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Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and independent consultant, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com.

Education Opinion

What is the Biggest Barrier to Achieving Instructional Leadership?

By Peter DeWitt — February 18, 2018 5 min read

The goal for principals is to spend a majority of their time in the role of instructional leader, and help those around them reach their full potential. That should always be the goal. However, there are so many facets to leadership that those same principals have to be in the role of manager as well. After all, if a school boiler is down in the middle of winter and it’s 20 degrees outside, the principal in charge has to deal with that before they can continue going into classrooms to focus on learning.

Management happens.

We know that leadership is complicated because each day brings a new challenge. According to the Organisation for Economic and Co-Operational Development (OECD. 2008):


  • More and more tasks have been added to school leaders’ workload.
  • Most of the leadership tasks are carried out by one individual
  • Insufficient preparation and training

That list may seem daunting, especially if principals feel that they have to accomplish that list all on their own. It probably explains why this Henchinger Report states that more than half of principals leave the position after five years in the role. It’s unfortunate that these principals may lack the self-efficacy (Bandura) to accomplish all of the responsibilities, or lack the collaborative nature to work with staff to accomplish what we know is necessary to be successful.

What exactly is necessary to be a successful leader?
Robinson (2011. p. 9) sites, Establishing Goals and Expectations (.42), Resourcing Strategically (.31), Ensuring Quality Teaching (.42), Leading Teacher Learning and Development (.84), and Ensuring an Orderly and Safe Environment (.27) as the most important aspects of instructional leadership.

Those numbers following each leadership responsibility are their effect sizes. An effect size of .40 (hinge point) equates to a year’s worth of growth for a year’s input. Unfortunately, there are many leaders who spend most of their time resourcing (not necessarily in a strategic way) and ensuring an orderly and safe environment (by adopting zero tolerance policies that don’t work). Although spending time resourcing and ensuring an orderly environment is important, it is not what leads to stronger student academic and social-emotional learning.

Let’s dive into that a bit more.

In the extensive research of John Hattie, someone I work with as a Visible Learning trainer, overall school leadership has an effect size of .32. However, when we pull out the research around instructional leadership from the hundreds of studies Hattie looked at around research, we find the effect size increases to .42, which is well over the hinge point that equates to a year;s worth of growth for a year’s input. Unfortunately, many leaders never reach this impact because they deny themselves the opportunity to work in collaboration with their teachers or assistant principals.

They become their own barrier to success.

Barriers to Leading Effectively
For the past four years I have had the opportunity to work with a lot of leaders in North America and abroad. In leadership sessions, we typically start the first session by talking about barriers to success. When it came to sessions where I only worked with assistant principals, I was a bit surprised by the barrier the assistants mentioned. It wasn’t teachers or parents.

It was their principals.

Many assistant principals said they did not have time to get into classrooms because they spent far too much time in their offices “doing discipline.” They said they were assigned managerial tasks by their principals. Those principals assigning the managerial tasks never seemed to move into instructional leadership; they just kept doing the managerial tasks they liked to do.

They weren’t complaining, as much as they were just stating their reality.

The issue with this type of leadership experience is that the assistant never gets the instructional leadership experience that is necessary for them to lead buildings in a more successful method. They lose the opportunity to get to create strong relationships with staff and students, and are mostly seen as the junior disciplinarian, as opposed to being seen as a collaborative leader.

In the numerous sessions where I worked with these assistant principals, they longed for the day where they could try new collaborative strategies with families, staff and students, rather than talking about how they could go back and put the strategies in place the next day. In a strange way, the sessions led to more frustration because they knew they had to wait until they got “their own building” before they could put anything new into action.

In the End
The statement I have often heard, and have written about before, is that leadership has been seen as going to the dark side. Leadership is not the dark side. It is actually a great opportunity to create relationships with students, staff and families, as well as raise our own self-efficacy, and build collective efficacy among others. However, when principals do not collaborate with their own assistant principals, and put them through hazing rituals where they never get the opportunity to build their own instructional leadership skills, we continue to perpetuate the myth of the dark side.

Principals should want to have a lasting positive impact on those they lead. They should want to create a legacy that assistants will be proud to talk about when they become leaders of buildings. This means principals need to approach leadership of assistants with a coaching mindset, because they have the opportunity to learn a great deal from those they coach.

Principals need to establish goals with their assistants, and help them go through the necessary learning to achieve the goal, and then focus on the instructional, as well as managerial, impact of those assistants. When asked of assistant principals what their biggest barrier to lead is, the answer should never be “the principal.”

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (Corwin Press. 2016), School Climate: Leading with Collective Efficacy (Corwin Press. 2017). Connect with him on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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