How to Be a Transformational Leader in Education

A group of people seating at a table while a woman leads them

Education faces a variety of significant challenges. Students often struggle to overcome life events that interfere with their ability to complete basic education. Teacher and staff morale can be dragged down by the high cost of living and a seeming lack of respect they receive for the vital work that they do. Transformational leadership in education can’t solve all of these problems, but it does serve as a force for improvement.

A time of stress calls for a new and creative approach to learning, such as that provided by the transformational leadership model.

A need for educational transformation

California’s secondary education system gives an example of the kinds of challenges that schools often fail to meet. In 2018, 83 percent of high school seniors in California graduated. While that number represents an increase from the dismal graduation rate of 74.7 percent in 2010, it’s hard to celebrate when 17 percent of high school students leave without a diploma. Furthermore, California’s dropout rate keeps rising, reaching close to 10 percent in 2018.

The numbers are even more disheartening when you break them down by race, ethnicity, and economic hardship. The graduation rate for African-American students was almost 10 percentage points below the average. English learners had just a 67.9 percent graduation rate. Homeless youth fared only slightly better, with 68.9 percent completing high school.

Students listed as socioeconomically disadvantaged graduated at a rate that was more than three percentage points below the average. Those with disabilities had a 66.3 percent graduation rate. Only 53.1 percent of foster youth received their diplomas.

What these numbers show is that the educational system in California–while it has improved somewhat over previous years—continues to fail many of the students that need it most. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that workers without a high school diploma had median weekly earnings of $515 in 2017. Compared to high school graduates, who earned $718, those who failed to get their high school diploma missed out on 30 percent of their earning potential. Thus, the breakdown of education in its mission to serve historically disadvantaged populations reinforces the repeating cycle of poverty.

Although, through transformational leadership in education, teachers, principals, and school administrators can elevate individual students and the whole school ecosystem. Some educators are making a difference.

Transformational leadership provides a model of change in education that helps youth to meet the challenges of systemic racism and poverty. This change regarding leadership in education also motivates teachers and supports them to be able to give their students a rich and welcoming learning environment.

What is transformational leadership?

Many adults remember the one teacher or mentor who particularly inspired them in their youth. These inspirational figures have the power to change the course of young lives. For some students, one adult that believes in them and shows them a path to success is all it takes to teach them to believe that they have the power to excel. This change regarding leadership in education often comes from educators immersed in transformational leadership theory.

What is transformational leadership in education? Transformational leadership is a model that principals and teachers can use to lead by example. It places a high value on creating community bonds, which encourage both students and teachers to greater levels of achievement.

Bernard M. Bass and Bruce J. Avolio, two pioneering voices in transformational leadership theory, define these leaders as people who mentor and encourage both colleagues and followers.

According to Bass and Avolio, the transformational leadership style views relationship development as a crucial component of the work of educational institutions. Transformational leadership in education spurs students and teachers to expand and grow in a nurturing community.

One of the strengths of the transformational leadership model is that it builds on the resources of every member of the school, particularly staff and teachers. The truly transformational leader is a motivator who seeks to inspire team members to be their better selves. Transformational educators forgo self-interest and self-promotion. Instead, they direct their attention and energy toward the good of the group as a whole.

To accomplish this, transformational leadership traits include a passion for the mission of the educational institution. A leader who can instill this passion in others has the power to create an environment where change in education can happen.

Transformational leadership characteristics

In his influential essay, “Leadership and Excellence in Schooling”, Thomas J. Sergiovanni emphasized the need to strive for more than simply adequate education. He identified five leadership forces exhibited by transformational educators. Those forces are technical, human, educational, symbolic, and cultural.

The technical aspect of transformational leadership in education is good management practices, including planning and organization. Without effective, evidence-based school administration, change in education becomes more challenging.

The human aspect is the use of the social and interpersonal resources already available in the school setting. By building what Sergiovanni calls “interpersonal competence,” schools can improve morale among staff. He identifies participatory decision-making as a key element in the human aspect of transformational leadership in education.

The educational force is rooted in the professional competence and implementation of effective teaching strategies that transformational leaders bring to their schools. These leaders foster change in education by evaluating problems in educational design. The educational force relates to counseling, evaluation, and professional development within the school setting.

Symbolism is an important aspect of the transformational leadership style. The rituals of the school year are more than just milestones to be checked off a list. Transformational leadership theory recognizes the vital role of administrators and teachers as symbolic leaders of their school communities.

By creating a sense of clarity and unity, the symbolic force helps all members of the educational community feel that they are part of a close-knit group that shares the goal of building the best possible school ecosystem. It may seem tangential, but the transformational leadership model places symbolism as a core element of a school environment that supports learning and personal growth.

The cultural aspect of transformational leadership is a statement of shared values and beliefs. Cultural leadership articulates not only the school’s mission, but also the mythos of the educational milieu. Sergiovanni elevates culture because it is the glue that holds the student body together. School culture reminds both students and teachers of the important work they do together.

