The Principalship: Noble Attempt, Daffy Model


You know the expression.  If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.  No matter how many times the duck says it’s a swan, or those around the unnecessarily insecure creature agree with him…

It’s still a duck.

Not that many years ago, school systems decided to convince site leaders that they weren’t ducks, or, more specifically, “building managers.”  Us principals were then knighted as, “Instructional Leaders,” and told to return to our buildings and spread our undeniable talents in the area of instructional excellence.

We were crammed into abbreviated trainings on Charlotte Danielson, assessment design, professional learning communities, cooperative learning, backward design, coaching strategies, and Common Core Standards.  We were given binders.  Big binders.  With lots of tabs.  When we finished, we were directed to lead our teachers to greatness.  The trainings, or maybe the binders, had transformed us into the resident expert on instruction at each site.

We were told to always remember that we were now instructional leaders. When asked about our roles, we were to scream from the rooftop of the school, “I’m an instructional leader!”  Then, we could whisper on the way down the ladder, “I also do a little managing. Here and there.”

After all, we had attended the trainings.  We had binders.

But that’s not the worst part.  Some of us were very comfortable with the skills and knowledge associated with instructional leadership.  Some really were experts in instruction. However, “Instructional Leader” was added to many a Linkedin profile, yet we rarely got the chance to actually lead the improvement of instruction.  We said we were instructional leaders, but still spent a majority of the day managing, because none of the other responsibilities had evolved, shifted, or been eliminated.  To the contrary, through ubiquitous and trendy site-based leadership models of managerial issues, these responsibilities actually increased.  And, there is the rub.


Some of us got into the principalship believing the enhanced characterization of the job.  These were people who really were highly effective teachers and possessed strong coaching skills.  They believed they would lead teachers to some instructional promised land.  But in reality, they entered a system that has institutionalized oppositional mechanisms that include:

  • Compartmentalization from principal peers and very little substantive collaboration, which is, ironically, the same corrosive model principals are attempting to mitigate for teachers.  Not only are they routinely isolated from those peers, they are directly and indirectly competing with those who should be their teammates.  For example, I knew our school’s score couldn’t possibly keep the original NCLB-mandated trajectory of performance that would ultimately land us at 100% achievement. Eventually, 98% “meets and exceeds” would not be good enough, and we would be devalued and labeled by the state as second-tier.  Faced with the realization of this inevitability, I recall thinking, “As long as it happens to our sister school down the street, the same year, we’ll be ok.” Wow.  Now, there’s a culture of teamwork and positive interdependence.  And, I even liked that school and its principal.
  • An average day that still consists of all of the managerial responsibilities that were there before the movement to instructional leadership.  Nothing was removed, to the contrary, more managerial expectations were added.  As a teacher,  I once had a principal who worked very hard, but rarely visited my classroom.  He was always busy, wasn’t a slouch, and put in long hours managing the myriad of issues surrounding school leadership.  By all measures of the times, budget management, school discipline, parent relations, school culture, personnel decisions, the removal of extremely ineffective teachers, and school safety, he was viewed as a top-tier administrator.  All of a sudden,  he was supposed to somehow add the micro-coaching of 45 teachers?  As he told me when the movement began, “It’s as if they didn’t think I was working before!”
  • Very little control over curriculum and instruction decisions.  In the most recent, and highly comprehensive survey about teacher and principal’s working conditions, strikingly high numbers of principals cited increasing personal accountability for instructional leadership, with decreasing influence in that same area.  No wonder that same survey found that 1/3 of all principals are likely to leave their job and barely half are satisfied with their position.

That last point is key; large amounts of principals are thinking of leaving.  I would assert many of them would love to rethink their position.

But, in a word, they are fried.

The time has finally come to talk about an evolution for the role of principals, and more importantly, their teachers.  However, that talk needs to end in action, because nobody is lining up at the door to fill principalship vacancies.  The position is seen by both administrators and potential leaders as unsustainable.  Who wants an impossible job?

I know that visions of successful principals who seem happy and on top of everything come to mind. Perhaps you are picturing Morgan Freeman and his bullhorn. I would suggest that those people are outliers, and even they would tell you that few of them can sustain the effort at a level they expect of themselves; it’s impacting their families and their health.  The role really does take a toll.  After all, if they weren’t outliers, they wouldn’t make movies about such leaders.

So, that leaves us with two groups of people in the principalship.  The first are those who were comfortable and effective managers, who were told that their responsibilities were suddenly and completely different. With no prior tasks or roles jettisoned, they find themselves overwhelmed by a volume of work that is too broad in scope and scale.  The second group consists of those who are natural instructional leaders, but find that they don’t get to exercise their talents with enough regularity, as they are often buried in managerial expectations.

Two groups of people, and if the surveyors are to be believed, neither are happy.

There are exciting innovations being explored across the nation, and many hinge upon the power of letting principals tap back into what it meant to be a teacher, while relying on teacher expertise to take the lead in instructional leadership.  In subsequent blogs, I will explore this conversation in great depth, but the first step in fixing a problem is identifying it exists, and then facing the brutal facts.

It is time to recognize that we have a fundamental problem with our leadership model.  The question is, are we going to actually do something about it, or passively waddle around the problem, quacking so quietly that we can only hear ourselves?


Mike Lee

Mike Lee

Phoenix, Arizona

I am the Director of Outreach and Engagement for The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and certified as a Middle Childhood Generalist in 2004. In 2012, I received my doctorate in educational leadership from Northern Arizona University, however, I began my work in education serving as a para-educator in a special education program while still an undergraduate. My passions in the field include assessment and reporting strategies, the evolving role of technology, teacher leadership, and effective professional development that permanently impacts instruction. I consider myself a professional teacher first, as well as a professionally evolving lifelong learner, who is incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to impact the lives of children.

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