Voices in Education

First Things First: Being an Instructional Leader
Not long ago, principals were simply expected to be administrators.

No one should think that “simply” implies that administering a school well is in any way simple or easy. It means managing the building, which includes budgets, schedules, staff, students, food service, transportation, and parent communication; it also means handling discipline, preventing and managing crises, and, at the secondary school level, running a sports and extracurricular program. There’s plenty on that list to keep anyone busy without ever touching the instructional core of a school. It is no wonder that a highly lauded retired principal recently said, “It never once occurred to me that it was my job to increase student achievement.”

But the days of simply administering a school are gone; today, principals are expected to lead academic improvement in their schools.

Even if that’s the new reality, it is taking a while for the field to catch up. Just recently we heard about a teacher who was attracted to a principal preparation program by the idea that he could affect the education of more children than is possible for a single teacher. Experienced principals mentoring him, however, told him that 80 percent of the job is pure administration; he found that discouraging enough to wonder whether he made the right decision to pursue administrative credentials. Putting the best face on it, the old hands are trying to help their young colleague from having his hopes dashed by alerting him to the way the job has worked for them. But they also exemplify how old realities clash with new expectations.

It’s Being Done principals provide a striking counterexample, both in how they think about the job and what they do with it.

It’s Being Done leaders define themselves primarily as instructional leaders. The management responsibilities of a principal never go away, but these high performing principals see their core job as ensuring that each and every student is learning a great deal, which means they spend the bulk of their time and energy on making sure students have rich, coherent instruction with deep intellectual challenges, a school atmosphere conducive to teaching and learning, and excellent teachers. They work hard not to allow their administrative responsibilities to distract them from those central tasks. In fact, they go further, working to ensure that the management functions they are responsible for support their instructional role. As Gary Brittingham, the former principal of East Millsboro Elementary, said: “I was the instructional leader first, closely followed by school manager. The two are so closely related that it is hard to separate.”

To understand why It’s Being Done principals are so adamant about their instructional role, it is helpful to remember that they see education as a path out of poverty and isolation and believe deeply that it is the job of schools to teach all kids—even the most impoverished and isolated—to high levels.

This post is excerpted from Getting It Done: Leading Academic Success in Unexpected Schools by Karin Chenoweth and Christina Theokas (Harvard Education Press, 2011).

About the Author: Karin Chenoweth is writer-in-residence at The Education Trust. Christina Theokas is director of research at The Education Trust. They are the authors of Getting It Done: Leading Academic Success in Unexpected Schools (Harvard Education Press, 2011).