Everyone wants to go to heaven but no one wants to die. Everyone wants principals to be instructional leaders but no one wants to take away anything from the principals’ job.
Like superintendents and teachers, principals are expected to instruct, manage, and politick to be effective leaders. Because principals, like teachers and superintendents, have limited hours and energy (e.g., spending time with family, friends, sleep, exercise, reading–need I go on?), they face tensions over what they should choose to do each day. Thus, choices become compromises to ease tensions entangled in their teaching, managing, and politicking roles.
Most principals are passionate about being an instructional leader. Yet, they admit privately and in workshops I have led that they spend most of their time on managerial tasks. To be an instructional leader, however, principals must spend large chunks of their time in classrooms, working to both support and evaluate teachers. Current reform talk makes that choice even harder.
Calls for principals to be CEOs can be heard from superintendents, pundits, and others who couldn’t last a week heading a preschool center. Tensions between managerial and instructional duties of principals never go away. Seldom mentioned are important political tasks in working with parents, mobilizing teachers, dealing with community social service agencies, police, etc. What does change are expectations of principals–today CEOs, tomorrow political actors in school community, the following week, instructional leaders.
Here’s one example. A teacher union leader in a California school district recently published “The Principal’s Dilemma” She pointed out how few times she was observed in her classroom yet received satisfactory ratings. Even worse, she said was the absence of any discussion with the principal about what happened in her classroom. “Just like teachers,” she wrote, principals “are overworked and the demands on their time too often makes it very difficult for them to help teachers, struggling or not.” An elementary school principal in Pennsylvania replied to the teacher’s lament by saying that he makes “82 separate contacts with new teachers in their first three years on the job.” Like so many other principals, this one says:
“At a school, a principal is the manager, the instructional leader, and the supervisor. These titles do not include other roles—such as disciplinarian, public relations coordinator, police and community liaison—that don’t fit into pre-defined categories…. We must also create a learning environment that makes teachers say, ‘I love to come to work!’ “
In the face of all of these time demands and choices that principals must make, most principals want to be instructional leaders. Their main tools are spending time in classrooms supporting and supervising teachers, school-site professional development, and face-to-face conversations about curriculum and lessons.
But just getting into enough teachers’ classrooms to get an accurate sample of their work is nearly impossisble. Do the arithmetic. Take a middle-size secondary school with 50 teachers. Each teacher delivers five lessons a day. Multiplied by five days, 25 lessons a week. Multiply that for 36 weeks of a school year and you have 900 lessons for each teacher. Then multiply 900 lessons for 50 teachers and, yep, 45,000 lessons. Typical elementary schools tend to be smaller so let’s say around 30,000 lessons a year. How much must a principal see in classrooms to make a judgment? Clearly, once or twice a year is insufficient. Maybe 82 for new teachers over three years is enough. But what about tenured teachers?
A few principals and former principals who have been instructional leaders offer blueprints for what to do. Take Kim Marshall’s Rethinking Teacher Supervision and Evaluation (2009). (Full disclosure: I wrote a blurb for the book). In this book, Marshall makes a passionate and coherent argument that most principals can be instructional leaders. They get into classrooms often, know their teachers well, and lead the school community to higher achievement.
Marshall’s model hinges upon principals and teachers having a shared understanding of what “good” teaching is. The principal uses unannounced mini-observations to see typical teaching in action. The model requires the principal to recall key points from mini-observations and give teachers individual feedback on what worked and what needs to be improved. Teachers need to understand the principal’s feedback and then use it to improve classroom practice. The model assumes that as classroom practice improves, the likelihood of student achievement improving increases (pp. 203-204).
Marshall was an extraordinary principal at the Mather Elementary School in Dorchester, Boston. His model of principal instructional leadership is promising because it has been tested over 15 years at Mather. Most principals, however, have to develop the skills, as Marshall did over time, and put them into practice gradually. That is a major undertaking but will not, as promising as his model is, dissolve the tensions arising from the conflicts in carrying out managerial, political, and instructional roles.
Everyone wants principals to be instructional leaders but no one wants to take away anything from the principals’ job.