School leadership matters, and though it can come from different sources and be distributed across the organization, we know that school administrators are essential for creating a school vision, supporting high-quality teaching and learning, developing educator capacity, fostering a strong culture, and driving improvement. Over the past few decades, thousands of articles and books have been written on the essential elements and practices of effective instructional leadership.

And, seemingly overnight, the context of all that research changed. The old reality of managing brick and mortar schools evaporated, perhaps for weeks. Perhaps for months. School leaders are now being asked to both guide their faculties and students to a new form of learning while also figuring out what it means to be a leader of distance or online learning.

Luckily, virtual schools have existed in the United States for three decades. Interviews with online and virtual school leaders and published scholarship suggest that much that we know about leadership in traditional school settings is relevant to our new world. In addition, distance learning presents unique opportunities and challenges as principals try to manage their “school.”

Click to view a table that outlines some of the broad categories of leader work that current virtual principals and scholars identify. As you will notice, the categories are not mutually exclusive; they overlap in important ways. In addition to the categories, there are also ideas to consider and tools to try on.

Richard W. Lemons, EdD
Executive Director, CT Center for School Change