How principals manage their time is key to improving instruction in their schools

teachersPrincipals tend to greatly overestimate the amount of time they spend on instruction. Ask most principals how much time they spend on instruction and they are likely to estimate they spend 70% or more of their time on instruction and 30% on other management issues when it is really the other way around, says Dr. Jody Spiro, senior program officer at the Wallace Foundation.

As part of its initiative to improve educational leadership, the Wallace Foundation developed a time/task analysis tool that allows principals to keep track of their time as precisely as a lawyer keeps track of billable hours. When they use the tool, principals consistently find they are spending spending 70% of their time on “buses, budgets, and behavior” and only 30% of their time on instruction, says Spiro. (To download the tool go to:

Becoming aware of how they spend their time and then disciplining themselves to delegate many of the management tasks to a trusted staff member is one of the first steps principals can take to become a better instructional leader, according to the Wallace Foundation. One strategy advocated by the Foundation to free up more of a principal’s time for instruction is to have a staff member play the role of School Administration Manager (SAM). A SAM is an assistant who takes on many of the principal’s most time-consuming management tasks.

Currently, there are 160 principal/SAM teams in 37 districts in 9 states participating in the Wallace Foundation’s School Administration Manager Project. Based on a recent evaluation of the project commissioned by the Wallace Foundation, principals spend a large share of their time (51%) on the following 5 management tasks:

  1. office work prep
  2. supervision of employees
  3. student supervision
  4. decision-making committees, groups and meetings
  5. student discipline

Principals spend another 20% of their time on other non-instruction tasks such as building management, meeting with parents and external officials, etc.

In schools with a SAM, according to the evaluation, after one year principals increased the amount of time they spent on instructional tasks from 32% of their work week to an average of 45%. In hours, this means the principals spent about 5 hours more per week on instructional issues or about 58 minutes per day. SAM project principals at the middle and high school levels spent less time than principals at the elementary school level on instruction (36% compared to 51%).

How instructional time is spent

Principals used the time they gained for instruction by working with a SAM on the following top 3 instructional leadership activities:

  1. observation and walkthrough
  2. instruction-related office work
  3. prep work with students

On a weekly basis, principals spent an additional 69 minutes on observation and walkthroughs, 55 additional minutes on office work related to instruction and an additional 49 minutes on work with students, according to the evaluation.

Smaller amounts of time (1 to 4 minutes per day, or up to 20 minutes per week) were spent on providing feedback to teachers, modeling and teaching, interaction with external officials related to instruction and on “celebrating” instruction. Universally, when principals look at how they spend their instructional time, they say they need to do more observation and walkthroughs, says Spiro.

Piloted in elementary schools in Kentucky, SAMs were originally envisioned to be new hires from outside the education field, but in practice, that model, especially as it has spread to middle schools and high schools, has mutated into several variations. Not all SAMs are new hires from outside education. Some are recruited from inside the school. School secretaries or teachers may leave their positions to become a SAM. Retired principals are sometimes recruited for the position.

In another variation of the model (Model 3), an existing staff member may merely take on some of the roles of the SAM without taking on all the management responsibilities. (Researchers found that when this model was used it resulted in less added time for principals on instruction.) Of the SAMs in the project, 31% had been teachers, 37% said they had been employed as “other school staff,” 16% were retired principals or assistant principals and only 14% had no previous employment in schools.

Coaching role

Usually paid less than an assistant principal, SAMs have a dual role: handling management tasks and working with principals to encourage them to manage priorities in order to spend more time on instruction. One participant in the project said the SAM acts as the principal’s “Jiminy Cricket” on instruction.

In practice, however, many SAMs don’t play time-use coach as much as they should, according to the evaluation. In the daily meetings between the principal and the SAM, the 2 are likely to discuss priorities, but the meeting is more casual. A major hurdle to SAMs playing more of the coach role, the researchers report, is the inherent tension in the working relationship of a SAM and principal and the fact that principals are SAMs’ bosses. Principals in the SAM project also meet with a time-use coach and have a mentor who may play more of that role, according to Spiro.

