How exemplary school leaders across Canada handle complex challenges

School principals’ work is becoming increasingly demanding and complex. However, despite increasing challenges, many principals continue to thrive and serve as effective instructional leaders and responsive supervisors in their schools.

Dr. Jim Brandon, Dr. Kent Donlevy and their team used data from a number of recent studies from across Canada to highlight 5 ways that exceptional principals overcome three of the most common and pressing challenges in their professional lives. This includes:

  • Management challenge – balancing bureaucratic and organizational requirements (e.g. budgeting, reporting, stakeholder concerns) with the need to support teachers in improving their instruction
  • Complexity challenge – navigating interpersonal, intellectual, and administrative responsibilities, particularly when there are ambiguous or vague expectations for certain leadership practices
  • Learning challenge – the lack of support for ongoing development of leadership knowledge and skills (e.g. supervisory, instructional), beyond one-time events and presentations

Management Challenge

Addressing the management challenge is essential to helping leaders support instructional improvements in their schools. Based on data from 109 staff in 16 school districts, a number of key qualities were noted in the research from exemplary school leaders.

These leaders demonstrate a passion for learning, and carry out plans to keep informed of teaching quality in their school. This could involve frequent informal visits to classrooms, as well as more structured interactions with individuals and groups of teachers. These leaders were seen as supportive and responsive to teaching and student learning needs, and work collaboratively within and beyond their school to gather and reflect on evidence from their classrooms. By promoting a focus on student learning, and scheduling purposeful opportunities to sustain this learning culture, leaders could better balance administrative and instructional duties.

Complexity Challenge

The need to work effectively with both new and veteran teachers is a significant feature of principals’ roles. Working within these different responsibilities and relationships, in order to meet the needs of both groups, can be complex.

The participants in these studies noted that for veteran teachers, building a trusting and open professional relationship was essential. They promoted having an emphasis on informal interactions and discussions, but that were still focused on supporting all students to succeed. Providing positive feedback and constructive criticism were also necessary to helping them continue their growth.

For novice teachers, setting and supporting them towards achieving high expectations were key features of helping them transition successfully into their positions. Having structured induction programs, and providing effective supervision during their first few months were seen as having the biggest impacts. Orientation sessions, mentoring opportunities, and group reflections were also commonly used strategies.

Adding to the complexity challenge, this working relationship requires principals to be both supportive colleagues, helping all teachers to adapt and grow, but also evaluators of their success. Principals might approach this scaffolding opportunity as a type of ‘formative assessment,’ which classroom teachers use to ensure that students will perform well in their summative performances.

Learning Challenge

Helping school leaders develop the necessary knowledge and skills for effective supervision and instructional leadership has been a considerable obstacle in many school districts. Until recently, little attention was given to providing robust, ongoing professional development to support school leaders grow these capacities. However, school and district leaders in high performing regions are seeing an increase in this area.

The school districts that were involved in the research projects each had their own, unique approach to filling this gap. A common thread between them involved bringing together collaborative teams to examine and share evidence of teacher and student learning. One school district replaced a monthly administrative meeting with a regular leadership learning opportunity, which helped grow the leaders’ capacity and confidence in holding evidence-informed conversations. This better prepares them to scaffold teacher and student success, keeping them connected to the realities of their schools.


See more from Dr. Jim Brandon on his profile

See more from Dr. Kent Donlevy on his profile


Connected Citations

Brandon, J., Hollweck, T., Donlevy, J. K., & Whalen, C. (2018, in press). Teacher supervision and evaluation challenges: Canadian perspectives on overall instructional leadership. Teacher and Teaching: Theory and Practice.