Principals as Instructional Leaders–Again and Again

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.


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14 responses to “Principals as Instructional Leaders–Again and Again

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Principals as Instructional Leaders–Again and Again | Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice --

  2. This is an intriguing one Larry and maybe a cultural one. I spent 20 years in the classroom in UK and in that period worked for 6 Heads (principals) and not once did any one of them, ever see me teach, nor, I believe, did they ever feel the need to.

    Isn’t the core problem here that in many schools, the standard of teaching is such that many teachers do not deliver a high standard of teaching unless they are monitored. But isn’t that monitoring done much more effectively and efficiently (as you say, do the math) at departmental or faculty level, than by principals?

    • larrycuban

      Dear Joe,
      There might be cross-national differences here on the problem that you identified and its solution: “the standard of teaching is such that many teachers do not deliver a high standard of teaching unless they are monitored. But isn’t that monitoring done much more effectively and efficiently (as you say, do the math) at departmental or faculty level, than by principals?”

      I am sure that there is some connection between the expectation of regular monitoring and quality of teaching, particularly if the monitoring is linked to a judgment by the head/principal on the quality of teaching at some point during the school year. I think the larger issue, however, is the variation in teaching quality and the lack of common standards about what is “good” and what is “successful” teaching. Were frequent mini-observations and discussions between teacher and principal to occur a Kim Marshall and others strongly recommend. Norms of “good” and “successful” teaching would be shared and made explicit.

      Now, as to who does the monitoring, in the U.S. it is the commonly the principal in elementary schools and principal and assistant principals in secondary schools. As public schools, teacher unions, and administrative norms evolved historically, teachers do not evaluate other teachers (except in special circumstances). So department heads who are generally teachers in U.S. secondary schools or other teachers are not part of the monitoring process except, again, in those circumstances where collective bargaining contracts allow such support and evaluation. Thanks for the comment.

  3. I hope that no one becomes a principal in order to see to it that the building is kept clean, that paperwork is completed effeciently, that angry parents are placated, or that the school is well-represented in the district political scene. I hope that people become school leaders in order improve instruction.

    Unfortunately, that’s not what I’ve seen, in terms of what the job actually demands and allows. None of the principals I’ve worked for (5 in the last 11 years, at 3 schools) have really been instructional leaders. One came close, sometimes; two three didn’t seem to care; and one seems unaware that it ought to be a priority. It blows me away…no other way to put it. What is the most singular purpose of a school? What, then, ought to be the top priority of a school leader? Shoudn’t it be to facilitate that purpose? And yet that’s not the norm.

    All this talk of school change isn’t going to amount to much beyond just talk without some serious cultural changes in what we expect of our principals.

  4. Being the Principal of a large, comprehensive dual-track high school is the greatest job that I have ever had. I get the chance to be with students and teachers in a variety of capacities, including being an instructional leader each day. What might be instructive is to actually define what it is that we mean as an instructional leader, and to my mind, that does not necessarily equate to “being in classrooms”. While this is a part of it, I would guess that we all know administrators who are in classes regularly who would not be considered by their teachers as “instructional leaders”.

    Sometimes, being an instructional leader means having a critical conversation with a teacher about an assessment methodology. It might mean providing articles to your staff about promising instructional practices. It could mean examining your faculty meetings to make them a better use of the intelligent minds than just pouring items of information on to them. It can take the form of creating collaborative time for your teachers to work on the craft of instruction. It can be creating an intervention program that is aimed at improving the success of your most struggling learners. It can take many other forms than this, as we all know. If we choose to get bogged down in the number of classes we don’t get to, we are truly going to find ourselves running up the down escalator.

    A while ago, Chris Kennedy (@chrkennedy) told a story of two superintendents meeting and one talking about how busy and overworked they were. The other one looked at him and said “Your choice.” and walked away. I think that if we make instructional leadership into the priority that it is, and recognize that there are many forms of instructional leadership (which we all do, of course), then we can choose to be instructional leaders, and choose to remember that we have one of the greatest jobs on earth. The converse is that we can vocalize how busy we are, how challenging our jobs are, how we have more things heaped upon us, and no time for any of it.

    I choose to think that my job is the greatest on earth. And if I thought it was too difficult or time-consuming, I would choose to do something else.
    And I would advise anyone who thinks that the job of being a Principal is too much, they should do something else: then their students and teachers can work with someone who thinks that the Principalship IS the greatest job on earth.

    Just one person’s thoughts.

  5. But what would happen if the top priority of the principal were this:

    Enable and empower teachers to be the best providers of instruction possible.


