If you have followed the Radical for any length of time, you know that I can ruffle feathers with the best of them.  I’ve scrapped with everyone from graphic novel fans and librarians to lovers of bad technology over the years — and while those conversations are almost always uncomfortable, they inevitably lead to new learning for everyone involved.


The first professional tussle that I ever started happened about 7 years ago at a panel discussion on school leadership.

Surrounded by superintendents and super experienced building principals, I spent the better part of the discussion listening to my fellow panelists wax poetic about the importance of providing instructional leadership to their faculties.

When the mic finally came to me, I pushed back at the notion that principals are truly the instructional leaders of any school.  “How can you REALLY be the instructional leaders,” I argued, “when no one has ever seen you teach?!”

The room — which was full of nothing but school leaders — exploded.  Speaker after speaker uncorked on me, reminding me that THEY were principals and that research said that PRINCIPALS WERE THE INSTRUCTIONAL LEADERS OF THE SCHOOL.  One woman literally had spittle flying from her mouth as she shouted, “Who are YOU to tell ME that I’m not an instructional leader?!  What do YOU know about MY role in the schoolhouse?”

The entire scene felt like a cheap and dirty power grab to me.  Convinced that all authority rested in the hands of a building’s principal, these folks had decided that they were automatically the experts on everything in their buildings.  “I’m the instructional leader, dammit!” they thought.  “You HAVE to do what I say.”

But the truth is that despite working for some remarkable principals over the past 22 years, I’ve never turned to them for help with my instruction — and they never volunteered any instructional strategies that challenged my practice in a positive way.  Instead, I have always turned to my peers for that kind of professional challenge because I know that my peers are wrestling with instruction on a daily basis.  The expertise that I need to change my teaching rests in the hearts and minds of other practitioners — not my principals.

And my experience isn’t unique.  In fact, results from the 2006 and 2008 North Carolina Teacher Working Conditions survey — which are shockingly not available online anymore — showed that less than half of the teachers in our state see the principal as “the person who most often provides instructional leadership in our schools.”

Now don’t get me wrong:  I’m NOT questioning whether or not principals play an important role in leading their schools.

In fact, I am convinced that the best way to ensure that a school is successful by any metric is to spend a TON of cash identifying, hiring and compensating thoughtful, intelligent, reflective folks to the principalship.

That’s because good principals inspire their teachers, provide direction for faculties, introduce new challenge to the work being done in their building, shield their staffs from distractions that can derail forward progress, and handle everything from broken toilets to broken relationships between teachers and students each and every day

It’s an ALMOST impossible — and COMPLETELY thankless — job.  That’s why I’ve never even considered pursuing a degree in school administration.  It’s also why I am consistently thankful for people who are willing to tackle such an immense and important role.

But when principals grab titles like “instructional leader” or “lead learner,” they inadvertently cheapen the expertise of the classroom teachers and students in their schools and reinforce the hierarchies that make schools such dysfunctional places.

The truth is that principals who HAVE the respect of their teachers NEVER think of themselves by their titles. It’s not “I’m the instructional leader”, “I’m the principal” or “I’m the lead learner” for them. It’s “we’re doing something cool here together. How can we help each other to get better at what we are doing?”

My advice to principals who want to be influential, then, is simple: Check your title at the door and start actively modeling the kinds of reflective practices that define learners and learning; increasing your own knowledge base so that you can support and challenge everyone in your building; and proving that everyone — regardless of position — can improve.

Be a leader of instructors.  Be a leader of learners.  But don’t use false titles to suggest that your role in the teaching/learning transaction is somehow more important than the role played by the teachers and learners in your building.

Any of this make sense?  More importantly, any of this make you mad?  What push back do you have for me?

(If you want to read more, my good friends Tony Sinanis and Pernille Ripp have been thinking about principals, leadership and titles lately too.)


Related Radical Reads:

What do Teacher Leaders Need from Administrators?

Will $75,000 REALLY Change Your Principal’s Leadership Skills?

Three Lessons Principals Can Learn from Sherpas


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