Manager-Administrator to Instructional Leader:

                              Shift in the Role of the School Principal


                                                          John Arul Phillips

                                                    Faculty of Education,

                                                    University of Malaya



            It has often been said that the school principal wears many hats being manager, administrator, instructional leader and curriculum leader at different points in a day. It is a balancing act of having to juggle between these various roles. Often times, more attention is accorded to managerial and administrative tasks and that of the instructional leader is relegated to others in the administrative hierarchy even though the core business of a school is teaching and learning. The role of 'instructional leader' by school leaders is a relatively new concept that emerged in the early 1980's which called for a shift of emphasis from principals being managers or administrators to instructional or academic leaders. This shift was influenced largely by research which found that effective schools usually had principals who stressed the importance of instructional leadership (Brookover and Lezotte, 1982). Later, in the first half of the 90s, “attention to instructional leadership seemed to waver, displaced by discussions of school-based management and facilitative leadership” (Lashway, 2002, p.1). Recently, instructional leadership has made a comeback with increasing importance placed on academic standards and the need for schools to be accountable.

            While most would agree that instructional leadership is critical in the realisation of effective schools, it is seldom practiced. For example, among the many tasks performed by principals, only one-tenth of time is devoted towards providing instructional leadership (Stronge, 1988). Even today, school leaders continue to seek a balance in their role as manager-administrator and instructional leader. Interestingly, among the reasons cited for less emphasis given to instructional leadership is the lack of in depth training for their role as an instructional leader, lack of time to execute instructional activities, increased paper work and the community’s expectation that the principal’s role is that of a manager (Flath, 1989; Fullan, 1991).



Defining Instructional Leadership

            Instructional leadership differs from that of a school administrator or manager in a number of ways. Principals who pride themselves as administrators are too preoccupied in dealing with strictly administrative duties compared to principals who are instructional leaders. The latter role involves setting clear goals, allocating resources to instruction, managing the curriculum, monitoring lesson plans, and evaluating teachers. In short, instructional leadership are those actions that a principal takes, or delegates to others, to promote growth in student learning (Flath, 1989). The instructional leader makes instructional quality the top priority of the school and attempts to bring that vision to realisation.

            More recently, the definition of instructional leadership has been expanded to towards deeper involvement in the core business of schooling which is teaching and learning. Attention has shifted from teaching to learning, and some have proposed the term "learning leader" over "instructional leader" (Richard DuFour, 2002). The National Association of Elementary School Principals (2001) defines instructional leadership as "leading learning communities". In learning communities, staff members meet on a regular basis to discuss their work, work together to problem solve, reflect on their jobs, and take responsibility for what students learn. They operate in networks of shared and complementary expertise rather than in hierarchies or in isolation. People in a learning community “own the problem” and become agents of its solution. Instructional leaders also make adult learning a priority; set high expectations for performance; create a culture of continuous learning for adults and get the community’s support for school success. Blase and Blase, (2000) expressed instructional leadership in specific behaviours such as making suggestions, giving feedback, modeling effective instruction, soliciting opinions, supporting collaboration, providing professional development opportunities, and giving praise for effective teaching


Knowledge and the Instructional Leader

            Inherent in the concept of an instructional leader is the notion that learning should be given top priority while everything else revolves around the enhancement of learning which undeniably is characteristic of any educational endeavour. Hence to have credibility as an instructional leader, the principal should also be a practicing teacher. For example, in the United Kingdom, most principals spend an average of  20 percent of their time in a week on teaching (Weindling 1990). Instructional leaders need to know what is going on in the classroom; an opportunity ‘to walk the factory floor’. Many a time, principals are not in touch with what is going on at the classroom level and are unable to appreciate some of the problems teachers and students encounter. The tendency is to address instructional issues from the perspective when they were teachers. Principals need to work closely with students, developing teaching techniques and methods as a means for understanding teacher perspectives and for establishing a base on which to make curricular decisions. Also, a teaching principal strengthens the belief that "the sole purpose of the school is to serve the educational needs of students" (Harden, 1988, p. 88). Whitaker (1997) identified four skills essential for instructional leadership.

  • First, they need to be a resource provider. It is not enough for principals to know the strengths and weaknesses of their faculty but also recognise that teachers desire to be acknowledged and appreciated for a job well done.
  • Secondly, they need to be an instructional resource. Teachers count on their principals as resources of information on current trends and effective instructional practices. Instructional leaders are tuned-in to issues relating to curriculum, effective pedagogical strategies and assessment. 
  • Thirdly, they need to be good communicators. Effective instructional leaders need to communicate essential beliefs regarding learning such as the conviction that all children can learn and no child should be left behind.
  • Finally, they need to create a visible presence. Leading the instructional programme of a school means a commitment to living and breathing a vision of success in teaching and learning. This includes focusing on learning objectives, modeling behaviors of learning, and designing programmes and activities on instruction.


While it is generally held that the principal is both manager-administrator and instructional leader in many countries, including Malaysia; principals tend to be more manager-administrators oriented while that of instructional leader is most often delegated to the assistant principal. Even then, the label ‘instructional leader’ is seldom assigned to any one person but is assumed to be the responsibility of all teachers. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that the trend is towards insisting that the principal assume the prominent role of an instructional leader. It will be a formidable task convincing principals to relinquish their image as manager-administrator and take on the role of instructional leader. Generally, principals do not see themselves as instructional leaders and many are of the belief that anything that has to do with teaching and learning is best assigned to teachers. In some cases, principals feel inadequate to initiate and develop instructional programmes given the assortment of subject areas taught with each having its own pedagogical uniqueness. For example, teaching reading is different from teaching science and would it be fair to expect the principal to be knowledgeable about instructional strategies for each of the subject areas. Despite these apprehensions, proponents of the idea that the principal should be an instructional leader, is gaining serious attention. If that be the case then the principal needs to have up-to-date knowledge on three areas of education, namely; curriculum, instruction and assessment.

