Letting Go: How Principals Can Be Better Instructional Leaders

Early one Monday morning in the fall of 2008, I found myself in the office of a middle school principal—a location less frequented now, but still familiar. In the 13 years before I began teaching educational leadership courses at the university level, I was a school and district administrator.

That day, I reported to the principal’s office as a data collector for the School Administration Manager (SAM) program. For the next five days, I would shadow the principal and code his behavior in five-minute intervals for the entire time he was in the building. If the principal began his day at 6:00 a.m. and ended it at 9:00 p.m., I would be there.

During the past year, the principal had worked closely with a school administration manager employed by the district to take over many of the administrator’s management tasks, allowing the principal to focus on curriculum, instruction, and assessment—to be a true instructional leader. The principal and the SAM serve as a complementary administrative team in this school of approximately 50 faculty and staff and more than 500 students.

My goal was to get as accurate a picture as possible of the middle school principal’s use of time—how much of it was devoted to management or instructional activities—and how successful the SAM program had been in focusing school leaders on instruction rather than management.

Meet SAM

Begun in 2002 in Louisville, Kentucky, as the Alternative School Administration Study (ASAS), and supported by the Wallace Foundation, the SAM program was designed to examine the use of principal time and the conditions that prevented school leaders from making instructional leadership their priority. It also helped principals restructure their roles, reorganize their work day, and work more effectively and efficiently with teachers, students, and parents on instructional issues.

During my week as a data collector for the SAM program, I coded the principal’s behavior into two main leadership categories: instruction and management. In addition, I noted specific activities within each of the two categories and types of interactions such as working with a computer, using a telephone, and meeting with an individual or a group.

In the end, results showed that four key elements helped make the SAM program effective in this school:

1. The principal was able to spend his time working with teachers and students on curriculum and instruction.
This principal’s day was long, fast-paced, and unpredictable, but the day’s work was focused on instruction. After one year of working with the SAM, he devoted about 40%–60% of each day to instruction. In fact, the principal taught a careers class to all sections of sixth, seventh, and eighth graders while modeling instructional strategies for his teachers.

He observed classroom instruction, performed walk-throughs, worked with students one-on-one, and provided instructional feedback to teachers. He conferred with individual faculty and met with grade-level and interdisciplinary teams to discuss assessments, celebrate student growth, and interpret students’ performances.

The principal also served as a mentor to students, meeting with them to review their personal learning plans and discuss their test scores, grades, and plans for the future.

This middle grades principal was visible in the classrooms and hallways, but more important, he engaged in conversations that were student-centered, developmentally appropriate, and focused on instruction. The culture in this building was safe, supportive, caring, and attentive to the needs of children and adults with high expectations for every individual.

2. The relationship between the SAM and the principal was collegial and collaborative.
The SAM and the principal met for several minutes within the first hour of every morning to review the previous day’s activities, reflecting on how the principal had spent his time. They conferred about student, parent, or staff situations. Their conversation also included a preview of the day’s events and the principal’s schedule.

3. The SAM was knowledgeable, adept at decision making, and trusted by students, staff, and parents.
The SAM’s role was critical to managing the day-to-day operations of the school and decreasing the time the principal spent in these areas. The SAM performed the majority of student and staff supervisory and disciplinary responsibilities, supervised the lunchroom and afternoon bus lines, talked with students throughout the day regarding questions or minor infractions, and met with parents and staff in response to problems or concerns.

4. The principal gave up some administrative power because he believed in this strategy.
A trusting relationship between the SAM and the principal set the tone for the entire learning environment. The principal gave up some of his decision-making authority, allowing the SAM to take ownership of many decisions, which gave the SAM credibility and promoted his ability to forge stronger relationships among the faculty, staff, students, and parents.

Giving up power is not always easy for principals. The principal and the SAM deemed the principal’s use of instructional time a priority, and clearly this principal could not have been as involved with classroom instruction without the SAM’s ability to respond to the daily operational and supervisory tasks.

Collaboration for Success

Typically, the life of a principal is characterized by long hours, a frenetic pace of increasing responsibilities, and activities that too frequently are management related. The job may easily extend to 80 hours per week, according to the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the National Association of Elementary School Principals, but Elliot Eisner, in his April 2002 article in Phi Delta Kappan, reports that principals are spending less than one-third of this time on curriculum and instructional activities.

After spending five days shadowing the principal, I am convinced that freeing the principal of some of the managerial tasks allowed him to concentrate on student learning and other instructional aspects of middle school. The principals’ day will continue to be demanding, but a program or strategy like the School Administration Manager can change the use of their time and help them focus on instruction.

The shadow knows: Time does not have to be a barrier to collaborative, instructional leadership.

Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, August 2010

Jan Walker, an associate professor of educational leadership at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, is a former elementary school principal, K–8 principal, and director of curriculum. E-mail: jan.walker@drake.edu