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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Professional Development Opinion

Response: Principals Should Realize ‘They Are Still Learners Themselves’

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 01, 2018 25 min read
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(This is the last post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

How should principals spend their time?

Part One’s guest “responders” were PJ Caposey, Stephanie Brant, Megan Allen, Sanée Bell, and Rachael George. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with PJ, Stephanie and Megan on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here. By the way, you can also now listen to the show on Google Play and Stitcher, in addition to iTunes.

In Part Two, Mike Janatovich, Ann Mausbach, Kim Morrison, Otis Kriegel, Jonathan Eckert, Dr. David Geurin, and Robert Cunard contributed their thoughts.

Today, Jen Schwanke, William Sterrett, Amy Dujon, Dr. Raymond Smith, Pete Hall, Sandi Novak, Bonnie Houck, Ed. D., and Daniel Rechtschaffen share their ideas. I’ve also included comments from readers.

Response From Jen Schwanke

Jen Schwanke has been a language arts educator and school administrator for 20 years, currently serving as an elementary school principal in Dublin, Ohio. She is a graduate instructor in educational leadership and has written frequently for literacy and educational leadership publications. She is the author of the ASCD book, You’re the Principal! Now What? Strategies and Solutions for New School Leaders:

If only there were an easy way to break up a principal’s job into neat little pie pieces, there would be a palpaple sigh of relief across the land: “Ahhhhh. So THAT is how I can get to everyone and everything!”

But it isn’t that easy, because each day brings another push of the “reset” button. The plans and structures we have in place can get all thrown up in the air, re-prioritized and re-calibrated, in the snap of a finger.

But if I were forced to say how a principal should spend their time, this is what I would estimate:

Spend 25 percent of your time on students. There is the time spent on the not-so-enjoyable things, like discipline and managing student needs, but there is also time to spend with students in other ways. Supervising them in the lunchroom; observing them in the classroom; celebrating their successes; learning who they are as individual young people--all these things connect us to the core purpose of our work.

Spend 25 percent on staff. Every moment you spend empowering and encouraging staff will come back to you in spades. This includes the emotional support all staff needs-- positive feedback, gratitude, and recognition--but it also includes providing them with the training and resources to do their jobs well. A small portion of this work would include handling discipline or improvement plans for staff who may be struggling, but the majority of it will be working to empower and enrich instructional practices.

25 percent community. “Community” is a broad term here. This involves parents, of course, but it also involves all of the work we do as community liaisons--extra-curricular activity support, attendance at school and community events, building partnerships and connections with businesses and non-profit organizations, and creating opportunities for students outside the school day. Since schools are often seen as the center of a community, this portion of a principal’s time is well spent being a liaison between the school experience and the world outside the school’s walls.

25 percent on self. This doesn’t mean what it sounds like; it goes without saying that no principal could hang around and work on self-improvement a quarter of the time. Instead, what I refer to as “self” is devoting time to put structures into place that will alleviate, delegate, and improve some of your work. This includes such endeavors as:

  • Training and enabling assistants and support staff
  • Developing systems to handle your calendar, email, discipline, and various commitments
  • Building a master schedule that meets the needs of the school community
  • Advocating for funds and resources to make your school work smoothly
  • Implementing district, state, and federal mandates to stay in compliance
  • Taking time for your own health and wellness
  • Working on your own professional development
  • Establishing a network of colleagues to support you

Although it’s important to understand that there will never, ever be a clean and clear-cut line between these four quarters, principals can devote their time in fourths between students, staff, community, and self. It’s a rough pattern that can help principals stay grounded and calm when approaching their work each day, each week, each month, and throughout the year.

Response From William Sterrett

William Sterrett is an associate professor and program coordinator at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Sterrett previously received the Milken National Educator Award as principal in Charlottesville, Va., and he is the author of three ASCD books. He can be followed on Twitter @billsterrett:

Educators are often quite skilled at being resourceful. From ensuring sufficient lab materials to having an extra pencil handy, we have learned to make the most of the resources we have. One valuable resource that teachers and principals alike continue to struggle with, however, is time. In our role of collaborative leaders, we know we must balance the proactive (planning, vision & mission, improvement and innovation efforts) with the reactive (the unexpected fire drill, classroom management issues, a surprise visitor) without a moment’s notice, all the while ensuring that student and staff are empowered to succeed. It is vital that the school principal models effective use of time in the way s/he plans, collaborates, innovates, shares, empowers, and celebrates.

