Education in Ireland

Perspectives on the Irish education system distilled through the crucible of experience,leavened with the empirical wisdom of the perpetual student!

Saturday, August 26, 2006

A Portrait of a Principal as School Leader

The current practice, indeed the historic practice in Ireland, of appointing a Principal Teacher is to pluck a serving teacher from the classroom and install her/him in the position. The notion that a “good” teacher will automatically be a good principal isn’t necessarily true. A newly appointed principal will typically have very limited knowledge of office administration, know nothing about finances or financial management and very little about managing a team of professionals.

Up to very recently, no training whatsoever was offered to newly appointed principals. Belatedly, programmes such as the Leadership Development for Schools Project (LDS) and the Misneach Programme have been developed. It is a matter of regret that the DES and the managerial bodies that exercise control over entry to principalships have not seen fit to offer any professional training or help to new principals to acquire the skills necessary in order to properly discharge their functions.

Literature in the area of leadership in schools refers to three types of leadership that a principal exercises, transactional, instructional and transformational leadership.

Transactional leadership refers to day-to-day tasks that need to be done in order to ensure that school business is carried out in an efficient manner. The school has to opened for the reception of children; ancillary staff and teaching staff have to be employed, allocated tasks and supervised; heating and cleaning have to be arranged and so on. How many principals become so bogged down in the minutiae of the normal problems that an average school day throws at them that they never get beyond the transactional stage?

The conventional wisdom in Irish education for the past 25 years saw the role of the principal ideally as the instructional leader of the school. Instructional leadership had its inception in the premise that the principal had an impact on the professional work of the school, including the teaching and learning that goes on in classrooms.

Instructional leadership can be considered from two points of view - the tasks to be achieved (functional approach) and the means to achieve those tasks (process approach)

Krug (1992) identified five components to instructional leadership:

Defining the mission;
Managing the curriculum;
Supervising teaching;
Monitoring student progress and
Promoting an instructional climate.

Defining the mission:
The mission includes both the ends of schooling and means of educating. The principal as instructional leader is presumed to communicate these to both staff and pupils.

Managing the curriculum.
This involves co-ordinating the work of teachers and making school-level decisions about class allocation and time allocation for subjects. Principals also need to supply information that teachers need in order to plan their classes. A principal therefore needs up-to-date knowledge of curriculum research and new developments.

Supervising teaching.
The clinical approach to supervision would require the principal to be:
a) a student of good teaching
b) help individual members of staff to be more reflective and insightful about their methods of instruction and
c) observe classroom teaching and evaluate the lesson with the class teacher

Monitoring student progress.
The principal’s role is to understand student assessment and check progress “in ways that help teachers and students improve and help parents understand where and why improvement is needed” (Krug, 1992, p. 443)

Promoting an instructional climate.
The primary objective of a principal is to motivate, by creating conditions under which people want to improve. The principal should also seek to “protect staff from external interference.” (Fidler, 1997)

The five categories mentioned above give a functional view of the components of instructional leadership. Firestone and Wilson (1985) identify three means linking the behaviour of the principal to classroom processes:

· bureaucratic and structural linkages;
· direct interpersonal linkages;
· cultural linkages

Bureaucratic and structural linkages.
The structural mechanisms for linking principal behaviour to classroom teaching (Leitner, 1994) include policies, rules and procedures, plans and schedules, supervision and evaluation.

Direct interpersonal linkages.
These include working with and influencing individual teacher’s classroom practice and may be associated with classroom observation or one-to-one interaction.

Cultural linkages.
These may involve shared meanings and assumptions (Fidler, 1997). Firestone and Wilson (1995) identify three cultural mechanisms: stories, icons and rituals. What principals pay attention to matters a great deal. There needs to be consonance between what are declared to be priorities and what are seen to command time and resources. The importance of symbolic actions as a means of influencing the organisational culture should not be underestimated.

While the conventional wisdom focuses on the principal as an instructional leader, I suggest that this focus is flawed. Instructional leadership focuses on the wrong questions. Instead of asking what teachers are teaching, and how can they teach more effectively, the principal should be asking to what extent are students learning the intended outcomes and what steps can the principal take to give both students and teachers the additional supports required to improve learning.

Dufour (2002) maintains that there must be a shift from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning. Learning must become the preoccupation of the school. When all the school’s educators examine the efforts and initiatives of the school through the lens of their impact on learning, the structure and culture of the school will change in substantive ways. This transformation will best occur when the principal functions as a learning leader rather than instructional leader.

Dufour (2002) suggests that the transformation from teaching to learning can be best accomplished by organising the staff into teams. To enable collaborative teams to become the primary engine of the school for change, teachers need time to adapt. Teachers are more accustomed to working in isolation and they require help in the form of focus and parameters to transform the school culture into a collaborative one. They also require training, resources and support. All of these tasks fall to the principal.

In concentrating on teaching, the instructional leader emphasised the inputs of the learning process. By concentrating on learning, the learning leader shifts not only his/her own focus, but that of the school community from inputs to outcomes, and from intentions to results. Schools need instructional leadership as much as ever but only those principals who understand that the essence of their job is promoting student and teacher learning will be able to provide the kind of leadership necessary to take their schools successfully into the new millennium.


DuFour, Richard (2002) The Learning-Centred Principal, Beyond Instructional Leadership, May 2002, ASCD. Virginia

Fidler, Brian (1997) School Leadership and Management, 17, 1, 1997, Leading Professional Development in Education O.U., London

Krug, S. E. (1992) Instructional Leadership: a constructivist perspective, Educational Administrative Quarterly, 28(3), 430-43

Leitner, D. (1994) Do principals affect student outcomes: an organisational perspective, School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 5, 219-38

Firestone, W. A. and Wilson, B. L. (1985) Using bureaucratic and cultural linkages to improve instruction: the principal’s contribution, Educational Administration Quarterly, 21(2), 7-30


Blogger Dreamer said...

Thank you! I found that very useful. There seems to be an incredible amount of work and thought and research in this area. The role of the principal seems to be heavily legislated in this country at the moment. I wonder if there is somewhere where I might find a accurate description of doors responsibilities.
Patrick Anthony

3:11 AM  

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