in leadership, or experienced leaders looking at ways to build consensus.

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