Leadership is important. One question I often address as a former teacher, assistant principal, principal, and current educational leadership faculty member is this: “How should principals use their time?” Principals must strive to maximize time to move teaching and learning forward, and they must also realize that they are still learners themselves.

In my ASCD book, Short on Time: How do I make time to lead and learn as a principal?, I offer a number of examples and strategies to help maximize time. Consider these:

  • Learning- We should spend as much time as possible in the learning environment and thoughtfully carve out time to spend in various learning environments, from outdoor classrooms to science labs, and from the arts (yes, we need to emphasize all subjects, not just the high-stakes testing ones!) to our reading/language arts classes. Prioritize short visits with meaningful feedback. Quick tip: Don’t get your staff picture taken while seated at your desk, typing on your computer. Think about how your presence defines your leadership!

  • Celebrating- Carve out time in faculty meetings to highlight successes; ask a teacher if you can share a short video clip of student engagement that is happening within the classroom. Some teachers might prefer to teach a short mini-lesson involving faculty participation or even may offer to host the meeting in their classroom to showcase how they facilitate their own learning environment. We need to break through silos and highlight the successful learning strategies occurring within our classrooms.

  • Reaching out- Principals can leverage volunteer efforts by thoughtfully crafting a “Top Ten List” (create a slideshow) of needs. Host a few volunteer orientation sessions to articulate procedures and specific needs. Log hours (make sure volunteers sign in as volunteers, not visitors) and invite them in for a celebratory end-of-year brunch where you showcase the finished “Top Ten List” and celebrate successes! Recognize a “Volunteer of the Year” and build an ethos of service.

Time is indeed a limited resource. By being proactive in prioritizing student success, supporting teachers and staff, innovating by example, and affirming successes, we can be ready to react when those unexpected events invariably arise. We can succeed as educational leaders and enjoy our job (yes, this is important!), even when we are short on time.


Sterrett, W. (2013). Short on time: How do I make time to lead and learn as a principal? Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Response From Amy Dujon

As an elementary school principal and director of leadership development, Amy Dujon led one of the nation’s first Schools for Rigor initiatives in partnership with Learning Sciences International, bringing in a powerful new vision for strengthening core instruction. This work ignited her passion for student-centered, standards-based instruction and she remains relentless in her focus to grow professionally and personally. Now, as an LSI Practice Leader, Dujon works with districts and leaders across the country to support their transformation and implementation. Author of The Gritty Truth: Eight Phases of Growth to Instructional Rigor, Dujon is currently pursuing her doctorate and holds an MS.Ed. in educational leadership, as well as a BA in drama education:

A principal’s duties and responsibilities continue to compound. Over the past five years, new school leader standards and high-stakes accountability have expanded the work scope dramatically. Often, school leaders prioritize each day based on what needs immediate attention. We lead as fire fighters rather than focusing on fire prevention.

Making the shift to proactive prevention requires vision and keen leadership competencies, which allow you to focus time and energy on your real business... the teaching and learning happening in classrooms every day.

In my work with school leaders I often hear them talk about how they don’t have time to get into classrooms, a task that often is delegated to instructional coaches. Instead of engaging in the thinking and learning happening with students and teachers, they are bogged down with compliance tasks and routines.

How does the old saying go... compliance begets compliance? If something is important to you, it will be important to the stakeholders you serve, and nothing says more about your priorities and values than how you spend your time. When school leaders focus the bulk of their time on instruction, they inevitably minimize other competing priorities.

Selective Abandonment

Ideally, principals should spend 75% of their time focusing their attention on the vision of instruction. For many, this requires a bit of discomfort:

  • Examining their practice and identifying opportunities for selective abandonment
  • Deserting regular leadership practices or daily routines that result in lost classroom time
  • Letting go of tasks they feel only the school leader can handle
  • Restructuring procedures to make more time to support teachers in and out of the classroom

You don’t have to do lunch duty every day, every lunch. Your presence and interactions with students in the classroom can accomplish the same task, promoting safety, building relationships, and showing students and teachers your priority: learning.

Intentional Engagement

To become a real instructional leader who supports teachers in strong core instruction, you must commit to digging into the standards, knowing the instructional shifts, and deepening your understanding and application of taxonomy. Often, these critical instructional elements are overlooked, or at best, teachers only have a surface-level understanding of them.

