Leading the Future

New master's in educational leadership aims to create transformative leaders

August 2, 2010

What’s the difference between a leader and a manager? What makes a school successful? Students in the inaugural class of the University of Richmond's new master's program in educational leadership and policy are learning firsthand the answers to these questions.

This interdisciplinary program combines the resources of the School of Continuing Studies with the Jepson School of Leadership Studies. The result is a unique emphasis on leadership theory and its practical application not often found in similar graduate-level programs.

"In the field of education, the thinking is changing so that we're thinking more about creating school leaders rather than managers," says Dr. Thomas Shields, director for the Center for Leadership in Education. It's an important distinction.

Shields explains that managers are transactional, while leaders are transformational. "A manager is someone who will make sure the buses show up on time, and that the bells will ring," he says. A school leader, however, is someone who has a transformative vision for the future of the school.

"Most people go into school leadership to be transformative," he says. "We want someone who wants to look beyond the stat-prescribed standards to take their school to the next level."

Graduates of the program are qualified to get an endorsement from the state Department of Education to be a school principal. For those who already have a master's degree in another field, the university also offers a graduate certificate in educational leadership and policy studies.

The program's courses include: educational leadership studies, leading and supervising instruction, school law and ethics, leadership and school culture, and others. Each core course requires an outside practicum. The program also includes a reflective leadership course, where students experience many of the real-life situations that school leaders encounter.

Catherine McGehee, director of the Upper School at St. Catherine's, an all-girls independent school in Richmond, was attracted to the program because of its emphasis on leadership theory. "There is no question it has already made me look at efficiency within my school and look at how we interact as a school," she says.

While McGehee is interested in improving her own leadership skills, she also looks forward to sharing what she has learned with her students. "Part of our mission [at St. Catherine's] is teaching young women to become leaders," she says. "There is a direct application for me."

Randy Wright, R'77, has been a middle school physics teacher in Hanover County, Va., for the past 20 years. He enrolled in the educational leadership program so that he can become a school principal.

"I have looked at a lot of programs, and this was by far the most appealing," he says. "I wanted a program that put an emphasis on leading and vision and the idea of bringing people together and working towards goals, and not just tasks."

Wright has especially enjoyed the diversity of experience found amongst the program's 12-member cohort, which includes teachers and administrators at both public and private schools of all grade levels.

"The program combines lots of philosophy with lots of practical thinking," he says. "The combination of books, teachers and students really melds together well."

Shields says the cohort is small by design so that students can receive one-on-one attention. Local school principals and administrators serve as leadership supervisors to help coach students through their required practicums.

McGehee, who considered enrolling in a distance-learning program, says one of the best things about the program is the networking opportunities it provides. "[The program] has introduced me to a variety of different positions in the city and in the region," she says. "It is very appealing to me both professionally and personally."

Students are required to gain experience working in a school that is different from their own. An elementary-school teacher might spend time in a middle or high school; an independent school administrator such as McGehee would be required to experience a public school.

"Theory is important, but at the end of the day we need to produce leaders who can go out and head up a school," Shields says. "Practical leadership knowledge is really key."