While Sergiovanni calls cultural leadership the role of “high priest,” it’s important to make the distinction between charismatic leadership and demagoguery. Transformational leadership qualities, especially these symbolic and cultural aspects, call on educators to lead by following. This is leadership in the mold of Lao Tzu, who said, “The best leaders are those the people hardly know exist.”

Transformational leadership risks elevating leaders to the level where they are indispensable. To avoid a situation where the departure of one administrator or staff member can cause a whole school to crumble in on itself, it is important for transformational leaders to build strength in all members of the educational team rather than accruing too much power to themselves. Truly gifted transformational leaders create schools whose staff includes empowered leaders at all levels.

Transformational leadership examples in history

There are many examples of transformational leaders throughout history. These are figures whose commitment to their vision inspired others to follow. Even after their deaths, these transformational figures have symbolic power that encourages others to aspire to work towards the greater good of society.

Some of these leaders are well-known names, such as Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and Ida B. Wells. These civil rights leaders didn’t only do work that made a difference. They were among the sparks that ignited a movement. Their leadership and willingness to stand out insured that they did not stand alone.

Without leaving California, we can find many more transformational leaders, including Huey P. Newton, a leader of the Black Panthers; and Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, co-founders of the United Farmworkers union. These transformational leaders confronted injustices that appeared intractable. Through charisma, courage, and creativity, they proved that change was possible. This empowered many others who have followed in their footsteps.

Other names may be obscured by the fog of history, but their transformative influence has changed our lives nonetheless. The participants in the Native American occupation of Alcatraz and the women who protested by throwing away undergarments in the 1970s transformed how America thought about its history and culture. Largely leaderless movements such as Occupy, Black Lives Matter, and the Women’s March, use elements of transformational leadership models to distribute power widely throughout the organization.

The heroes of transformational leadership in education tend to be names that are known only to the members of the schools where they work. They are no less revered in and important to the school community than the historical figures whose names students read in history class.

A principal or teacher who brings change in education can be the transformational leader who nurtures the seeds of greatness in the heroes of the next generation. By modeling transformational leadership in education, educators give youth a framework for finding their own greatness.

Benefits of transformational leadership

A 1994 study entitled, “The Effects Of Transformational Leadership On Organizational Conditions And Student Engagement With School”, set out to quantify the benefits of transformational leadership.

The authors used a survey of 1,762 teachers and 9,941 students in a single school district. They found that transformational leadership was associated with much greater cohesion and satisfaction among staff.

There were also benefits for students. Transformational leadership characteristics among teachers led to increased participation and identification with the school among the students. However, the effects of educational transformation on students were smaller than the effects on faculty and staff. The authors attributed this to the stronger influence of the family educational environment on student achievement.

At the time the study was conducted, transformational leadership in education rarely reached outside the school campus. Recognizing the importance of the home environment, change leadership in education today supports and includes the parents as well as the students in the school community.

A more recent survey of studies on transformational leadership in education highlighted the importance of transformational leadership for school principals. Those principals who exhibited transformational leadership traits provided better staff support, recognized success among the staff, and were more available. These principals welcomed fresh perspectives from their staff and faculty and often put these diverse ideas into practice.

Transformational leadership theory is not confined to the United States. For example, a 2013 study looked at transformational leadership traits among school principals in China. The study found that principals who practiced a transformational leadership style were more successful in finding solutions to the problems at their schools.

The benefits of transformational leadership aren’t always direct. Transformational leadership isn’t about a better way to teach math or a new technique for improving reading skills, though educational technique is an important technical component of change leadership in education. Transformational leadership fosters a community that is committed to the goals of the school and the success of all students. The secondary effect of this style of leadership is educational change. This provides an environment that fosters the creation of new and innovative instructional techniques.

Change leadership in education is made, not born

The transformational leadership style may come naturally to some educators. However, the surest path to educational change is through intention. In most cases, transformational leadership in education is the result of years of training and study.

Mills College has educated many generations of transformational leaders in a wide variety of fields. In recognition of the huge need for transformational leadership in education, Mills offers an online MA in Educational Leadership.

Part of the transformational leadership definition is that the leaders use their life stories and experience to inspire those around them. Change leadership in education, therefore, must have diverse practitioners. By offering an online master’s degree, Mills College opens the field of educational leadership and transformation to educators who need to continue working at their current positions while they take courses to advance their careers. Mills recognizes the incredible experience and wisdom of these dedicated educators.

The MA in Educational Leadership teaches a transformational leadership model that emphasizes collaboration and reflection. The curriculum takes into account the need for solid grounding in curriculum development and sound teaching and administrative practices. Students leave the program prepared to face the often challenging task of reconciling the fiscal realities of public education with the needs of students and teachers.

Outstanding educational environments must exist in relation to the communities they serve. Transformational leadership in education requires a solid understanding of educational change theories. That is a core part of the curriculum of the online MA in Educational Leadership at Mills. This understanding will prepare you to face the ethical and social challenges that confront today’s educators on a daily basis.

The online MA in Educational Leadership at Mills is a great place to start your career in educational change. The skills you learn will transform your life and prepare you for a career of transformational leadership in education.