Intentional engagement during PLCs will build your knowledge, but also your relationships with teachers. And nothing is more effective for helping them develop and grow in their own practice than to receive coaching on 21st century pedagogy before, during, and after instruction.

Remember, leadership is intention. The intentional decisions you make around how you spend your time will determine your success.

Response From Dr. Raymond Smith

Dr. Raymond Smith is an author consultant with Corwin Press. He has over 38 years of teaching and leadership at the building (high school principal), central office (director of secondary education), and university levels. Additionally, he has coauthored three books: School Improvement for the Net Generation (2010), The Reflective Leader: Implementing A Multidimensional Leadership Performance System (2012), and Evaluating Instructional Leadership: Recognized Practices for Success (2015):

Leverage Your Big Winner Leadership Practices

How should principals spend her or his time? Leverage your big winner leadership practices. To help describe the concept of leveraging your big winner leadership practices I will draw on a principle taken from the field of total quality management--the Pareto Principle. Let’s apply the Pareto Principle--what’s known as the “80/20 rule"--to your leadership practices.

The “80/20 rule” argument goes something like this: Roughly 80 percent of your leadership impact will come from 20 percent of your leadership practices. Another way of saying this is that a significant few leadership practices account for most of your leadership impact! The biggest part of your leadership practices--say approximately 80 percent--will be so much less impactful that they will produce only 20 percent of your effect on student achievement. So, the question is, have you identified those significant few leadership practices that will account for your greatest impact on student achievement?

I encounter many school leaders who attempt to spread her or his leadership time and energies around, investing in a variety of activities that seem worthwhile. But the reality is, school leaders’ impact varies dramatically from one set of leadership practices to another. A few leadership practices, aimed at a limited number of goals, say 2-3, end up making the major contributions to your total leadership impact.

Think about it this way. Leadership impact comes from a disproportionate investment in your time. That is, it happens when you focus on big-winner leadership practices...when you’re unfair or stingy in the way you distribute your practices and professional resources. Besides, we suspect that some of the things that have been eating up school leaders’ time and energy deserve to starve. It’s all the urgent but not important stuff school leaders have allowed to creep into her or his professional life that really doesn’t contribute much to their impact. It’s the insignificant routines school leaders follow out of habit. And it’s the urgent but trivial stuff that demands her or his attention, yet contributes little if anything to their leadership impact. So what is the answer? Kick these scroungers away from the leadership training table.

Just think how much you can improve your leadership impact by allocating your professional leadership time and resources more strategically. Spend your time, energy, and influence in the high-payoff, big winner leadership areas--instructional leadership practices (Robinson, Hohepa, & Lloyd, 2009), and you could easily double or triple your impact!

Think significant few. Figure out what to ignore. Concentrate on the power leadership strategies, the big winner leadership practices. These deserve the lion’s share of leaders’ productive hours and energy, because they’ll bring her or him the most significant results. If you want maximum impact, don’t make the mistake of seeking “balance” in your workday or workweek routine. Rather, rely heavily on the big winner leadership practices to leverage your impact on learning and student achievement.

What are these high-leverage leadership practices? According to the research of Robinson, Hohepa, & Lloyd (2009), “the more leaders focus their influence, their learning, and their relationships with teachers on the core business of teaching and learning, the greater their influence on student outcomes” (p. 40). Essentially the authors determined that five instructional leadership practices had the greatest impact on student achievement:

  1. Establishing a shared vision/mission, goals, and expectations
  2. Strategic resourcing
  3. Ensuring teacher and staff effectiveness
  4. Leading and participating in teacher/leader learning and development, and
  5. Providing an orderly, safe, and supportive environment

What percent of your day or week are spent directly engaged in these five instructional leadership practices? If you don’t know, do a time audit. Maintain a log of time for one week. Examples of categories you might include are: emails, planning, voice mail responses, reports, professional reading, observing classes, counseling direct reports, parent meetings, staff meetings, community meetings, leadership team meetings, personal time, family time, travel, community service, etc. After collecting at least one full week of daily records, construct a pie chart that reflects your actual time allocation for each category. Compare this to the five leadership practices. Evaluate what changes you need to make to more effectively allocate your time to your big winner leadership practices.

