A School With No Principal (But Plenty of Leadership)


Can you imagine your school functioning without a principal? Not just for a day here or there…but forever?

That’s exactly what this school in Maine is doing: they’re not going to replace their principal, who stepped down for medical reasons:

“She was splitting her time and it seemed like when we needed something or something came up, she wasn’t available for us,” said Tammy Moulton, an eighth-grade teacher who has taught in Athens for 30 years. “Between obligations at another school and meetings she had to attend, she wasn’t often available, and we found ourselves doing a lot of things anyway. We had to make decisions and get things done on a daily basis.”

One teacher saw an article about a “teacher-led” school — there is no principal and teachers are fully responsible for all decisions — and they decided the model was something they wanted to explore. Read more »

Instead of hiring a new principal, they’re using the instructional leadership capacity they’ve already built. Can this work?

The Power of Distributed Instructional Leadership

It might sound radical, but about 70 “teacher-led” schools around the country already operate this way—with no principal at all.

Is it a good idea? I think it could spread teachers too thin, but I love that it’s possible.

Here’s what the research on “distributed” instructional leadership says: instructional leadership is inherently distributed.

There’s no getting around the fact that principals aren’t the only leaders. We can’t be. We shouldn’t be. And we aren’t.

Developing Instructional Leadership “Bench Strength”

In sports, the depth of a team’s “bench” is an important measure of its strength and resilience. Who can step forward and take the lead when a star player has to sit out?

Superstar players may lead a team to the playoffs, but what if the superstar is benched by an injury? That’s a lot of risk for the team.

And it’s the same in schools: Who will step up and lead when you’re not there, whether you’re just not in a certain meeting, out for the day, or gone for good?

Could your school run long-term with no principal? It depends on the depth of your “bench” of instructional leaders.

So if you’re a principal, you have a choice:

  1. You can pretend you’re the only leader, and treat other sources of leadership as irrelevant, OR
  2. You can invest in building your school’s capacity for instructional leadership.

This is fairly new territory for most schools, I know. But in the High-Performance Instructional Leadership Network, we’re diving in with both feet.

The Network, our flagship program, is no longer just about helping individual leaders increase their productivity and impact. It’s about building capacity for instructional leadership across the organization.

Truly Distributed Instructional Leadership

Here’s what I’ve come to believe: instructional leadership isn’t just distributed among staff. It’s distributed even more broadly, incorporating students and the community.

Wait…students as instructional leaders? Yes, and here’s how it can look:

  • Students, staff, and the community are involved in decision-making
  • Students, staff, and the community are engaged in goal-setting and culture-making
  • Students and staff engage with standards—instead of relying on the curriculum department to pick materials that are aligned with standards

And there’s much more. But that can wait.

Today, I want to hear from you: What do you think about this idea of schools without principals?

If your school was going to become principal-free, where would you invest your efforts in building capacity for distributed leadership?

Leave a comment below and let me know.

And if you want to learn more about building your school’s capacity for instructional leadership, take a look at the Network.

May #ilchal Twitter Chat: Building Capacity for Instructional Leadership


Our next Instructional Leadership Challenge Twitter chat is Monday, May 25 (Memorial Day) at 9pm EST.

We’ll be talking about building your school’s capacity for instructional leadership.

Your leadership will have a greater impact if you’re not the only one exercising instructional leadership. What can you do to help your teachers grow, develop more leaders, and encourage more leadership from your staff?

Add your voice to the discussion—join the next #ilchal Twitter chat:

Date: Monday, May 25, 2015

Time: 9:00 p.m. Eastern (6:00 p.m. Pacific/7pm Mountain/8pm Central)


Twitter, #ilchal

Topic: Goal-Setting

Get a Reminder

If you’d like to be reminded via email before each #ilchal Twitter chat, sign up here:


The #ilchal Twitter chat is hosted by Justin Baeder and Jillian Lubow, creators of the Instructional Leadership Challenge

Whether you’re a Twitter chat devotee or you’re just getting started on social media, this is a great chance to connect with your peers and have an honest, engaged discussion about your challenges and triumphs in pursuit of true instructional leadership.

See you there!

Future Dates

(Usually the Last Monday of each month):

  • Monday, June 29, 2015
  • Monday, July 27
  • Monday, August 31

About the 21-Day Instructional Leadership Challenge

The 21-Day Instructional Leadership Challenge has helped more than 3,000 school administrators in 50 countries become stronger instructional leaders.

