I have good news for school leaders: you do not need to be an “instructional leader”.
Principals, go ahead and let out that collective sigh. You cannot be masters of best practices and pedagogy in every content area and every grade level. It is not possible, and it is not the best use of your time and influence. Curriculum directors and superintendents, please hear me out before you close this post. I promise you will agree with at least some of the ideas shared here.
Let’s consider this quote from Rick DuFour and Mike Mattos,
“As former social studies teachers, we were not prepared to help a Spanish teacher improve when we couldn’t understand what he/she was saying. We were ill-equipped to enhance the pedagogy of an industrial arts teacher when we were mechanically inept.”(DuFour and Mattos, 2013)
We can all relate to this, can’t we? DuFour and Mattos go on to explain that because they often couldn’t assess whether the content or level of rigor in teaching was suitable, they had to rely on general monitoring of teaching quality and apply their knowledge of impactful questioning, authentic engagement, management strategies, and other related factors.
Raise your hand if you completely understand what DuFour and Mattos are talking about here? I am having trouble typing right now because my right hand is high in the air. I would often complete a teacher observation for our evaluation system and wonder how I was going to fulfill my promise to make the observation feedback valuable for the teacher. Maybe this is why research continually finds that teacher evaluation systems have zero or very little positive impact on student achievement?
You know what does have significant impact on student achievement, according to John Hattie’s research? Collective teacher efficacy. If we are going to be leaders-by-adjective, maybe we should be “Collective Teacher Efficacy Leaders”? Okay, that maybe was a bit sarcastic, but you know what I mean.
As reported in a 2004 research review commissioned by the Wallace Foundation, it has been widely recognized that effective school leadership is one of the most significant factors, second only to classroom instruction, that contributes to students’ academic performance and learning outcomes. Leithwood et al. emphasized the importance of school leadership in the research review and the updated version of that research review was released in February 2021 (linked HERE). It outlines specific behaviors that define effective leadership. The behaviors identified in the study center around instruction, people and the organization.
Principals need to be leaders of not only instruction, but of the people and the organization. We cannot be just instructional leaders, there is so much more to our work.
Let’s talk about what that means, and what it doesn’t mean. Here are some To-Dos and a few To-Don’ts for educational leaders.
- Have conversations with teachers about instruction, not to evaluate them or give them guidance, but to learn from them as the pedagogy experts of their students. You can also use this time to understand their strengths and goals better so you can support them in their next steps. These conversations can be part of your feedback discussion after an observation, as you walk through classrooms before or after school, or scheduled conversations. Keep the conversations open-ended and directed by their goals by asking them questions like these:
- What student learning are you excited about right now?
- What instructional resource is really helping your students grow?
- Tell me about an instructional fail you recently had, and what did you learn from it?
- Where do you feel really strong instructionally?
- Where are you feeling weak instructionally, and how can I support your growth?
- What is one achievement hope you have for your students between now and the end of the quarter?
- Learn alongside teachers. When you are offering teachers professional learning on instruction, stay off your email and learn with them. This is not to become the expert in the room, this is to show teachers how important investing in professional learning is to you. It is to have a knowledge base that will allow you to have deep conversations with them about the impact of the instruction on student learning. Learning alongside them will help you understand the ins and outs of the curriculum materials enough to be able to identify gaps in the materials. You want to have just enough information to be able to ask the right questions, you don’t need to have so much that you have all the right answers.
- Always bring the conversation back to talking about evidence of student learning. We can have thousands of the best curriculum resources at our finger tips but not a single one of them matters if they are not positively impacting student learning. Teachers are great at planning together. They problem-solve student behavior issues, they align where they are in units, and they are master collaborative event planners. However, they are not always quick to pull out student work and sort through it together to look for strengths and next instructional steps. They need constant guidance and modeling from leaders to always bring the conversation back to evidence of student learning, and not just quarterly to look at percentages on standardized tests.
- Shadow students. Getting into classrooms frequently is imperative for effective school leadership. One of the best ways to understand what the student experience is in your school is to shadow students. There is no better way to learn what is working for students and what isn’t working for them than to experience a day as they experience it. Ideally, you would do this frequently enough that you are able to experience student life in every grade level, with every teacher, and in every content area. It doesn’t have to be a whole day, it can be helpful to shadow a student for part of a day.
- Visit classrooms to leave positive feedback. Want to gain a better understanding of what is happening in classrooms and build relationships and empower teachers at the same time? Visit classrooms with the singular purpose of leaving a positive handwritten note behind. Just like with students, teachers appreciate specific positive feedback. One way to do that is to leave cause and effect statements. Here is an example: “When you had students stand and use gestures to represent the vocabulary words, all of them became engaged again and excitedly participated.” Don’t use classroom walkthroughs as gotchas for teachers. Not only will teachers cringe when you walk into their classrooms, there is research that says principal classroom walkthroughs can have a negative effect on student achievement when there is not a trusting environment and a shared understanding of the purpose of the walkthroughs.
- Prioritize having a Professional Learning Community (PLC). The best way to support the practice of collective teacher efficacy in schools is through PLCs. When schools have a true PLC culture with dedicated time set aside each week to collaborate around evidence of student learning, student achievement really begins to shift. We move from trying to Tier Two our way out of a Tier One problem to genuinely collaborating around the impact of instructional practices. The unfortunate reality is that many educators feel like they have “been there, done that” with PLCs when in actuality, they never really collaborated in the way Professional Learning Communities are designed. The 2016 article titled, “The futility of PLC lite” by Douglas Reeves and Rick DuFour is a great place to start when considering how to bring PLCs to your campus or back-to-life on your campus.
School leadership is daunting right now, which causes me to add another To-Do to the list. Principals, be sure to play and add something fun to your schedule every day. If you are a secondary principal and like to make a fool of yourself trying to shoot hoops for a few minutes with the varsity basketball teams, go do that. If you are an elementary principal and you love pushing kindergarteners on the swings, go do that. Play fun music and dance with students. Whatever you need to do to remind yourself about the things you love the most about your job each day, be sure to schedule in time to do it.
Thank you school leaders for all you do. The hard work you put in makes a difference. You are pulled in a million directions and leaning on research and each other to help us determine how to prioritize our work is so important. We are so much better together.
- DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., Many, T. W., & Mattos, M. (2016). Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at WorkTM (An Actionable Guide to Implementing the PLC Process and Effective Teaching Methods) 3rd Edition. Solution Tree Press.
- Knowledge Center. (2021, October 19). How Principals Affect Students and Schools: A Systematic Synthesis of Two Decades of Research. The Wallace Foundation. https://www.wallacefoundation.org/knowledge-center/pages/how-principals-affect-students-and-schools.aspx
- Herold, B. (2021, November 17). Efforts to Toughen Teacher Evaluations Show No Positive Impact on Students. Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/efforts-to-toughen-teacher-evaluations-show-no-positive-impact-on-students/2021/11
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9 thoughts on “Principals: You Don’t Need to be an Instructional Leader”
I agree with everything you wrote. What is your definition of instructional leader? To me, it isn’t the expert in content and grade level but to ensure student learning and growth for all students is taking place.
That is a great definition! My purpose in writing this post was to alleviate some pressure some principals feel to be experts in all areas of pedagogy. This mentality is often supported by teacher evaluation systems. Additionally, my goal is to share research-supported practices that are worth prioritizing. I love the idea of removing the pressure to be a leader-by-adjective because our perceptions of what that means varies so much from leader to leader. ❤️
Shocking headline, but spot on. I hope people read on to grasp the nuances…you’re not proposing we should not manage and lead, but that we recognize that the farther we are from the classroom the more experts in instruction our teachers become than us…and our role is to lead that growth for kids.
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Yes yes yes! So well said Walt! Thank you for reading and sharing your wisdom!
Solid article. I like to pride myself in my school leadership practice, and there were bells ringing and head nods as I read this. I know I am not an expert on all subject content but I am able to see engagement, facilitate discussions with teachers about student learning, and present research-based practices that may actually turn into side-by-side professional learning. I think teachers actually respect this transparency. I am ‘tone deaf’ but some of the best teaching I have observed is in the band class. Honestly!
Appreciated the highlighting of all the other duties you shared including the interaction with students in a variety of locations. The students are the centre of our work and I have found that they are very willing to provide their own feedback. They know and appreciate an effective teacher (and principal).
And isn’t this the truest statement about PLCs! “We move from trying to Tier Two our way out of a Tier One problem to genuinely collaborating around the impact of instructional practices.”
I love how you said this Shaune, and I wholeheartedly agree that teachers respect transparency. They also respect leaders being in the game with them and learning alongside them, like you stated. Thank you so much for your leadership!
I am a brand new administrator, and this article excited me so much!! I am moving from the role of Special Education teacher to administrator. I am accustomed to being in classrooms, and working with teachers. My hope is that my supervising administrator will allow me to work with teachers in instructional improvements. Not that I’m an expert in all content areas, by any means. I just want to help my coworkers realize their fullest potential.
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