Response From Pete Hall

Pete Hall is a former award-winning turnaround-school principal who now serves as a professional development agent for schools and districts worldwide. An author of seven books and countless thank-you notes, he lives with his beautiful family in the Idaho panhandle:

Time is the ultimate use-it-or-lose-it resource, isn’t it? Every moment we have is a choice: what we do, where we go, with whom we are...and these choices demonstrate our priorities. The question, then, isn’t really how should principals spend our time, but rather: What are our priorities? What are our goals? What would we truly like to accomplish?

As a result, time becomes a means to facilitate our progress towards that end.

Most of us principals were raised through the ranks to spend our time addressing the 3 B’s: buildings, budgets, and buses. As long as those were in order, and we effectively managed the plant operations of our school, all was well. And then it hit: our goal isn’t to just manage a schoolhouse, it’s to ensure high levels of student learning! That required us to re-focus our attention on the 4th B: bodies.

Our most precious asset in the school are the people who work and attend there. If we’re to support our students as they learn at high levels, we must emphasize strategies that build stronger instructional practices throughout the building. Indeed, we must spend our time prioritizing our skills as instructional leaders.

As a principal, I believed my primary responsibility, in addition to looking after the safety and security of all the bodies under my care, was to help my students learn. So I embraced a couple of key leadership behaviors along those lines:

*Walk-throughs. We need to be where the action is, and that’s in the classrooms, the labs, and gyms, and any other nook where teaching and learning is taking place. What better way to see education in the wild than to venture out into it, right? Visiting classrooms, providing feedback, interacting with students, and “talking teaching” with my teachers has an immense impact.

*Joining team meetings. As we build our collaborative cultures, it’s essential to support, monitor, and encourage the process of team-building. Listening to how our teachers interact, plan, and reflect on the status of teaching and learning can offer powerful insights into the strengths and needs of our teaching corps. This is also a fabulous way to build partnerships and indeed bolster the “village” that it takes to raise a child.

*Instructional rounds. You might know them as learning walks, rounds, or another term, and whatever you call them, the purpose is most important: How can we, together, learn about the trends and practices in place in our schools better than by visiting classrooms together, discussing our findings, and engaging in inquiry-based dialogue?

I’m often asked where I found time for these activities, since principals tend to have 8 or 9 million pressing items on their to-do lists at any given moment. The short answer: I didn’t find time. I prioritized it. Because I was in tune with my goals and priorities, I chose to spend my most fleeting resource where it would have the greatest impact on the ultimate goal: student learning.

Response From Sandi Novak & Bonnie Houck, Ed. D.

Sandi Novak, an education consultant, has served as an assistant superintendent, principal, curriculum & professional development director, and teacher. She has authored three books: Literacy Unleashed (ASCD, 2016), Deep Discourse: A Framework for Cultivating Student-Led Discussions (Solution Tree, 2016), and Student-Led Discussions (ASCD, 2014).

Bonnie Houck, EdD, brings a lifelong passion for education and literacy to her work as a consultant, coach, speaker, professor, and trainer who specializes in literacy leadership development and positive school change. She has authored Literacy Unleashed (ASCD, 2016) and works as a professor at Bethel University:

The overwhelming responsibilities of a 21st Century principal include: administrator, manager, disciplinarian, evaluator, professional developer, and instructional leader. While policy and studies support the need for principals to devote time to instructional leadership, limited research documents growth or change. Why? One reason is that principals lack specific skills and knowledge about learning, teaching, and related domains required to undertake instructional leadership work (Goldring et al., 2015). They need a place to begin!

The Literacy Classroom Visit Model

A first step is to understand the instructional strengths of their teachers and the overall culture of their school. The Literacy Classroom Visit (LCV) Model is a great way to begin the journey (Houck, & Novak, 2016).

Literacy Classroom Visits are brief, frequent, informal, and focused visits to classrooms by observers focused on gathering data about teaching practices followed by collaborative discussions. Conducted individually or in teams, leaders look for research-supported practices that have a direct effect on literacy achievement.

The LCV Model is also distinctive in how data are collected and analyzed to direct the focus on emerging patterns. These patterns highlight the instruction and learning of the community rather than individual practices. Over time, they reveal evidence of a developing culture of literacy.

Professional Learning through the State Principals’ Organization

The Minnesota’s principals’ association provides an annual, four-day Literacy Academy to enhance the instructional leadership skills of principals. The first two days focus on quality literacy instruction. After building foundational knowledge, participants receive the core LCV instrument and supportive resources to determine the status of teaching and student learning in their schools. Principals collect data from all classrooms before returning for their third day of professional learning.

