Use focus to tackle the leadership learning curve

Narrowing your focus to one key area will revitalize your school.

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By Rachael George, Kourtney Ferrua, and Kate Barker

*This is the second in a series of four posts on navigating the leadership learning curve. Find the first post on reflection.

Have you found yourself worrying about staff meetings that need to be planned and conversations that need to happen and feeling like everything should have already been completed? As leaders, it is common to think everything needs to be done at once. And to some extent, this feeling is absolutely correct. But it’s also true that to be successful at building multiple concurrent projects, you need time and focused direction.

Rachael (one of the authors) encountered this issue during her first year as a principal at Sandy Grade Elementary School in Oregon: Recent state assessment scores had been shared with districts and her school hovered at the bottom (with only a handful of schools below them in the rankings). When it came to quality education and helping students achieve grade-level standards in reading, math, and science, the school administrative team missed the mark. Since it was Rachael’s first year in charge, neither the team nor she had a foundation from which to build or concrete data to analyze. They had to dig deep to figure out why scores nosedived and identify what they were going to prioritize.

Her first few months as principal centered on identifying her team’s “why,” prioritizing what they were going to focus on so they could maximize impact. Through extensive collaborative work, Rachael and her team decided to anchor in one area: growing all students, which by extension meant pursuing academic, attitude, and attendance goals.

While the team couldn’t control how students arrived at school, they could control how students left. If they focused on student attendance, for instance—getting kids to school, honing in on students’ attitudes, ensuring that behavior kept students in class—they could get to the academic issues and fix poor scores. If it didn’t connect to the academic, attitude, and attendance areas, as well as growing all kids, the team didn’t do it.

If you find yourself in a similar situation to Rachael’s first year, here are steps you can take to narrow your focus. 

Clarity of Purpose 

The first step is to have clarity of purpose. What is the ultimate goal for your students? Think back to your mission statement. What are you all about?

Look at your student data and determine the needs. Consider: Are all of your students growing? Are there systems in place to make sure that students are growing regardless of which teacher they have? How do you know if students reach standards? Do all the adults in the system have relentlessly high expectations for teaching and learning? On the social-emotional learning side, how does it feel to be at school? Do the adults in the building hold a growth mindset about students and their ability to grow?   

Decide to Go Deep

Once you have identified your purpose, go deep with it. As a leader, you have to keep your purpose front and center in all that you do. If it doesn’t align, now is not the time to take it on. If you have been doing something year after year and it doesn’t connect to your focus, it is time to stop doing it. Narrowing down to a few key areas can free up time, mental capacity, and resources to do the work that is truly needed. 

Work Through Your Team’s Strengths

As much as we would love to be perfect in all areas, we are not. We all have strengths and weaknesses. It is vital that as we go deep with our purpose and work in our teams, we capitalize on the strengths of our team members. When we involve others and grant them the opportunity to excel, we all win. To work through you and your team’s strengths, it means that each needs to be honest about their passions and abilities.

Prioritize Student Learning 

Student learning needs to be central to our work. If students aren’t learning, we have a problem. As an education leader, we need to constantly ask ourselves if everyone is growing. Each student—regardless of background or education level—deserves a rigorous education that places high expectations for them along with individualized scaffolded supports to help get them there. Whatever you choose to focus on, make sure that student learning is prioritized for all learners. 

Prioritize Academics and Social-Emotional Learning

Yes, it is possible…you can do both. Too often in education we are tempted to focus on academics or social-emotional growth for students. In fact, you really should do both, as this is how we can help support the whole child and create opportunities. It is our responsibility to not ignore one or the other.

Use Data

Data will point you in the direction of priorities. We recommend choosing no more than two or three priorities that your team can focus on. In Kourtney’s (one of the authors) building at Wascher Elementary School in Oregon, the team committed to pacing calendars for standards, to the data team process, and to implementing growth mindset initiatives. It is important to not choose all SEL or all academic goals, but to find a balance of both. And it’s critical to remember that academic success helps with SEL—it feels really good to set goals and achieve them.

Once you have defined your focus, it is important to work backward in creating your plan. We encourage you to think about what success criteria you will use to determine growth. We invite you to identify if growth is occurring and how you will assess if you hit the target. Finally, make sure to identify what goals are reasonable for the year’s midpoint, one year out, two years out, and all the way up to five years out. Having a solid plan and clear targets allows you and your team to stay focused and working in the right direction.


Rachael George is the coauthor of PrincipalED: Navigating the Leadership Learning Curve and a member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders Class of 2015. Kourtney Ferrua is the coauthor of PrincipalED: Navigating the Leadership Learning Curve. In 2019, she was recognized as Oregon Elementary Principal of the Year and as a Nationally Distinguished Principal. Kate Barker is the coauthor of PrincipalED: Navigating the Leadership Learning Curve. She is a principal in Portland, Oregon, and active in her state association, COSA. Connect with them on Twitter @DrRachaelGeorge@kourtneyferrua, and @Kate_S_Barker.