    Every moment, every day, every decision based on that mission. Wouldn’t that be cool?
    The gentleman from the UK makes a well-taken point: all the “monitoring” implies that the principal has unique/better knowledge than the teacher. If that’s true, get back in the classroom. If not, take a look at your own leadership/management practices and ask — am I doing everything possible to enable that teacher to max out their classroom?

  6. After reading your post I actually found myself feeling rather lucky. My principal is a true instructional leader in my building. Her presence in the classroom is known and kids actually know who she is, which is not the norm. While she is pulled out for meetings, she is always trying to push the building forward with new ideas for improving learning of the kids. Her focus is always on the learning of the kids and everything else is secondary. I truly am lucky and I know it!

  7. Cal

    I don’t trust principals. It’s nothing personal. But if there’s one thing that barely surviving Stanford’s ed school taught me (or rather, reinforced a belief for me), it’s that political/social ideology is deeply, inextricably linked with educational philosophy–and thus, teacher assessment. And I’ve never met a principal who didn’t hold strong ideological beliefs that informed their opinions about a teacher’s effectiveness.

    Besides, how many principals are effective at instruction? Leave them out of it–let them be CEOs and managers. Teacher assessment should be done at the district level. That would also prevent principals misusing their power.

    • David B. Cohen

      Hello Cal,
      You raise an interesting point about bias, but I’m not sure that a district level evaluator is any better by virtue of being from the district. It’s a matter of training evaluators, and making sure that evaluators and teachers are working from mutually understood and respected standards. That can be accomplished by district staff, site administrators, and even fellow teachers.
      I’m a high school English teacher in an unusual public school where, by longstanding agreement with the district, most secondary level teachers (“tenured” ones at least) are evaluated by a peer, the equivalent of a department chair. These teachers are trained to be effective evaluators, and the teachers in our district generally prefer this model, due to the colleague’s higher degree of content knowledge. Novel idea, eh? The evaluator should know how to teach that subject to that grade level. I don’t mean to suggest that other folks can’t provide excellent evaluation, but rather that, all else being equal, that alignment of content knowledge is beneficial. Furthermore, there’s a level of trust with someone you know and who knows your context well.
      No approach is perfect of course. Anyone can see that a colleague’s evaluation might be biased, too. Of course, that potential problem arises at any level. Perhaps the best way to mitigate is to have multiple observers/evaluators, or some external validation. Here’s an example: the state of New Mexico has created a 3-tiered teacher license, and to reach the top level, a “master teacher” or something like that, an applicant must submit a portfolio of sorts (National Board style) to an outside evaluator with no connection to the teacher or school, and receive a recommendation from a local administrator. Expensive? Probably. We’ll get what we pay for, though.

      • larrycuban

        The comments of Cal and David reminded me of the deep-seated differences that exist around supporting and evaluating teachers. Cal’s straightforward belief about principals having their own ideological ax to grind and David’s alternative of peer evaluation illustrate again the inherent dilemma facing all supervisors in educational and non-educational settings: you want to support an employee’s improvement but you have to judge their performance. Both are prized values and both conflict.

        Peer evaluation–also advanced by the American Federation of Teachers in Toledo and other cities decades ago–tries to finesse the dilemma. In teacher-run schools around the country, that kind of evaluation exists. But it remain exceptional. From Kim Marshall’s model to the high school in which David teaches, various leaders have sought ways around that inherent dilemma of supervision/evaluation.

        Yet Cal’s position on principals–regardless of whether they are instructional leaders, managers, or politicians–is shared by a certain percentage of teachers, what proportion I do not know.

  8. You really must listen to episode 116, The Invisible Hand Podcast with host, Chris Gondek’s interview with Phil Rosensweig about his work on Robert McNamara. It resonates with me because it seems to relate to understanding the focus on data that obsesses institutions today.

    Even when a principal is a good manager & leader, the institutional pressures of management practice embodied in federal legislation are enough to affect schools badly in ways that are not measured. The same goes for teacher measurement.

    Finally, saying measurement obsession is good because it is the least bad of several worse alternatives is a dysfunctional explanation. Whether is deserves respectful debate is up to you.

  9. maria

    plz can i know some working norms whereby a principal and teacher can be evaluated…….. thanks

    • larrycuban

      I would be glad to help out but I need to know more about the context for evaluating principal and teacher. There are all kinds of norms for evaluation now and they are in flux as systems are changing, particularly with the emphasis on student performance as a factor in evaluating principals and teachers.

  10. Pingback: ‘Network routers’: a new proposal to put education research into practice

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