On Day 3, leaders work together to analyze their school data patterns while thinking collaboratively about possible next steps. At the end of Day 3, principals return to their schools, collecting data with a tighter focus, using enhanced instruments.

A month later, leaders convene on the final day, equipped with data to develop action steps for common patterns that emerge from the data. Prepared with extended knowledge of literacy instruction and resources to monitor professional development’s implementation, principals are ready to lead their literacy improvement efforts with confidence.

Leaders Share Their Experiences

In this video, five leaders reflect on their Literacy Academy experience and its impact on their development as instructional leaders. Each explains the development of their instructional leadership capacity. Joan McDonald (Bluff Creek Elementary School) attended the Literacy Academy twice. After the first experience, she valued her resulting leadership growth and invited her colleagues. Returning with a team of leaders representing each school in her district, she explains the resulting benefits that has inspired growth across her district: collaborative discussions, common practices, and collegial support about literacy teaching and student learning. Each leader shares how this experience was an effective use of their valuable time.

The Benefits

The ultimate goal of Literacy Classroom Visit Model is to develop wise readers and critical thinkers. This Model guides leaders as they seek to collect and analyze accurate information about strengths and needs in current classroom practices providing teachers with the support necessary to grow and the guidance to ensure continued development. Principals find that this is an excellent use of their time!


Goldring, E., Huff, J., May, H., & Camburn, E. (2008). School context and individual characteristics: What influences principal practice? Journal of Educational Administration, 46(3), 332-352.

Houck, B., & Novak, S. (2016). Literacy Unleashed: Fostering excellent reading instruction through classroom visits. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Response From Daniel Rechtschaffen

Daniel Rechtschaffen, a marriage and family therapist, has a master’s degree in counseling psychology. He founded the Mindful Education Institute and the Omega Mindfulness in Education conference, has developed a variety of curricula for mindfulness in the classroom, and leads mindfulness trainings for schools and communities around the world. He is the author of The Way of Mindful Education and The Mindful Education Workbook:

Consulting with principals around the US and the world, I am frequently awestruck by the poise, resilience, and versatility they show when a parent is angrily calling because their child failed a test, a teacher is sick and needs someone to fill in, and all the other fires that are burning on top of the million other tasks that the principal already needs to get to. So other than simply tipping my hat to our principals, I also will offer a few words of advice that I have learned from principals who I’ve seen holding their schools together masterfully.

When working with schools I often watch a phenomenon that I call "trickle down emotions”. The teachers take their emotional cue from how balanced and compassionate the principal is. Of course the students take their emotional cues from their teachers, so when principals embody the type of caring and respectful attitude they desire from students, they generate that atmosphere throughout the whole school.

The first step to this is our own personal self-care. The greater the responsibilities we carry, the more we need to rest and recuperate. When we are taxed it is easy to be reactive and to respond in ways we wouldn’t if we were more rested, even if we have the greatest intentions in the world. This doesn’t mean you need to go to the Bahamas, as your schedule probably doesn’t allow this, but we do have an inner Bahamas that is accessible to us in the midst of chaos. Though taking a few minutes many times throughout the day may not seem feasible, principals that I know who have begun practicing mindfulness would say the school day is not feasible without it. Whether you have your phone pinging you with a mindful reminder every hour, or simply remember to breathe whenever you feel the stress levels rising, this personal practice of mindfulness can have a profound effect on the school simply by your model of composure.

Principals who practice mindfulness also share it beautifully with their staff and students. Some principals go onto the loudspeakers a few times a day and invite the whole school to take some moments of stillness, to connect to their intentions for the day, and to generate compassion for themselves and others. Some invite students to lead mindfulness sessions over the loudspeaker or share poems and stories on important themes.

There are also some principals whom I’ve seen creating mindfulness rooms in their schools where students and teachers can go when they reach the top of their stress-thermometers. One principal told me a story of going to the mindfulness room when he was stressed. In the mindfulness room, he was soon accompanied by a 1st grader who had come because she was anxious. "Your get anxious too?” The student asked. As they sat. the girl drew him a picture of hearts and rainbows and recommended he put it up in his room to remember how good a principal he was. The principal pointed to the picture above his desk that had obviously been pasted there for a while. "It reminds me we are all in this together,” he said.

Responses From Readers

Thanks to Jen, William, Amy, Raymond, Pete, Sandi, Bonnie and Daniel, and to readers, for their contributions!

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