Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University


Modern day principals are expected to be instructional gurus who lead teachers to pedagogical enlightenment. What underlies this expectation? That without such guidance teachers are incapable of competence. The trouble with this assumption is that it is:

1. incredibly condescending and

2. flat wrong.

Teachers typically work constantly to improve their instruction. Such self-improvement goes with the job. And they typically do that best when they aren’t troubled by some administrator who is pretending to be a pedagogical messiah.

And because they lack any pedagogical magic of their own, such “instructional leaders” are very likely pushing one or another of the momentary fads that plague our schools. If the teachers have any experience, they will know that these “reforms” and “improvements” come and go to little effect. But if the principal is pushing it, they had better look interested. Remember intensive scheduling? The time and effort wasted on this impractical “improvement” was prodigious. But it has nearly vanished from our schools. Why? Because it rarely works.

If it isn’t “instructional leadership, what is the proper job of a school administrator?” Let’s start with this:

  • To do their level best to make sure faculty have what they need to teach. In some cases this is as simple as buying $20 box fans for excessively hot classrooms. But it also includes playing the system to get, by hook or crook, the resources teachers need to do their job.
  • To back faculty when they need and deserve it. And they certainly don’t abandon any teacher to half crazy parents who are blaming that teacher for the consequences of their own incompetence and/or neglect.
  • To take command of classroom management troubles when faculty have exhausted their own remedies. They don’t just send a troublesome youngster, sent to the office for destroying learning, back to the class room unpunished. They put a stop to those disruptions one way or another because they know that disorder destroys learning; and learning is what school is all about. 
  • To run interference for faculty and cleverly sidetrack ludicrous local, state or federal policies that actually interfere with getting the instructional job done. If grandstanding government officials comes up with one or another crazy requirement, for instance, they find ways to “comply” while minimizing interference with actual instruction.
  • To be absolute death on bullying . Children in primary and secondary schools are compelled to be there, so they have an absolute, non-negotiable right to be safe while doing so.

These functions aren’t as illustrious as being the instructional shepherd who leads docile faculty sheep to greener instructional pastures. But they are far more realistic in terms of what really needs done. Principals are in no position to take charge in the way the present instructional leadership manure prescribes. They can’t know what is going on in a classroom on a detailed basis. And they rarely command more knowledge of the students or subject matter than the teacher. As a matter of fact, a sizable number of them became administrators because they didn’t like classroom teaching very much and perhaps weren’t very good at it. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be exemplary principals.

Remember, the only reason school administrators have a job is to help teachers do theirs. Too often this prime directive is forgotten. It’s past time to trash the silly dream that school leaders can and should function as pedagogical messiahs. Their job is to concentrate on the absolutely essential mission of managing the school in ways that support instruction and those who provide it.