Spiro believes the greatest impact on principals, more than the coaching, is a newfound awareness of how they use their time. The SAM project is largely about helping principals change their behavior and rethink their jobs, she said.

One principal at an elementary school was able to increase the amount of time he spent on instructional issues to 90% by working with a SAM.

“They finished each other’s sentences,” she said. When that principal accepted a new job at another school that did not have a SAM position, he still managed to keep 60% of his time on instructional matters.

“‘Having had a SAM I know what I’m supposed to be doing,'” he said.

Effectiveness as instructional leaders

How effective are principals when they do focus on instruction?

“Although the vast majority of participating principals wanted to be instructional leaders, few articulated a vision of what an instructional leader does or which activities would be the highest priorities,” the researchers write.

Many needed help setting instruction goals and identifying the leadership activities that would pay off in their schools. Spiro says a next step for the project is to identify the high-leverage tasks that will get the “biggest bang for the buck” in instruction. For example, a principal is sure to get more leverage from working to develop a professional learning community than from teaching a class to students, although both are instruction activities.

Based on time/task analysis, principals currently spend most of the time they devote to instruction on the following 7 tasks:

  1. observation, walkthrough
  2. planning, curriculum and assessment,
  3. instructional meetings with individuals or groups
  4. decision-making committees, groups and meetings
  5. instruction-related office work prep (review lesson plans, prep for feedback/evaluations or for instructional meetings)
  6. employee supervision
  7. work with students

Feedback to teachers

Principals spent far less time in providing feedback to teachers (60 minutes per week after one year of implementation) than on “observation/walkthrough” (3 hours, 59 minutes per week), according to the study.

One district-level staff member commented: “Students don’t improve just because the principal is in the classroom. But the critical point is that you do not influence that teacher until you provide feedback.”

Teachers in several schools said that their principals gave little or no individual feedback, choosing instead to focus on giving group feedback on checklist criteria (e.g. whether class objectives had been posted on the board), according to the report. Principals who used handheld devices to collect checklist data during observations often emailed the results to teachers with brief comments.

Principals hoped to improve their own skills in giving teachers’ individual feedback. One principal spoke of wanting to encourage an ongoing professional conversation with teachers and to encourage greater reflection.

“I don’t know if [giving feedback] ever gets easy,” one principal said. Another talked about having focused, as a result of the SAM project, on giving teachers feedback that was a lot deeper.

“It is better. The teachers are very responsive to very specific feedback and suggestions.”

Working teacher groups

Principals often drop in on working teacher groups on an occasional basis but some principals in the SAM program made it a priority to regularly attend these group meetings. Teachers were more likely to see principals as active participants, rather than observers, if the principals attended meetings regularly, according to the evaluation.

The take-away for principals that are not involved in the SAM project is that they, too, can gain time to focus on instruction by becoming more aware of how they spend their time and disciplining themselves to delegate many management tasks, Spiro says. If the fire marshall comes to the school to do an inspection, someone else can walk him around the building, Spiro says.

Principals can get the Wallace Foundation time/task tool for free on the Foundation’s website, to monitor how they are spending their time. Tasks are color-coded (yellow for instruction and green for management ) to be able to quickly check on balance of time use. Many principals like using a bar graph that shows how many times they have visited teachers’ classes each month. (To download the tool go to: )

“I think the principal creates the weather,” said one principal in the project. “What I value and what I monitor and what I espouse is what becomes the mission and vision of the school. What I see as the most important role of the principal is to define those things to be most valued. I began to define the values of our school.”

“Evaluation of the School Administration Manager Project,” by Brenda Turnbull et al., Policy Studies Associates, Inc. for the Wallace Foundation, December 2009.

The SAMs evaluation is available at:

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