  • With regards to curriculum, principals need to know about the changing conceptions of curriculum, educational philosophies and beliefs, knowledge specialisation and fragmentation, curricular sources and conflict, curriculum evaluation and improvement.
  • With regards to instruction, principals need to know about different models of teaching, the theoretical reasons for adopting a particular teaching model, the pedagogy of the internet, the theories underlying the technology-based learning environment.
  • With regards to assessment, principals need to know about the principles of student assessment, assessment procedures with emphasis on alternative assessment methods and assessment that aim to improve rather than prove student learning.


Underlying these three areas of knowledge, is a deep understanding of on how humans learn. It may not be an overstatement to suggest that a principal is not fully equipped if he or she does not have a deep understanding of human learning (Phillips, 1996). The core business of a school is learning and recent research in cognitive science has produced a wealth of knowledge about human learning. It is crucial that principals know and understand these theories so that they may serve as a resource in enhancing instructional effectiveness. An impoverished understanding of human learning will make it difficult for the principal to explain and justify the theoretical underpinnings of instructional strategies practiced. Furthermore, with the growing importance of technology in schools, principals also need to be equipped with the knowledge of technology integration in teaching and learning. Increasingly, principals are looked upon as leaders who will inspire teachers to adopt innovative pedagogies in the classroom. For example, if some students are unable to read and write at secondary level, the principal as instructional leader should take steps to alleviate the problem by supporting teachers' instructional methods, allocating resources and materials, visiting classrooms frequently, providing feedback on instructional methods and techniques and using data to focus attention on improving the curriculum and instruction (Mendez-Morse, 1991).


Skills and the Instructional Leader

            Besides having knowledge in the core areas of education, the principal must possess certain to carry out the tasks of an instructional leader. These skills are; interpersonal skills, planning skills, instructional observation skills, skills in research and evaluation.

  • Interpersonal or people skills are essential for the success of being a principal. These are skills that maintain trust, spur motivation, give empowerment and enhance collegiality. Relationships are built on trust and tasks are accomplished through motivation and empowerment wherein teachers are involved in planning, designing and evaluating instructional programmes. Empowerment leads to ownership and commitment as teachers identify problems and design strategies themselves. Collegiality promotes sharing, cooperation and collaboration, in which both the principal and teachers talk about teaching and learning.
  • Planning begins with clear identification of goals or vision to work towards as well as induce commitment and enthusiasm. Next is to assess what changes need to occur and which may be accomplished by asking the people involved, reading documents and observing what is going on.
  • Observing instruction (supervision) aims to provide teachers with feedback to consider and reflect upon. But teachers should make their own judgement and reach their own conclusions.
  • Research and evaluation skills are needed to critically question the success of instructional programmes initiated and one of the skills most useful would be action research.

The task of being an instructional leader is both complex and multidimensional. If principals believe that growth in student learning is the primary goal of schooling, then it is a task worth learning. If a principal possesses these knowledge and skills he or she are likely become an effective leaders - sharing, facilitating, and guiding decisions about instructional improvement for the betterment of student's education.


            If principals are to take the role of instructional leader seriously, they will have to free themselves from bureaucratic tasks and focus their efforts towards improving teaching and learning. Instructional improvement is an important goal, a goal worth seeking, and a goal when implemented, allows both students and teachers to control their own destiny in making a more meaningful learning environment. Brewer (2001) suggests that the role of the instructional leader be expanded to incorporate a shift away from "management" (working in the system of administrative tasks) toward "leadership" (working on the system) and in the case being argued it is ‘instructional leadership’. To achieve this quest, it takes more than a strong principal with concrete ideas and technical expertise. It requires a redefinition of the role of principals, one that removes the barriers to leadership by eliminating bureaucratic structures and reinventing relationships.

            In summary, the "dramatically different role" of the principal as an instructional leader is outlined by Brewer (2001) as “one that requires focusing on instruction; building a community of learners; sharing decision making; sustaining the basics; leveraging time; supporting ongoing professional development for all staff members; redirecting resources to support a multifaceted school plan; and creating a climate of integrity, inquiry, and continuous improvement” (p.30).





Blase, J. and Blase Jo. (2000). Effective instructional leadership: Teachers’ perspectives on how principals promote teaching and learning in schools. Journal of Educational Administration 38(2). 130-41.

Brewer, H. (2001). Ten steps to success. Journal of Staff Development, 22(1), 30-31.


Brookover, W. B., & Lezotte, L. (1982). Creating effective schools. Holmes Beach, FL: Learning Publication.

DuFour, Richard. The learning-centered principal. Educational Leadership 59, 8 (May 2002): 12-15.

Flath, B. (1989). The principal as instructional leader. ATA Magazines, 69(3), 19-22, 47-49.

Fullan, M. (1991). The new meaning of educational change. New York: Teachers College Press.

Lashway, L. (2002). Developing instructional leaders. ERIC Digest 160 (July), Clearinghouse on Educational Management, University of Oregon.

National Association of Elementary School Principals. (2001). Leading learning communities: Standards for what principals should know and be able to do. Alexandria, Virginia.

Stronge, J. H. (1988). A position in transition? Principal. 67(5), 32-33.

Mendez-Morse, S. (1991). The principal’s role in the instructional process: Implications for at-risk students. Issues about Change. 1(2). 1-5.

Whitaker, B. (1997). Instructional leadership and principal visibility. The Clearinghouse, 70(3), 155-156.

Weindling, D. (1990). The secondary school head teacher: New principals in the United Kingdom. National Association of Secondary School Principals Bulletin, 74(526), 40-45.