The Struggle to be an Instructional Leader

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Darrell Lonsberry Principal

I don’t know that there can be any debate that the primary responsibility of school administrators is to provide sound instructional leadership. Certainly, this aspect of administration is recognized in the Alberta Professional Practice Competencies for School Leaders. Our own superintendent, Dr. Garry McKinnon discussed the importance of this aspect of school leadership in a previous blog post. Additionally, I haven’t yet met a school administrator who doesn’t want to make a positive difference in the quality of teaching and learning in their school through working directly with teachers. With all of the reasons why school administrators must be focusing on providing sound instructional leadership, there continues to be significant restrictions and limitations in place that often prohibit leaders from realizing their potential as instructional leaders. I suffer that same sense of frustration from time to time as the Principal of the Calgary Science School.

When I’ve talked with other school administrators about what the restrictions and limitations are to fulfilling our responsibilities for instructional leadership, lack of time is often cited as the culprit. I, too, feel a time crunch, but I wasn’t convinced that it was an absolute lack of time that was most profoundly affecting my ability to be the instructional leader I want to be. Toward that end I began tracking my time in 15 minutes increments in a number of different categories. I devised this simple time-tracking template to assist in my monitoring. I have used it to track how I use my time for a week or two over the course of the past 3 years. What I have discovered was surprising in some ways and unfortunately predictable in others.

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One epiphany I had in analyzing the information was that it is not a lack of time that is most problematic, but rather the sheer number of transitions I experienced in any given day. It was not very often that I would spend more than 15 minutes on a task before being drawn away to another. Every transition costs time in that I needed to get oriented to the new task and then re-oriented to the original task when I had an opportunity to get back to it. The most obvious contradiction to this was meetings. Often, a meeting would take an hour or more, where my time was entirely devoted to that particular issue or topic of discussion. Given that, it is understandable how easy it is to be drawn into the black hole of meeting after meeting after meeting.

More specifically, I found that, on average, my time is spent the following ways:

Percentage Time (average of 1-2 week sample each year over 3 years)
Management and Administrivia (email, weekly communication to staff, maintain calendar and schedule, phone calls, etc.)
Direct Student Contact
Direct Parent Contact (not electronic)
Informal Staff Interactions (staff room chats, hallway meetings, office drop-ins)
Class visits, observations and direct instructional leadership

Board Committee work
School-based Meetings (e.g. Committee Meetings, administrative meetings)
External Collaboration (presentations, hosting school visits, etc.)
Other (e.g. lunch, supervision, facilities issues, reviewing job applicants, interviews, meetings that don’t fall into other categories, etc.)

note – sum doesn’t equal 100% due to rounding errors

What I came to realize in my analysis was that there were many things that I didn’t designate as being instructional leadership practices 3 years ago when I began periodically tracking my time. For example, 3 years ago I didn’t necessarily attribute reviewing teacher resumes as instructional leadership, whereas now I would say this is one of the primary aspects of instructional leadership: ensuring that the right people are selected to teach and that they are deployed appropriately. Given the numbers above, I would estimate that approximately 20-30% of my time on any given day could be spent on instructional leadership. Of course, instructional leadership isn’t just an absolute number of hours spent in classrooms – it’s the effectiveness of that time and the impact that it has on student success and engagement. Stay tuned as I dig deeper into this and reflect back on what I’m learning.

I invite others to use my time tracking template, adapt it to suit your needs so that you can track your time and share it back.