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Why SMART Goals Don’t Work In Isolation

Most schools now use SMART goals of some kind. The exact terms vary, but SMART usually stands for something like:

  • Specific—the goal is tightly focused on a single area
  • Measurable—there’s a specific numerical target that defines success
  • Attainable—the goal is something we can reasonably achieve, with sufficient effort
  • Relevant—the goal matters in the larger picture
  • Time-bound—there’s a deadline by which the goal must be met

I’ll be honest: I have mixed feelings about SMART goals, and I’m guessing you have mixed feelings based on your experience, too.

My first issue is this: too often, in our drive to help people focus and get more specific and more measurable in their goal-setting, we eliminate the part that matters most: the reason we care in the first place.

As educators, we’re driven by the desire to make a difference in the lives of our students.

We want to inspire them.

We want them to take challenging courses.

We want them to graduate.

We want them to go on to great careers and colleges.

We want to see them soar.

(Notice a theme?)

We’re not so fired up about helping them move from an average of 63% on the pre-test to 82% on the post-test.

Tell me if it feels this way to you, too: the more specific the goal, the less it seems to really matter in the grand scheme of things.

And that’s not all that bothers me about SMART goals. Too often, they’re simply quantifications of magical thinking.

Do we have any specific reason to believe that our students will go from 63% to 82%?

Too often, the answer is no.

We need to ask ourselves: What we are we doing on a daily basis to create progress toward our target?

What actions can I take every day—and what can I specifically do today—to have a realistic shot at my goal?

SMART goals aren’t bad, but they aren’t sufficient. They aren’t motivating enough, and they aren’t actionable enough.

But it’s not too hard to complete the puzzle.

When we do, we end up with SMART goals in the middle of a model that looks like this:

Let’s look at each component.

Uncompromising Goals: Our Greater Purpose for Students

Ultimately, we need to be guided by our GPS: our Greater Purpose for Students.

Take any educator, move him or her to another school, and their SMART goals will be totally irrelevant. But their Uncompromising Goals will remain the same, because they’re what drive us as professionals.

Your GPS is the reason behind your SMART goals, and the reason you work so hard to develop habits for high performance.

Uncompromising Goals are the big-picture goals we’ll always be working toward. They’re what holds our focus—what keeps our eye on the prize.

Focusing on Uncompromising Goals is motivating…but it can also be a bit pie-in-the-sky. We need to have a lofty vision—dreams of our students soaring—but we don’t need our heads in the clouds all the time.

That’s where SMART goals can help us out.

SMART Goals: Monitoring and Validation

SMART goals help us keep realistic track of our progress, validate our theory of action, and adjust our effort as necessary.

When we have specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound goals, we’ll know pretty quickly if we’re off-track.

If you’re training for a marathon by walking your dog around the block twice a day, you’re probably deluding yourself. That level of effort simply isn’t going to produce the level of results you want.

So a more realistic plan would have you working up to longer and longer runs, culminating in the 26.2-mile marathon itself.

If a five-mile run pushes you utterly to your limits, you’ll know you aren’t ready yet. It’ll take more time and more training to reach your goal.

The key to using SMART goals effectively is to use them in the short term.

Too often, though, our SMART goals cover the whole year, which doesn’t give us the agility we need to adjust the plan.

If our approach is way off, and we don’t find out until June, we’ve missed a year full of opportunities to adjust.

High-Performance Habits: Building Our Muscles Every Day

Uncompromising Goals and SMART goals can get us moving and get us focused, but they’re not directly achievable.

You can’t wake up in the morning and do a goal. We achieve our goals through our behavior—through the actions we take.

And there’s no better way to achieve a goal that you’re focused on than to take consistent, concerted action every day. That’s what I call high-performance habits.

A high-performance habit incorporates the other two elements of the High Performance Triangle: strategy and tools.

Strategy determines our effectiveness; tools increase our efficiency; and habits create consistency.

More on Goals

As you can see, I’m fired up about this topic, because it has enormous potential for our students, staff, and schools. I’m cooking something up right now, and I’ll probably take this article offline after my new goal-setting materials are ready.

To make sure you don’t miss out, put yourself on the list here.

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