Telling It Like It Is
Education Week wanted to know what principals think about instructional leadership. So with the help of the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, Senior Editor Lynn Olson asked principals to respond to three questions by e-mail:
More than two dozen principals responded to the request. In addition, some 115 principals from around the country discussed the same issues this past summer at a Principals' Leadership Summit in Washington sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education. Those conversations were also a source for the comments from school leaders excerpted below.
A. Instructional leadership means being an avid teacher and
learner while serving as principal. This entails teaching classes in
your school whenever you have a chance; reading books with students and
staff; visiting lectures, etc., offered by staff; and, in general,
engaging students and staff alike throughout the year in intellectual
—Richard J. Konet, Parsippany High School, Parsippany, N.J.
At the secondary level, there are usually persons who function as
subject-matter supervisors. These people are the 'instructional
leaders' at the secondary level. They serve as resources in their field
of expertise to the administrators. It is necessary for secondary
leaders to listen carefully to these experts and to ask the right
questions about teaching and learning. It is virtually impossible for
secondary principals to have a firm understanding of the intricacies of
each subject area.
—Mary M. Reece, Menlo Park School, Edison, N.J.
Being a gatekeeper—when you have a vision and keep the
discussion on what you feel is important. By being a leader, you're
deciding where you're going to go and where you're not going to go, in
—Sigmund Boloz, Ganado Primary School, Ganado, Ariz.
To be an instructional leader, you need to understand curriculum and
expectations in the subject areas of your school. You need to know what
it is that students most need to know. You also need to understand good
teaching strategies and techniques and be able to assist teachers in
learning and implementing these techniques. It's an ongoing
—Terrie Hudson, Windsor Junior-Senior High School, Windsor, Ill.
To be an instructional leader, one must take into account the needs
of the community, staff, and students. These are identified through
self-study surveys, analysis of standardized and state test data, and
an observation of the particular educational setting. Open eyes and
ears are necessary for one to truly get a 'global picture' of the need
for educational improvement.
—Bruce Christensen, Heritage Middle School, Lansing, Ill.
I think it's teachers and leaders collaborating; working together to
find out what works for them. ... I think it's kind of an individual
school-culture kind of thing.
—Pamela Hallam, Orem Junior High School, Orem, Utah
‘You can have a vision, and you can have assessments, and until you take time to really know people, you won't have a common language to get where you want to go.’
You can have a vision, and you can have assessments, and until you take
time to really know people—meaning your community, your staff,
your kids—you won't have a common language to get where you want
to go. And getting there doesn't happen overnight. ... Given any one of
our schools, what we had to do to be an instructional leader may vary
depending on the site.
—Velma Castaneda-Titone, Ochoa School, Tucson, Ariz.
The word 'modeling' comes to my mind when I think about it. I view
faculty meetings as an opportunity to teach. And standing up and
delivering a lecture for an hour and a half in the late afternoon,
after everybody's been working all day, is not an effective
—William Broderick, Fort Worth Academy, Forth Worth, Texas
I never bought into leadership as being a group discussion with many
answers. Sometimes, there are incorrect answers, and a leader leads a
group towards a correct answer.
—Robin Calitri, South Side High School, Rockville Centre, N.Y.
Instructional leadership is the well-rounded ability to do many
things. It's being able to go in and work with weak teachers who are
not up to par, being able to model the behaviors in the classroom that
are needed for the kids to be successful. I think we need to find
something that works for kids, not for the teachers and
—Janet Vernon, Sapulpa Middle School, Sapulpa, Okla.
For me, the thing that's missing in instructional leadership is the
word 'shared.' I can't do it alone. ... Before, it was teacher-focused.
It was focused on the teacher's delivery of instruction, and that's
what I'd focus on as a leader. And now it's focused on student learning
and what students are doing with instruction. I think that's one of the
hardest changes we're still going through.
—Chris Borgen, Fidalgo Elementary School, Anacortes, Wash.
An instructional leader is a visionary who sees where she wants her
staff, students, and community to be academically and provides the
support and encouragement to help everyone get there. I believe that
every one of our students can be successful, and with effective
instruction, teachers can make it happen. First, I have to convince
teachers that they are the absolute answer to a child's success. Once
they believe that, it empowers them to keep improving their own skills
to help the child.
—Sally Leet, North Oak Grove Elementary School, Milwaukie, Ore.
It's creating a climate or culture where it's OK to share what
you're doing that's good, and it's OK to ask for help. I think that's a
crucial part of being a leader, and I think a very challenging
—Nicki Smith, Jamestown Elementary School, Arlington, Va.
Of course, you don't just dictate anything that you want to last for a long period of time when you are in a leadership position over other professionals. Paramount to the success of an instructional leader is the ability to gently prod and move your organization in the direction you want it to go, and at the same time involve the people who have to make the changes in the process.
