Management And Learning: Rethinking The Role Of School Leadership

Lee Fleming

“Our school district always talks about instructional leadership, but 95% of my job is management.” -Assistant Principal after one year on the job

I recently met with some colleagues from my Educational Leadership program. A year after graduation, many are now working in schools as administrators in local schools and we reflected on the gap between what we learned in the program and the skills needed on the ground in schools.

The dialogue at our table reflected the gap between the content of our preparatory coursework and the managerial work of an assistant principal. The message from the field is clear—principalship comes after proving yourself as an assistant principal. One of my fellow classmates commented that he hoped he would be an assistant principal for a short period of time so he wouldn’t forget all of that good stuff – “You know, before you get trained.” The one voice of hope at the table is working in a small innovative school who sees herself as a partner in hiring, guiding, and building the school and valued the program for her own practice.

As I reflected on our preparation together, it became clear that while our university experience delivered the content and put together an extensive internship to learn on the job, it is the nature of the assistant principal’s role that ultimately separates the program from the intended impact. While some of my peers had a solution for this—bag the courses, do an internship and add some classes that would pertain specifically to assistant principal needs, I wondered if the problem could be more quickly addressed at a school by rethinking the role of assistant principal.

Van Wert, Ohio Middle School is a perfect example of an assistant principal role. Mark Bagley, the principal at Van Wert has effective managerial strengths as a principal, but he also values instructional leadership and collaboration as general values. These values are clearly in place in his working relationship with Assistant Principal Darla Dunlap. Mark and Darla have developed a strong partnership in which they leverage one another’s strengths and most importantly, lead inquiry together with the school Building Leadership Team. As they continually hone their skills as a team, they model something that is not often the case: All administrators are responsible for both management and learning.

During my own administrative internship one assistant principal reinforced my fellow classmates remarks when he said to me, “I don’t get paid to think.” It was in that moment that I understood that while Mark and Darla’s approach to leadership in their school seemed like obvious good sense, it was uncommon and must take Mark in particular a great deal of discipline and innovation.

Secretary Arne Duncan in his remarks to the American Association of Colleges for Teachers Education Conference lamented the lack of instructional leadership among principals, “I want to make the case that our teacher and principal preparation programs need transformational change, not tinkering with the status quo.”

I add to that a need for transformational change—and contend that the status quo that needs to change is located just a little closer to home.


This post is part of our “Preparing Leaders for Deeper Learning” series. If you have thoughts about what today’s school leaders should know and be able to do and how they should be prepared, we’d love to hear from you. Contact [email protected] with the subject “Preparing Leaders” for more information.

To learn more about Deeper Learning environments for students, teachers and leaders check out:

Lee Fleming is Principal of Bonsall High School & Director of New School Development New Tech Network. Follow Lee on Twitter with 


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