The gift of focus: Elementary school principals describe their leadership and what it would take for them to be instructional leaders

Todd S Parker, University of Pennsylvania


This study rests on the assumption that principal leadership is essential to effective teaching and learning in schools. Research on the principalship provides countless conceptions, characterizations, and accounts of what principal leadership can and does look like. Other research suggests a current and future shortage of qualified applicants for principal positions. Some of this shortage can be tied to unflattering and unrewarding pictures of the principalship that discourage potential applicants. This study explored how principals describe their jobs and their leadership with hopes of discovering some of what might be done, if these accounts are at all generalizable, to encourage more applicants. Specifically, this study is about the leadership experiences of eight elementary school principals. Through interviews, observations, and document collection, it explored accounts of principal leadership that are not always consistent with what the principals hoped their leadership to be. Instead, the principals find themselves engaged in work that distracts them from what they consider to be instructional leadership. The primary research questions addressed in this study were: (1) How do principals describe their leadership in their schools? (2) How do the requirements of their job coincide with what they feel their leadership ought to be? This study concludes that the principalship is a multifaceted job with often competing demands. In light of competing demands, principals often spend their time and energies on what is expedient or pressing, rather than on what they consider to be meaningful instructional activity. Given the experiences of these eight principals, this study suggests that principals learn and adopt a distributive approach to leadership that allows them to tap the skills and expertise of others in their schools while simultaneously shifting some responsibilities for instructional improvement from them onto the shoulders of others. The study also presents thoughts on how the principalship might be reconceived so that principals are not expected to be all things to all people and can, instead, concentrate on improved teaching and learning in their schools.

Subject Area

School administration

Recommended Citation

Parker, Todd S, "The gift of focus: Elementary school principals describe their leadership and what it would take for them to be instructional leaders" (2004). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3137316.