The Listening School Leader and Successful Schools

Nov 25, 2019 by

There are many skills required of a school leader. One that is frequently overlooked is their ability to listen. Research indicates that one way to be an effective leader is to be better at listening.

The role of school leaders has evolved to no longer be solely ‘facilitators’ or managers rather, they are now leaders. They are expected to set goals for teachers and students and enable them to achieve these. A particular style of leadership is now valued in the education sector and that is the democratic style of leadership. School principals and others in positions of authority are now expected to allow all stakeholders to have a ‘voice’.

Deep Dialogue

Dialogue is now seen as essential for a school leader. It can provide a leader with the feedback that the need to cultivate certain strategies. Dialogue can result in new teaching strategies being develop. It is a way of empowering staff members to achieve certain targets. Consulting with the school community, families, and community stakeholders can provide insights that allow for the development of more effective policies and procedures. In general, dialogue results in the educational and other needs of the student being met. Reaching out to the community and students is an integral part of effective school leadership.

The Art of Listening

Traditionally school leaders simply gave orders and were not receptive to feedback and concentrated on the test-punish model. If a school leader engages with stakeholders, including students they need to listen. It is important that they are a listening leader. This is something that had not been traditionally associated with those in a position of authority in education. Deep listening is the ability to understand the significance of a conversation or statement. It means understanding the full meaning, its inferences, and its implications. Above all listening results in more effective change and implementation of policies. It requires listening to move the school forward.

Why Listen

Good listening skills allow leaders to understand stakeholders and to identify what needs changing and what is beneficial to the school. Listening allows schools to become more equal as all stakeholders, even traditionally marginalized minorities. It helps a leader to monitor change and its success or failure. For example, it can result in a leader learning early that a new policy on discipline is not effective. Or that a teacher is trying a new pedagogy in the classroom.

Leaders with listening skills can build a culture that is based on progressive values such as tolerance and inclusivity.

Those who heed students and other stakeholders can reimagine data and develop great classroom strategies. This is because they are in touch with the needs of students in particular.

Those who listen to stakeholders are able to adapt to the future, for example, they can make adjustments to budgets based on feedback from teachers.

If a stakeholder believes that they are been listened to, they are more likely to be motivated to work for the goals of the school and thereby help in continuous school improvement.

Learn to Listen

Active or deep listening is a powerful tool that can make a leader even better. These skills can demonstrate that a person in a position of authority can show attentiveness and prevent misunderstanding. Active listeners are able to free the mind of their own thoughts. They are relaxed and attentive and committed to listening in a respectful way. Active listeners are able to suspend judgment, even though this can be a challenge, as we all have innate biases. This can help the leader to win the trust of their staff and students.

Learning to Listen

To achieve active listening, a leader needs to be able to:

  1. Question someone: this indicates that the principal is not only listening but interested in what they have said. Be sure to ask inclusive questions that make the speaker feel appreciated.
  2. Be sympathetic: show that you respect the interlocutor.
  3. Use non-verbal clues and body-language: this encourages a speaker to be frank and open.
  4. Create situations: where people can speak such as meetings and school wide ‘townhall’ sessions.
  5. Learn Silence: above all practice being silent so as to give the speaker all the time they require.

In order to improve your listening skills, a number of toolkits are available such as the Leadership Toolkit that allows a leader to reflect upon and improve their ability to listen.

Appropriate Response

Deep listening can be characterised as not only taking in information but also showing that a speaker has been heeded. This means the ability to relate back to the person what has been said and demonstrating appreciation for their input. This can help a leader to win the confidence and support of the various stakeholders.


Listening leader, active listening, deep listening, effective leaders, listening skills


What are the challenges that prevent a school leader from being a good listener? How can these challenges be overcome?


Beall, M. L., Gill-Rosier, J., Tate, J., & Matten, A. (2008). State of the context: Listening in education. The International Journal of Listening, 22(2), 123-132. Retrieved from

Bryk, A. S., & Schneider, B. (2003). Trust in schools: A core resource for school reform. Educational Leadership, 60(6), 40-45. Retrieved from

Glover, B. (2007). Real Principals Listen. Teachers as Leaders. 65 (1), Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, pp 16-21. Retrieved from

Safir Shane, A. (2017) Learning to Listen Lifting School Leaders 8 (7). Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, pp 60-63. Retrieved from

Tate, J. S. (2003). School Leaders and the Strategic Impact of Listening. Retrieved from

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