The more you can have others invest in an idea, the more likely you
will be successful. In a nutshell: A good leader gives all the credit
and takes all the blame.
—Michael Kelly, Forest Elementary School, Forest, Va.
I think an instructional leader has to know curriculum, because you can instruct and have a great lesson, but if you're not teaching what kids need to know, the instruction is not as good as it could be. We get our curriculum from state standards, from district standards, and from school standards. So to be an instructional leader, you've got to know where your curriculum is coming from, be able to evaluate it, and know how appropriate it is.
And then I think you have to be able to look at that curriculum and
say, 'What is the best way to instruct children in what they need to
know, what are the appropriate ways to get them to know it?' When
teachers are excited about the way they are presenting, when they have
invested themselves in the instructional process, then that process
—Maree Price, Bookman Road Elementary School, Elgin, S.C.
I truly believe that the only successful way to lead people is to
first have them buy in to and understand an idea before implementation.
Too many times, new programs and ideas are introduced without the
participants [teachers] being a collaborative part of the
decisionmaking process. When this happens, the teachers involved may do
part, or all, of the new idea when the supervisor is watching, and then
go back to the old way of doing things once they are inside the
classroom alone with students.
—Belinda Shook, Beebe Elementary School, Beebe, Ark.
An instructional leader leads by example. This person should provide
the environment for all in the school to realize the importance of
education. This means the time for professional development for staff
members should be infused in the schedule. This is not an easy task,
yet should be a goal. The principal should be seen by the students
engaging in instruction. This can be through reading to classes or
teaching lessons. The community should think of all school members as
leaders of instruction.
—Lou DellaBarca, C.J. Davenport Elementary School, Egg Harbor Township, N.J.
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A. About once a quarter, I put out a 'seen and noted' sheet that doesn't name names, but praises wonderful things I've seen in the classrooms. I praise instructional techniques, ... [and include] notes about how teachers are integrating technology with specific examples of several classroom projects, cross-curricular thematic units I've observed, peer tutoring, some excellent co-teaching going on, etc. This little newsletter helps to promote the best practices (according to my value system) that are taking place in our school.
I [also] start each day with a morning assembly where I get to set
the climate for the day, share our educational priorities with the
students, remind them of our core values on a regular basis, reward
students for demonstrating those values every day, celebrate successes,
and foster a sense of 'we' in our school.
—Linda Searby, Mount Pulaski Grade School, Mount Pulaski, Ill.
As a former Latin teacher, I do my best to teach a few lessons each
year either in Latin class or in English class when the curriculum
calls for a discussion of classical literature in translation. This
goes much further than pedagogical exchange or telling others how to
—Richard J. Konet
I review testing/screening data on each child and sign off on all intervention plans (reading sufficiency/at risk, attendance, work completion, attitude, low performance, individualized education plan, etc.). Insights are gained by checking student-goal folders, daily journals, and writing portfolios periodically, and conferencing with teaching and support staff about progress.
‘I 'manage' the activities of the school to allow teachers
the time and energy to carry out their instructional
'Seeing kids for good reasons' means listening to a few students
read from journals, books, and assignments on a daily basis. Each child
receives a personal note of encouragement or congratulations on at
least one report card throughout the year. I see hundreds of kids for
good reasons; tens of kids in problem-solving
The most important gift that elementary teachers can give a child is a lifelong love of reading, together with the necessary skills to accomplish this significant feat. I feel that elementary leaders must have a working understanding of literacy development and its relationship to other curricular areas.
I have many excellent teachers whose opinions I value. Often, I have informal discussions with one or two to gather their thoughts on particular issues. I use them as a sounding board to discuss new district initiatives, current trends, and possible modifications. I listen very carefully to their ideas. They're the experts!
Also, I encourage my master teachers to become actively engaged in
district activities—developing curriculum, presenting at
professional development workshops, becoming trainers,
—Mary M. Reece
Instructional leadership in my building means being in the classroom
as much as you possibly can. I try to make a concerted effort to be in
at least five classrooms a day ... and I'm coming in unannounced. It's
being in the know, and being able to get up in a classroom and say, 'I
sure did like what I saw in your classroom the other day'. ... I [also]
am probably the best at finding money under a rock to send teachers to
a state conference or a national
What we've been trying to do in our school is to talk about what
children are doing. ... What matters is the product and the behaviors
of the children. I find that's hard because we're all used to talking
about our lessons and our approach, and I want to talk about student
achievement, student understanding.
In our school, instructional leadership is much more formal. If you're a new teacher, you're required to attend a new-teacher institute for three to five days in the summer taught by high school staff. ... I choose to do that because I want to be the first voice that teachers hear. ... Every Tuesday morning, we [also] have 25 to 30 minutes of professional development for new teachers. Every observation focuses on instructional skills and how well they're doing it.
