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Saturday / November 26

Four Steps Towards Leader Credibility

It’s pretty clear that students learn more when they believe that they can learn from their teachers. That’s a generalization of the evidence on teacher credibility. More specifically, teacher credibility is high when students:

  • Trust their teachers and see their teachers as honest and reliable;
  • View their teachers as competent, recognizing that their teachers create learning environments that allow them to accel;
  • Experience passion and dynamism from their teachers such that learning is valued; and
  • Feel a sense of relatedness and closeness with their teachers.

This is why the same strategy or lessons, even when implemented in essentially the same way, can have different impacts and outcomes.  When the students in one class believe that they will learn from their teachers–that their teachers are credible—there is increased potential that they will actually learn more. And when essentially the same lesson is taught by a teacher who is not viewed as credible by their students, those students are at risk of learning less. Importantly, this can happen within classrooms and not just across classrooms. This is so powerful that the effect size is 1.09, well above average in the Visible Learning database.

But this column is about leaders, and specifically leader credibility. Unfortunately, there are no meta-analyses that show us how powerful this might be in ensuring adult learning. Maybe there will be in the future, but for now we rely on individual studies, especially from business. And there are a lot of studies that clearly demonstrate that people perform better when they find their leaders credible. That’s probably not a surprise to you as you have likely had leaders that inspired you and others that did not.  Consider your work behaviors when your leader was credible to you versus not so credible.

So what do we mean by leader credibility? It’s not charisma. We know any number of leaders who have charisma but the people who work with them say that they are “all talk.” And we also know leaders with charisma who get amazing results.  As we have reviewed the evidence on leader credibility, we note that there are similarities with teacher credibility.

First, there must be trust. As Covey (2008) noted in The Speed of Trust: when it exists, things go faster. It greases the wheels, so to speak. And when it’s absent, people operate in fear or caution. Thus, strong leaders work to establish trust with the people they work with and between people who work together. Staff members ask, do you have my best interests at heart? Are you truthful and reliable?

Second, competence plays a role in leader credibility. Being seen as not knowing what you’re doing compromises the impact that leaders have. People want to know that their leader has the skills to address the needs and situations that arise. Our collective competence was tested when schools closed for COVID-19, and was tested again when schools reopened. People wanted to know that they would be safe; that the protocols put in place would work. Staff members ask, do you have the skills to make the hard decisions, take responsibility, and develop systems that work?

Third, dynamism and passion are an important part of leader credibility. People want to feel important, and that their contributions to the organization are valued. We all respond better to leaders who are dynamic in their interactions and passionate about students, student learning, and staff well-being. Educators ask, are you passionate about our school, our students, me and my development? Are you, as a leader, dynamitic in your presentations of ideas and information?

Fourth, each staff members wonder if they are connected with the leader. It’s about relatedness and a sense of belonging that make a difference in this dimension. Staff members look for verbal and nonverbal signals that they are valued and that their voice is heard. Staff members ask, do I feel connected with you? 

You may have noticed that these are very similar to the aspects of teacher credibility. In fact, these may be universals in the ways in which humans find credibility in others. However, there is another factor that is found in the literature on leader credibility that is not found in teacher credibility and that is a leader that is forward-focused.

Credible leaders know where they are going. They have a vision, shared with various members of the school community, that includes plans and steps for getting there. They exude the sense of a positive future, even if they do not establish all of the goals and metrics for success. These leaders focus on the future and help everyone see how their work contributes to the success that we all have.

Leader credibility likely has a significant impact on the climate and culture of the school and the sense of collective responsibility that staff members feel. When leaders are credible, staff members are able to work in productive ways and impact student learning. In these ways, leaders can monitor their impact and determine what they need to do to increase their credibility with staff members such that everyone works to ensure success for all students.

Trustworthiness. Competence. Dynamism. Relatedness. A forward-thinking stance. Isn’t this who you want to work with? Isn’t this who you want to be?

Written by

Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College. He is the recipient of an IRA Celebrate Literacy Award, NCTE’s Farmer Award for Excellence in Writing, as well as a Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence in Teacher Education. He is also the author of PLC+, The PLC+ Playbook, This is Balanced Literacy, The Teacher Clarity Playbook, Grades K-12, Teaching Literacy in the Visible Learning Classroom for Grades K-5 and 6-12, Visible Learning for Mathematics, Grades K-12The Teacher Credibility and Collective Efficacy Playbook and several other Corwin books. 

Nancy Frey, Ph.D., is Professor of Literacy in the Department of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University. The recipient of the 2008 Early Career Achievement Award from the National Reading Conference, she is also a teacher-leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College and a credentialed special educator, reading specialist, and administrator in California. She has been a prominent Corwin author, publishing numerous books including PLC+The PLC+ PlaybookThis is Balanced LiteracyThe Teacher Clarity Playbook, Grades K-12Engagement by DesignRigorous Reading, Texas EditionThe Teacher Credibility and Collective Efficacy Playbookand many more.  To view Doug and Nancy’s books and services, please visit Fisher and Frey Professional Learning. 

Education consultant, author, and nationally recognized educator, Cathy Lassiter is an energetic, passionate speaker who is in great demand. With over thirty years of experience, she supports large and small districts in areas including leadership development, school culture, principal and teacher evaluation, collaboration, instruction, assessment, and closing achievement gaps. Her work has concentrated on serving the needs of all students and imposing rigorous standards and high expectations to help prepare them for college and careers. Cathy is the author of Everyday Courage for School Leaders.

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