Great Principals Are Strong Instructional Leaders First


School principals must feel a lot like circus performers. Just as a performer is expected to juggle multiple balls, bowling pins, or torches while dangling from a high wire with ease, principals must also juggle a seemingly endless series of responsibilities. Finances, operations, safety, and legal issues are some of the most well-known “tricks” that a principal must possess in their repertoire. But there is one important responsibility that too often gets overlooked: instructional leadership. 

Expertise in curriculum and pedagogy may not be a formal part of a school leader’s job description, but there is no denying its necessity. Efforts like modeling effective instructional strategies, providing teachers with a strong, standards-aligned curriculum, and freeing up resources to provide staff with meaningful professional development are critical for successful teaching and learning. Not only do great principals get this, but among all the many balls they have to juggle, they make instructional leadership a priority.

Effective Principals are Instructional Leaders

The era of school accountability—first ushered in by No Child Left Behind and later transformed by the Every Student Succeeds Act—has forced principals to adapt to new roles as curriculum and instructional leaders. No longer can administrators just be overseers of school budgets and staffing. They must be the foundation of instructional excellence in their buildings.

Among numerous others, successful school leaders must ask themselves these questions:

  • Does our school’s mission and vision prioritize challenging students to reach their academic potential? Are the actions of staff members consistent with the school’s mission and vision?
  • Do educators and students have access to rigorous, standards-aligned curriculum?
  • Is feedback on student progress occurring regularly between teachers and families?
  • If I see a teacher struggling with a new lesson, strategy, or standard, how have I provided guidance? 
  • What kinds of experiences are students having in every classroom, every day?
  • Have I made myself available to the students, staff members, and families of our school?
  • Am I willing to model my own advice in front of staff members?

To be true agents of change within their school communities, school leaders must not be afraid to answer these questions honestly. A little reflection can go a long way in the “balancing act” of making a school work for all students. 

Instructional leadership means putting in some hard, hard work to see students succeed. As leaders, being visible in classrooms every day is no easy task, especially when you have bus schedules and student discipline to manage. Establishing high expectations and demanding academic excellence from all students is time-consuming, serious business. 

It’s the kind of work that simply can’t be faked. You may be able to talk the proverbial talk, but if you fail to walk the walk, you’re going to be found out sooner or later.

Whether it be a first-year teacher struggling with classroom management, a veteran educator exploring innovative new strategies, or simply a staff member needing feedback for their annual evaluation, strong principals are relied upon for sage wisdom about best practices in the classroom. There is a reason why the best educators often make the best school leaders—it has everything to do with maintaining the heart of a teacher no matter what role they are in.

To quote my friend Zach Wright, strong school leaders serve as a visible reminder of our larger purpose. To truly propel students toward academic excellence, principals have to embody the mission they represent within their schools. Demonstrating great instructional leadership is not an easy ball to juggle, but it may well be the most important.

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