There's only one arbiter of whether a teacher is a good teacher, and
that's how well their children are doing.
We're tearing apart the test data and seeing, 'How many times did
that kid miss the question on adjectives and adverbs? I have that kid
in my music class. What can I do in my music class to help? If we're
saying these proficiency scores are important, then what can I be doing
in the classroom to drive best practices?'
—Jeffrey Reinhard, Hilliard Darby High School, Hilliard, Ohio.
One of the activities that I enjoy doing with the staff is our
collegial-support breakfasts. At a 45-minute session before school
begins, a group of interested staff members meet to discuss an
instructional issue. It is also a time to share ideas and discuss
strategies. This year, we have also conducted a book study on meeting
the needs of a diverse student population. Over the course of the
school year, we examined and discussed the various chapters of the
—Rosemarie Young, Watson Lane Elementary School, Louisville, Ky.
Recently our state adopted Standards of Learning. These standards
are very prescriptive in nature and did not match the curriculum as it
was being taught in most schools at the time of adoption. I had
attended a workshop on 'curriculum mapping.' I was immediately able to
apply this knowledge and take a leadership role in reorganizing the
curriculum at our school to meet the standards.
An example of something I do that captures the role of instructional leader is my use of work samples. I expect each teacher to turn in five to eight examples of student work from each of their classes every Friday. These work samples are studied to determine if teachers are teaching what they say they are in weekly lesson plans and in long-range plans. I look for evidence of state curriculum standards being taught and assessment strategies used that are comparable to the state assessment.
I make notes of encouragement and praise to students on the work and
include appropriate comments on Post-It notes to teachers about the
work samples. These are given back to teachers on Tuesday of each week.
I find that students, parents, and teachers all appreciate the comments
and feedback that is given on work samples.
—Cathy C. McMillan, T.E. Mabry Junior High School, Inman, S.C.
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A. The biggest obstacle to exercising instructional leadership on a regular basis is the 'tyranny of the urgent' that often crowds out the important work of focusing on teaching and learning. I can't tell you how many times I've left the office to go wander out in the classrooms, hoping to drop in 20 minutes here and there, when I get paged to return to the office for a visitor, phone call, discipline emergency, etc.
Of course, if you ignore those things, you can get criticized for not being responsive to those who need you in the office. You are on a constant guilt trip. When you are in the office, you feel guilty for not being out in the classrooms, and when you are in the classrooms, you feel guilty for the stuff that is piling up in the office.
Another obstacle is that sometimes teachers don't really want you to
major in instructional leadership because in some settings, this means
that you never leave them alone! If you are an instructional leader,
you don't let the status quo become the norm. You want everyone to be
growing and changing and improving, and that makes some teachers
Obstacles to exercising instructional leadership: Paperwork. Management issues unrelated to instruction—student services, scheduling conflicts, drills (lock-down, fire, tornado, etc.), special education issues, conferencing with parents, budgeting, soliciting resources, reviewing facilities, discipline, etc.
When surveying their administrators, the students in my
elementary-administration classes find that 90 percent of an elementary
principal's day is spent on management issues rather than instructional
—Carole Edmonds, Horace Mann Laboratory School, Maryville, Mo.
You've got to have time to make change. ... We always ask people to
make change just like that, and we can't do that. It takes time.
—Milton McPike, Madison East High School, Madison, Wis.
We know who the good teachers are in our building. There's no
question about it. And we know who the not-so-good teachers are. And we
have to utilize our own resources in our building. Some of our good
teachers go into classrooms, and they're great, and they've never been
asked to help out.
—Lance Bowie, West Anchorage High School, Anchorage, Alaska
The biggest obstacles to exercising instructional leadership are the amount of accountability-type paperwork that only seems to dead-end somewhere and the lack of clerical, nursing, and counseling personnel to relieve me of those duties. We do not have appropriately paid or trained staff members to do the kinds of things that would free me to increase the interaction with teachers and students.
I choose to do clerical-type work before and after the work day or
week in order to be available to students and staff during their school
Supervising experienced teachers is the most rotten part of the job.
I'd rather deal with a food fight in the cafeteria than supervise some
of my experienced teachers who are unwilling to change.
I am an instructional leader, but part of my job is also [being] a
manager, so you've got to weigh those two things. ... I sometimes feel
like I'm the guy at the circus with the plates going and you've got to
make sure all the plates are going all the time. You can't let any
plate fall because they're all important. You've got to love your job.
I love my job. It's a great job.
New teachers get the worst classrooms, the classrooms with the least
materials. New principals, the same thing happens. They get the schools
with the greatest need.
