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Power of the principal in schools

How to devote more time and energy to instructional leadership
  • INVESTING IN INSTRUCTION—Central office support plays a key role as Principal Kirstin Girard works to reach student learning goals at Dakota Prairie Elementary school in Brookings, South Dakota.
  • TEAMS SAVE TIME—First-year principal Tim Riordan, left, relies on his staff to handle most behavioral issues, to schedule parent meetings and to arrange for substitutes. This allows him to devote more time to instructional leadership at Hawthorne Elementary School near Chicago.

Shawn Stover helps principals move beyond what he calls “the tyranny of the urgent.” Stover, an instructional superintendent in District of Columbia Public Schools, says it’s all too easy for principals to devote the bulk of their days to busing, athletic schedules, discipline, building maintenance and other issues that can demand immediate attention.

Yet mounds of research has shown that principals’ most important contributions to their schools come in the realm of instructional leadership, which, according to ASCD, includes “sustaining a school vision, sharing leadership, leading a learning community, using data to make instructional decisions, and monitoring curriculum and instruction.”

Leadership, in fact, is strongly correlated with student achievement, and is second only to classroom instruction in its effect on student outcomes.

Stover, therefore, holds monthly group meetings with the 12 to 14 principals he supervises. He encourages them to engage in instructional leadership activities such as observing classrooms in one another’s schools, and sharing effective teaching and learning methods. Stover also schedules weekly calendar review sessions with new principals.

“They show me what they have planned for the coming week, and it’s a great opportunity for me to ask questions like, ‘Why are you doing this? How does this connect to your larger goals?’”

Managing time wisely

Many principals “invariably schedule their day fully, and that does not ever work,” Stover says. So he urges principals to look for trends and assess data.

A careful calendar review, for instance, may reveal that principals shouldn’t schedule meetings between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., because that’s when their attention is often demanded by students, parents and teachers. This time might be better spent intentionally developing these relationships.

A calendar review can also reveal the extent to which a principal is devoting time to stated priorities.

“If they feel having a strong literacy program is a key lever to success, we look at what portion of their day or week is spent on that priority,” Stover says. “When they see that data, it often spurs them to think about how to distribute tasks and set up systems to handle urgent but unimportant things.”

Stover’s strategies have helped Bunker Hill Elementary School Principal Kara Kuchemba develop as an instructional leader. Kuchemba, a third-year principal, now takes frequent two-hour tours of classrooms with her instructional leadership team.

“We’re typically able to see all of our K5 classroom teachers in one go-round,” Kuchemba says. “We spend about 10 minutes in each room, and then debrief and email feedback to teachers within an hour of us visiting.”

Staying goal-oriented

Some schools—including a handful of District of Columbia public schools—now have directors of operations and logistics to handle things like maintenance, procurement and security, but such arrangements are still uncommon—especially in elementary schools, rural areas and smaller districts.

That makes superintendent support essential to principals’ success.

“Supporting instructional leadership begins with district-level leadership,” says Klint Willert, superintendent of Brookings School District in South Dakota. His district’s strategic plan sets key academic goals, including the desired number of students graduating on time and reading at grade level.

Principals must create school improvement plans that include specific actions they will undertake to achieve district goals. Principals then guide teachers through the development and implementation of classroom-level benchmarks.

Importantly, the district devoted time and resources to help principals develop the skills necessary to serve as effective instructional leaders. “We’ve invested in training for staff around professional learning communities, and we’ve invested in staff development around very specific student learning targets,” Willert says.

Such training prepares principals to provide more effective feedback to teachers, and may also include research-based strategies to, for instance, build students’ literacy skills.

Brookings also has a central office support team that assists principals with the rollout of new processes (such as teacher assessments) and provides ongoing logistical assistance, so building principals don’t have to handle everything in-house.

“Creating structures that reinforce and support the role of the principal as an instructional leader” is crucial not only to the academic achievement and success of students and schools, but to principal retention, Willert says.

Sharing building leadership

Trying to find a healthy balance between instructional leadership and a principal’s managerial responsibilities is a challenge for all principals, says Brian Partin, who’s on leave from a principalship in Kingsport City Schools in Tennessee while serving as president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

Sharing leadership responsibilities with teachers and other administrative staff is essential, “to make sure you’re able to address the management pieces and spend significant time in classrooms without sacrificing other key areas of your life, such as your family,” says Partin.

Tim Riordan, a first-year principal at Hawthorne Elementary School in the Chicago suburbs, says his teachers and a social worker handle the bulk of student behavioral issues. His secretary and assistant secretary schedule all principal-parent meetings, and the assistant secretary “solves my sub shortage situations,” Riordan says.

Marcus Jackson, an education consultant in Georgia and former principal, recommends a distributive leadership model to build staff capacity.

When he served as principal, every staff member in his school joined one of four teams. The curriculum team, for instance, was responsible for suggesting and implementing programs to support acceleration and remediation, while the operations/logistics team managed safety and other procedures.

The achievement team monitored the school improvement plan while also assisting with teacher orientation and student mentoring.

Finally, Jackson’s “highly functioning team” organized peer evaluations and developed programs to maintain high staff morale. He used the new-found free time to schedule classroom observations and team teaching, and to model lessons.

“You are an instructional leader first,” Jackson says. “Everything else comes behind that.”


Jennifer Fink is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin.