Instructional leadership is one of the most studied forms of school leadership, and one that has always held a special interest for me over the years. Researchers began to look at this particular type of leadership more than fifty years ago, because of the impact that school leaders had on learning in their buildings, which were also in areas with severe poverty where there seemed to be many problems against students, teachers and leaders in the building (Edmonds. 1979).
Although instructional leadership has been around for decades, it seems to be a new phenomenon in many schools, as the role of manager is still very important to many leaders. After all, a number of leaders have accepted the position because of their management skills (i.e. scheduling, discipline, safety, etc.), not because they were exceptional teachers in the classroom. Just to be clear, this is not an insult to the leaders. Instructional leadership was simply not an expectation for most building leaders.
Then came NCLB, liability and high-stakes testing. Students were tested and teachers were held accountable for student learning in a formal way that had never happened before in many schools, districts, or states. With this scrutiny of testing and what should be taught, a new role has come for training leaders to become more involved in day-to-day teaching.
Is it fair to ask principals to be instructional leaders? We could debate this all day, but the reality is that if people want to take on a leadership role in a building, they need to find a better balance between the management role, which is always very important, and the role of instructional leader. , which may not be something they feel confident in.
This role of instructional leadership comes with some complications. As Voltaire said so well,With great power comes great responsibility.” Unfortunately, there is such pressure to be an instructional leader in many schools that leaders often feel the need to “pretend until they make itwhich is probably not the best leadership philosophy.
Equally complex is when leaders feel confident that they can be instructional leaders, but in reality they may lack credibility in the eyes of their teachers. After all, there’s a big difference between feeling confident and being competent. For example, in the research I did for my new book Instructional Leadership: Creating Practice Out Of Theory, I surveyed leaders to ask how confident they felt in the instructional leadership role. The image below shows the results.
A few weeks later, I interviewed teachers to ask how much confidence they had in their principal’s ability to be an instructional leader. These results are below.
Also, in this interesting article from the Education Week Research Center, they examined the gap between the perceptions of leaders and teachers on different topics related to education. The image below is taken from this research and goes to the heart of instructional leadership. If teachers are doing innovative things with students in the classroom, are leaders seeing it and supporting it? And, are the two groups collecting evidence to figure out if this innovative thing actually worked?
Instructional leadership is about focusing on learning, which means we need to have a common language and a common understanding of what classroom learning looks like. And that’s often part of the struggle too. People in the same building have different ideas about what good learning looks like, and managers who plan to be instructional leaders need to bring all of these different ideas together and engage in dialogue around them. But it’s hard…
The negative consequences on instructional leadership
So we now have leaders in a new defined role, some of whom didn’t want the instructional leadership role in the first place, and they have teachers who don’t necessarily see them as a credible source in that role. How can we all move forward to enhance the role of instructional leadership?
Above all, we approach the subject and engage in a dialogue around it, even if it means accepting certain criticisms of the educational leadership approach. For example, there are researchers, leaders, teachers, and experts who say that instructional leadership is only a small focus in the world of school leadership. It is very true. Instructional leadership cannot be a 24/7 priority for leaders because they have so many other issues they are tackling at the same time. It really comes down to looking at how we spend our time as leaders when we have the closest contact with staff and in the areas we are already responsible for (i.e. observations, tours, meetings faculty, etc.).
What we do know is that if leaders get this small goal wrong, it can have negative consequences in a school building. Two examples of how this small household can create chaos.
Example 1. At the beginning of the year, a principal bought a book on collaboration for all his teachers, told them to read the book and also asked them to come back with a collaboration goal at the end of the week. . The teachers were stunned because they had so many other things to do before the school year started, and now their principal wanted them to read a book they hadn’t asked for and had to set a goal in the 7 days.
Did the leader really believe that he was an instructional leader? After all, they bought all their teachers a book on collaboration.
Example #2. Another director was ordered by her superintendent to begin guided tours in her building. All in all, it seemed like a good idea, but the superintendent wanted her to start immediately and told her she had to do at least 10 visits a day. Every time the principal started to enter the classrooms, the teachers interrupted the teaching, looked up and asked how they could help the principal. They weren’t used to her stopping so much.
Walkthroughs are common practice these days, but if a leader doesn’t build a clear vision with teachers on what a walkthrough should look like, it can create chaos in a building.
These examples, which are actual examples that I have heard while on the road, can go on and on. What we think we are doing as instructional leaders because of the pressure we feel to do it, can actually harm the climate of our schools more than it helps them.
Where are we going to start?
After researching instructional leadership for several years, I found six areas we need to focus on. Given the small focus and the importance of that small focus, these are the areas where we get the most bang for our buck. These areas are:
Implementation – We need to take time and engage in a dialogue around why we do, what we do. Some tools like program logic models or implementation cycles help us clarify all of this and more likely keep us from quitting when we hit implementation trough.
Focus on learning – What are we really looking for when we enter the classrooms? Do we have step-by-step biases and are looking for the Pinterest classroom? Or are we looking for opportunities for students to learn in different ways, such as using factual, procedural, conceptual, and metacognitive knowledge? And do we understand the cognitive relevance of each of these dimensions?
Student engagement – We have students who are disengaged which leads to lateness and absenteeism. How do we establish an emotional connection with our school community for our students and how do we encourage them to have a voice in their own learning? These are the issues that research (Odetola) shows we need to address in order to build engagement.
Teaching strategies – Virtually all instructional strategies used in the classroom have been researched. Do we know which ones encourage surface learning and which ones encourage deep learning to transfer?
Efficiency – Bandura (2000) found that when leaders feel confident, they redouble their efforts and when they don’t, they slacken their efforts. However, there is a long way between confidence and competence, and sometimes we have to develop this competence through the collective effectiveness of the leader, and what we know is that not all leadership teams work well. .
Impact proof – Hattie said repeatedly, I don’t care how you teach as much as I care about your impact. We have so much data and evidence at our fingertips in schools. How do we use it?
At the end
Many building leaders find themselves in a position they never considered when they took the job, and that is the role of instructional leadership. Done well, it can bring a building together and create a positive learning environment for students. Done wrong and it can tear a building apart. Which would you choose?
Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including his latest publication Pedagogical leadership: creating practice from theory (Corwin Press. 2020). Connect with him on Twitter or via his YouTube channel.
Opening image courtesy of Getty.