Search form

Tips for Principals to Become Role-Model Leaders 

Making time for a focus on instruction is very difficult, said Joy Hood, a coach with a principal leadership program in Denver. We help principals see which of their daily activities add value to their role as an instructional leader, which jobs are necessary, and which are a waste of time, she said. Education World writer Sharon Cromwell recently interviewed participants in Denver's principal leadership program.

Many principals spend so much time on strictly administrative tasks that they lose touch with teachers and students and with the learning thats actually happening in the classroom. To find ways of growing closer to what students and teachers experience in their schools, 33 principals from the greater Denver area participated in an instructional-leadership training program offered by the Denver Public Education and Business Coalition (PEBC).

Making time for a focus on instruction is very difficult, Joy Hood, a coach with the PEBC program, told Education World. Spending time with principals and helping them examine how they spend their time is very useful. We help them see which of their daily activities add value to their role as an instructional leader, which jobs are necessary, and which are a waste of time. Helping them design new schedules, eliminate certain activities, and delegate certain responsibilities are some of the ways we can help, she said.

With the tremendous pressure -- and guidelines from the federal government, state governments, and local school districts -- principals are often not sure what matters most and what will improve academic achievement at their schools, Hood said.

The lower the test scores, the more pressure, she added.

Principals need to practice fearlessness, Hood said, acknowledging that doing that was difficult. Providing support for principals through networking and study groups, she added, can help them make the decisions they think are best for their students.


Lori Conrad, project director for PEBC, reflected on some essential elements of instructional leadership that coaches shared with principals. The following are among the keys to being an instructional leader:

  • Have constructive determination; cultivate perseverance, and always think of the positive intent behind the ideas and participation of others.
  • Practice fearlessness; stand by beliefs even in difficult situations.
  • Cultivate leadership among teachers and other staff members because they are so much closer than the principal to the day-to-day instructional lives of students.
  • Find peer support. Being a principal is a terribly lonely job -- don't go it alone.

In the current educational climate -- when oversight and sometimes severe criticism is the lot of nearly every principal at one time or another -- practicing fearlessness demands a great deal of courage. Yet change cannot occur in a school if its principal allows timidity and fear to dictate decisions. That's why the coaches emphasize the need for support from other principals.

The principals in the groups I facilitate say their job is often lonely because there is no one else in the building with the same role, PEBC leadership coach Marjorie Larner told Education World. Regular meetings with [a group of principals] break down that isolation.


Utilizing other administrators knowledge, experience, and expertise to become a better instructional leader, and discussing professional literature with other principals in a cohort were the program experiences that principal Janis Everett found especially helpful. Everett, principal at of Gust Elementary School in Denver, told Education World that there is a great need to have a leadership team at the building level made up of people who have the same vision for the school. Those teachers and other administrators must grasp the overall importance of instructional leadership and learn how to utilize it. Helping administrators learn about, and apply, instructional leadership is the goal of the New York City-based Lila Wallace-Readers Digest Fund, which funded the Denver leadership project with a grant of $42,000.

Sharing staff development direction and leadership with teachers is the most important lesson that principal Mimi DeRose took away from the program. In our case, she told Education World, referring to herself as well as the teachers and other administrators at Polton Elementary School in Aurora, we have spent almost three years learning how to integrate thinking strategies across the curriculum. I have never been disappointed with the outcomes of our planning sessions. We have tried to differentiate our staff development needs in the same way we hope teachers will work with the students in their classrooms.

We allow each team [of teachers] to be represented on the staff development committee, and they have autonomy within the team to determine how they will work with our trainers each month, DeRose added.

DeRose emphasized the importance of instructional leaders being part of the action. Finding ways to provide chunks of time, resources, and materials [to the staff] is critical, she said. These are the things that help new ideas take off. I also think people need to know it is OK to be in different places, but it is not OK to do nothing.

DeRose added that people also need to know that the principal cares. There is a great quote that says something like, People dont care how much you know until they know how much you care. That is so true. Those personal connections will always be important when helping [a teacher] take risks.


DeRose and Everett both launched new initiatives based on what they learned in the program. The following are among the steps they are taking:

  • Starting a Critical Friends or Cohort Group to enable teachers to have structured conversations to help one another with instructional dilemmas and with dilemmas related to parents and classroom management
  • Encouraging more teacher leadership of staff development in their schools.
  • Talking to students in the classroom about what they are learning and about what thinking strategy they are studying.
  • Looking for evidence of collaborative efforts between administrators and teachers, and then building on them.
  • Utilizing building-level literacy coaches as part of the leadership team.


Education World asked three PEBC coaches about the key elements of an instructional leadership program for principals.

  • Provide clear and authentic demonstrations of trustworthiness by, for example, respecting confidentiality and being supportive, Marjorie Larner suggested. Lori Conrad added, Be personal. Relationships of trust are essential if a program is to actually move folks toward their goals.
  • Understand the complexities of the problems principals face.
  • Work with a group rather than individuals so principals can benefit from one another's expertise and experience and find broad support.
  • Be flexible about program content because different building administrators have varied needs.
  • Utilize coaches with strong experience with administration and staff development and with school change processes. That way, coaches have content expertise (They've walked in a principals shoes) and process expertise (They know how to move an individual or group forward.).
  • Begin where people are, said Joy Hood, and help them move forward from there. Sometimes, she pointed out, principals or teachers have needs that seem to have no bearing on instruction; if those needs are not addressed, those people will never reach the point of grappling with instructional issues.
  • Help people learn to network; this is a critical component of a coach's job.

Overall, principals and coaches emphasized the importance of trust in the process of meaningful school change. I think the PEBC is always providing experiences that demonstrate just how resourceful teachers can be, DeRose said. That helps me to trust the process, and let go of things that I am not as capable of doing. By focusing on their strong points and stretching their capabilities in instructional leadership, the principals we interviewed have grown and have learned how to help their teachers grow as well.