Zuckerman and O’Shea examine how mental models shape school leadership

Dr. Sarah Zuckerman

Zuckerman and O’Shea examine how mental models shape school leadership

23 Jun 2021    

Sarah J. Zuckerman and Cailen O’Shea


What does it mean to be a good school leader?

As part of their research for the Nebraska Department of Education, Drs. Sarah J. Zuckerman of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Cailen O’Shea of North Dakota State University (UNL, Ph.D., 2020) sought to examine how principals’ mental models of what it means to be a“good leader,” might inform their selection and implementation of instructional leadership strategies. Their study, published in the Journal of School Leadership, “Principals’ Schema: Leadership Philosophies and Instructional Leadership,” identified five mental models, or schema: relational leadership, leading by example, distributed leadership, servant leadership, and facilitative leadership. The researchers found that most principals described utilizing at least two of these mental models, suggesting that school leaders draw on multiple schemas in carrying out their leadership tasks.

Despite this variety of leadership schema, principals reported using similar instructional leadership strategies. However, their schema appeared to influence how they carry out their tasks and what they focused on. For example, relational leaders tend to focus on preserving positive relationships with teachers during feedback.

“The big takeaway was that it isn't just instructional leadership practices, but how they are done," Zuckerman said. “The study raised questions about the need for a deeper understanding of these qualitative differences and about where messages come from that shape leaders’ mental models.”

She continued, “This study raises questions about our own roles as faculty in crafting messages about good leadership, whether they are consistent throughout principals’ preservice training, and how our programs contribute to school leaders’ schema in ways that influence student achievement. Likewise, this study suggests a need to collectively craft coherence in messages to principals about leadership and expectations for high-quality school leadership in ways that support instructional leadership to increase the impact of our efforts at improving principal practice as a lever for student achievement.”

Sarah J. Zuckerman, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in educational administration at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Her research uses qualitative methods to investigate state-level educational policy implementation and school-community partnerships, particularly in the context of rural communities. She’s on Twitter @DrSZuckerman.

Cailen O’Shea, Ph.D., is a 2020 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an assistant professor of educational leadership and higher education at North Dakota State University. Follow him on Twitter @COShea44. His research focuses on principal leadership and innovation of instruction.

Educational Administration