Request a Quote

View Our Catalog

Fall success starts this summer! See our programs for Summer Learning. Learn More

Literacy Matters

How Leader-Ready Is Your School?

November 6, 2023

by: Tim Cusack and Vince Bustamante

7 mins


Developing students’ academic potential and developing school leadership go hand in hand. When one effort is in the danger zone, it often means the other is too. School systems around the globe are in overdrive as they strive to implement high-impact instruction to re-engage learners after the disruption of the COVID-pandemic. Running parallel to this quest is the quest to retain teachers and principals. As Professor John Hattie observed, “the teaching supply problem in many countries today post-COVID is tomorrow’s leadership supply crisis.” 

We know this crisis firsthand. Having served in rural school boards, as well as in suburban and larger urban centers in Canada, we have seen the struggles to attract qualified candidates. The pool of people wanting these roles is not getting deeper. Seventy-five percent of assistant principals have less than three years in the role. Yet the good news is, there are practical moves we can make to reverse these trends. 

First and foremost, we must make sure that our school environment is conducive to professional growth. A culture that is trusting, honest, and open is key. We need to put aside outdated, winner-takes-all attitudes about leadership capacity and learn to activate, train, and retain talent by looking at a wider pool of experience. For example, there might be a teacher who hasn’t put in X-number of years in school but comes to the profession with a military background or a job that honed their executive ability. There are multiple avenues to get to leadership.

Principals and administrators also need to notice potential by leading with a mentor mindset. For example, I (Vince) became a district leader when Tim recognized something in me that I didn’t see in myself. This gentle nudge can begin with the simple question: Do you want to be a leader?

Beyond that, we prepare aspiring leaders by finding out what are their current perceptions of their strengths and weaknesses, their special interests, and the like. Next, we use a framework that we developed that provides simplicity, flexibility, and consistency across school systems. In our book Leader Ready: Four Pathways to Prepare Aspiring Leaders, we delve into the framework in detail. Here, we get you started with an overview of the pathways:

  1. Leadership Standards
  2. A Culture for Implementation 
  3. Guided-Learning Experiences
  4. Mastery Experiences

1. Leadership Standards. Professional practice standards provide a common language for any professional development work. By linking an aspiring leader’s growth plan to established leadership standards, the person can focus on the competencies with greater confidence that they are on a clear path to successful school leadership.

2. A Culture for Implementation. A community that fosters leadership development will have dramatic impacts on leadership experiences. For this to occur, principals must see themselves as trust brokers and builders of hope. Gone are the days of top-down management merely saying, “Come on up, the view’s great from up here!” Instead, principals need to continually steady the ladder to let the team climb. They do so with a side-by-side mentoring model. Not unlike a good friendship, mentoring involves seeing where someone is, knowing how to talk with them, and getting a bead on the feel of their environment. It also involves:

  • Active listening—ask, What am I hearing? From meetings to hallway chats to the buzz amidst students and families, what am I sensing? What do I need to address? 
  • Determining the skill, will and thrill of each staff member—their prior knowledge, their perseverance, what especially motivates them.

3. Guided-Learning Experiences. The Gradual Release of Responsibility Model (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983) is the spine of effective teaching and learning for students. So why wouldn’t we use it in leadership training? Our graduated model of guided-learning experiences takes aspiring leaders from less challenging experiences to more complex responsibilities. And built into the model is the expectation that the novice will stumble, maybe even fail, and that is a valued part of learning to be a leader. Feedback and ongoing open, honest dialogue are woven into these guided-learning experiences. 

4. Mastery Experiences. Aspiring leaders know by doing in situations where they fully take on a more complex aspect of leading. These mastery experiences are generative. As leaders, we must both clear the way for these experiences to occur, and we must be able to determine when a trainee has achieved mastery. We can help develop efficacious “master” leaders by exploring key responsibilities of leadership mastery:

  • Providing mastery experiences (increasing skill, will, and thrill);
  • Giving and receiving feedback;
  • Knowing when mastery is achieved (expert noticing); and
  • Celebrating the mastery experiences (realizing greater capacity)

The future of our school leadership depends on our aspiring leaders’ abilities to realize mastery. These four pathways provide an organic way to ensure more talent ascends to principalship and beyond. And they create a system of success in that each pathway is bricked with a strong theory and research foundation. 

To learn more about the pathways to principalship, watch the full episode of Literacy Matters with Tim Cusack and Vince Bustamante.

About the authors

Vince Bustamante, M.Ed., is a Calgary-based instructional coach, curriculum content developer, and author. Formerly focused on school improvement, Vince now specializes in working with teachers, leadership teams, schools, and school districts in implementing high-impact strategies and systems. With a strong background in assessment and deep learning experiences, he is passionate about understanding and evaluating teachers' impact. Having worked with schools and school districts across North America and Internationally, he brings a wide variety of experience and perspectives when looking at school improvement, pedagogical and leadership development, and implementation of high-impact strategies across school environments. Vince is currently pursuing his Ed. Doctorate with a focus on the sustainable implementation of professional learning across school districts. Vince has co-authored two bestselling books with Corwin Press: Great Teaching by Design and The Assessment Playbook for Distance and Blended Learning. His most current title, Leader Ready: Four Pathways to Prepare Aspiring School Leaders, is also available from Corwin Press. You can find more information about Vince at: