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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,