The question of developing and nurturing successful public schools is one that every person in the education system, from the youngest teachers to the most experienced policy makers, grapple with every day. Adding to the trials of an already complex system, more and more schools are being asked to take on tasks parents and the community handled in past decades, as well as respond to high-stakes accountability mandates. Public schools are fast becoming more than children’s educational foundations. They are growing into a bedrock of their social, physical and emotional wellness.

A key question to ask of public education’s transformation is what is working in the schools and how can other school leaders learn from these models. And that is exactly what Aimee LaPointe Terosky, Ed.D., set out to do. An assistant professor of educational leadership, she is an expert in K-12 and higher education teaching and learning, and a former assistant principal of a K-8 public school in New York City (PS 334, The Anderson School). The Anderson School won the 2007 Blackboard Award for best public middle school.

“There’s a general feeling of being overwhelmed or powerless in education right now, even though there is so much responsibility in the hands of administrators,” says Terosky. “Most administrators enter the education field because they believe in teaching and learning, but more and more their roles are managerial, business-like, instead of instructional.” She likens her concerns to a “managerial imperative,” a phrase coined by educational historian Larry Cuban.

During her own six-year tenure as an assistant principal, Terosky saw for herself the strain that some of these new responsibilities can cause. In 2009, the outbreak of H1N1 brought all school activities to a halt when PS 344 suddenly had to find a way to efficiently and comprehensively vaccinate well over 300 students.

“I kept watching as these community responsibilities were dropped on administrators’ shoulders,” Terosky says. “I couldn’t help but wonder who was keeping an eye on teaching and academics while we were busy doing everything else.”

In her study, Terosky interviewed, surveyed and observed 18 principals of schools in New York City who were identified by the City’s Department of Education network leaders and/or achievement coaches as “exceptional instructional leaders.” She hoped to discover what they were doing effectively around teaching and learning, and bring their methods to other educators struggling to strike a balance between managing and guiding instruction.

“I wanted to see in what creative ways these specific principals held up the administrative end of the deal — without losing focus on learning,” Terosky says.

The risk of increasing managerial demands on principals, she explains, is that the more time a principal spends in his or her office, the less time he or she can spend on academics and teachers’ professional growth in the school.

In interviews with Terosky, principals’ answers were rote and precise regarding “instructional leadership,” the type of task-oriented leadership they perform when managing their school. Their responses suggest the limitation of so-called instructional leadership. In contrast, they answered from a deeper perspective when asked about what they aspired to accomplish with their positions. For Terosky, the difference in responses marked an important chasm in their roles as school leaders, which she sees as a “learning imperative” that is counter-narrative to a managerial imperative.

Besides a learning imperative, Terosky found that her participants engendered the principles of the “servant leadership” theory — principles that help others develop and succeed. Servant leadership enriches a community by encouraging growth and achievement from within; leaders who practice it often consider the success of the people they lead more important than their own. Principals can be the kind of leadership support system that teachers need in an evolving academic environment, but, bogged down by too many managerial responsibilities, they are slowly losing their opportunities to properly mentor the next class of educational leaders.

Terosky’s research provides “windows of possibility” by showcasing principals noted as effective leaders for teaching and learning; these principals foster teachers’ professional growth and prioritize a learning imperative. She hopes these principals’ stories assist other school leaders navigate the complex realities of today’s urban, public schools.

“I want administrators to see that there are creative ways to hold up our end of the deal without losing the learning imperative,” says Terosky. “You do have to take care of managerial tasks, but you can’t let all of your time be managerial. The forms and paperwork don’t have to be the first thing you take care of each day.”