Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Principalship in the Era of Teacher Leadership

When I was in school the building principal was a mythical creature. It seemed as though the principal had an uncanny knack of showing up at the most inopportune time, inevitably foiling the mischievous plans that had been hatched by scheming students. Not my plans of course, but I knew some people! Indeed, if you met the principal in the hall, the best course of action was to not look directly at them or make eye contact. After all, they could see into your soul and ruin the plot of any well planned malfeasance. Yes, on a few occasions I had the misfortune of meeting the principal on his turf. Although the outcome of those encounters wasn't the 'stuff of legends', those interactions did exacerbate the myth of the principal.

Even today the thought of being sent to the principals office sends waves of panic through the student populace. While the building principal continues to encompass the duties of Chief Disciplinarian for the school; the role of building principal is much more complex. It includes such duties as Master Scheduler, Employer and Evaluator of Staff, Communicator and Advocate. Yet none is more important than Instructional Leader.

The concept Instructional Leader as Chief Academic Officer began to emerge as a concept in the mid 1980s with the research of S. J. Rosenholtz. In this research, it was suggested the primary role of the principal should be to supervise classroom instruction, coordinate curriculum, and monitor student progress. However, as many educational researchers have since discovered (Marks, Printy, Quinn, Nuemerski), principals have continued to fall short in this Utopian view of the principalship. But we know unequivocally the impact that the principal can have on student outcomes! We need look no further than the 2008 study conducted by Leithwood, Harris, and Hopkins which found that school leadership is second only to classroom teaching as an influence on student learning. 

Instructional Coaches Owen-Kuhn and Lewis share
implementation strategies at a conference in Des Moines
with Principals Schlatter and Dieken.
Obviously this begs the question: If we know what it takes, why aren't we doing it? As a simple answer, refer to the first and second paragraph of this article. As one example, a single discipline issue involving only a handful of students can consume days of a principals time. Throughout the course of a single school day, principals are pulled in many directions. An IEP meeting one moment, returning a phone call from an angry parent the next. Yet that would be much too simplistic of a way to think about this phenomenon. Schools are incredibly complex and nuanced organizations. In fact, schools are far too complex to be left to the leadership of one individual, which was found in the research conducted by Uhl-Ben, and Lichenstein in 2006. A better approach is to distribute that leadership among many in the organization (see Spillane, 2004), relying on the talents and strengths of those outside the traditional leadership structure to move the needle on student learning. That became the framework under which I situated my research into the implementation of teacher leadership systems in Iowa.

However, it is never as easy as just asking your building principal to share leadership or the decision making process with their teachers. In Barth's 2001 article on teacher leadership, we are reminded of the fact that principals have worked long and hard to achieve the goal of building principal. To assume they will just automatically want to share leadership with teacher leaders is patently false. There may be a feeling of giving up something or losing control of the school, and that those matters of instruction will somehow become lost to the principal.

It can swing the other way as well. If we maintain our paradigm discussed above, that principals are busy, then it may stand to reason the addition of teacher leaders to a system may in some way 'take things off the plate' of building principals. A belief may exist that, 'Now I finally have some help, I can shift some of these responsibilities to my teacher leaders and really focus on the stuff that I want to focus on'.

Principal Dieken observing instruction and discussing
learning objectives with a student.
Here is what I found in my research, and what we found out in our own teacher leadership system here at Hudson. First, lets discuss this idea that principals are somehow relinquishing the leadership of their schools. That is not true. What I actually found is that the skills of the principal as instructional leader have strengthened as a result of implementing teacher leadership. This is because of the regular collaboration that is occurring between the building principal and the teacher leader. In our district, teacher leaders and building principals have formalized meetings a minimum of one time a week. In those meetings, they discuss matters of instruction, strategies that are working, and how successful their efforts are at scaling those strategies district wide. They are discussing the alignment of curriculum, student data and learning targets. These are conversations that should have been happening prior to teacher leadership, but the system wasn't built in a way to facilitate such a conversation. Principals longed for these conversations! Here is what I know: our building principals are better instructional leaders today than they were before teacher leadership. If there is any question about what a game changer this is for our students, refer to that Leithwood article I mentioned above.

Principal Schlatter observing instruction during a learning
lab with our instructional coaches. 
Second, what of this idea that teacher leadership enables principals to somehow 'take things off their plate'? Unfortunately (and depending on your perspective) this is untrue, and one of the surprises I found in my research. In fact, what we have found is that the addition of teacher leadership systems to schools have added to the complexity of the building principal. But here is the bright spot: it is the right kind of complexity and one that most principals welcome with open arms. Principals have expressed that they are attending more meetings, engaged in a greater number of conversations about instructional practice, and observing more instruction than ever before. These are the very things that Rosenholtz and other researchers were suggesting with the idea of instructional leadership!

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