I don't know if this is a greater disease or problem at the high school level. I'm thinking about the principals in the Denver metropolitan area, and we don't do anything to support one another, really. ... I wouldn't describe us as helping each other out on the instructional level. We seldom talk about instructional matters.
I [also] think I see a number of principals who, indeed, have poor
management skills. They just don't manage the work very efficiently.
They're always running and redoing what they did last week. Everything
is always a crisis. Some could be instructional leaders, but they never
get there because they manage the work flow so poorly it seems like
they never really get stuff done.
—Tim Westerberg, Littleton High School, Littleton, Colo.
If you're a person on the fence, well, then the message is you deal
with the managerial aspects. That's the priority as far as I'm
concerned, rather than instruction. So I think the entire system must
value instructional leadership and make sure everybody knows
—Mary M. Reece
Making sure that you get support from the state or district without
feeling that you have to toe the line, or you've got to be like the
school next door to you, or you're not seen as a maverick.
—Robert Goerke, Jacksonville Elementary School, Jacksonville, Ore.
I think the biggest issue is mentoring on-site with experienced
principals and administrators. That's the piece we could all feed off
of and build. You've got these experienced people in their buildings,
trying to do their jobs. How do you find the time for them to make that
happen? I think that's critical.
—Rick Little, City Park Elementary School, Dalton, Ga.
I think we talk about creating a community of learners all the time.
And I think we have to emphasize community. Because what happens is we
get isolated, and we do not talk to each other. We have to emphasize
our dependence [on one another] for growth.
—Lynne Juarez, Tule Elk Park School, San Francisco
We're dealing with individuals who really lack the knowledge of what
instructional leadership is, and that's a barrier. And for those of us
who do have that knowledge, if we don't take the time to share it,
that's a barrier.
—Stanley Thompson, Coventry High School, Coventry, R.I.
I believe the biggest obstacles to exercising instructional leadership are: the lack of time to spend in classrooms and with teachers; the amount of 'administrivia' that must be done by the principal that cannot be delegated; and the lack of time to network and meet with other principals and curriculum specialists.
I believe that if principals had more time to talk to each other
about issues related to instructional practices and leadership
informally, with nothing at stake except the open and honest sharing of
ideas, we would all be better administrators.
—Cathy C. McMillan
The involvement of outside, peripheral interest groups, such as
tax-watch citizens and the Illinois legislature, has at times created
unnecessary work and time constraints, which wear on educators and
interfere with their passion for teaching.
—Ed Wainscott, Jacksonville High School, Jacksonville, Ill.
The various roles of the principal compete for the
instructional-leadership role. These include student interactions
outside the classroom, decisionmaker, personnel manager, building
manager, contact for all concerns and problems, financial manager,
planner, facilitator, coordinator, etc. All compete! I tend to leave as
much as possible to be done after school, which makes for a long
‘Principals should be right in the middle of instruction. Any time my teachers are involved in a new program, I go through the training with them.’
Moving away from the antiquated idea that the principal has the answers
and ideas to the position that the principal is an instructional leader
among instructional leaders.
—Gary L. Burgess, Pendleton High School, Pendleton, S.C.
The biggest obstacle to exercising educational leadership is the
lack of time. So much is expected on a daily basis of the principal,
and in most school systems so very little support is given for the
nitty-gritty daily chores, that by the time the principal finds a
moment to think and act on the 'big picture,' he or she is too tired to
Human nature. It is natural for someone who is comfortable in a
position to resist change. This makes it 'convenient' to justify why
new ideas won't work.
—Richard L. Bonnar, Hillview Intermediate Center, Grove City, Pa.
Time, time, time! I am the 7-12 principal of a small, rural school,
so I do everything: supervision, discipline, scheduling, sometimes even
setting up for games and helping serve food in the cafeteria.
Instructional leadership, which should be my primary goal, becomes that
which is put off because it is not as pressing. It is hugely
frustrating and is why I have considered moving to a larger
All of the other managerial duties that occur, along with discipline and attendance. Special education conferences and paperwork have come to require a big portion of time for many principals. Principals spend a great deal of their time reacting to what other people do. It is possible to be proactive for some things; however, many times the list that was developed the day before does not get the attention that was planned.
Principals who really care about instructional leadership spend many
after-school hours learning about new ways to improve student
achievement and attending to instructional issues.
When one leads a veteran staff, challenges exist when one approaches
'past practices.' Patience and empathy are needed by the instructional
leader as he or she communicates with individual staff members. Today,
as before, staff are comprised of individuals who are immediately ready
to move forward, a group that is not sure which way to go, and the
staff members who don't want to change from what has been done over the
past 10 or more years.
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Vol. 20, Issue 9, Pages 17-19Published in Print: November 1, 2000, as Telling It Like It Is