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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

5 Reasons You May Not Be the Instructional Leader You Think

By Peter DeWitt — September 15, 2019 5 min read
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Instructional leadership is one of the most researched forms of leadership over the last 50 years. It happens when those in a leadership position focus their efforts on the implementation of practices that will positively impact student learning (DeWitt. 2019). In John Hattie’s synthesis of meta-analysis around leadership, which includes 17 meta-analyses involving over 600 studies, it is the form of leadership that provided the biggest impact to student learning. In fact, Robinson et al. (2018, p. 23) writes, “The more leaders focus their influence, their learning, and their relationships with teachers on the core business of teaching and learning, the greater their likely influence on student outcomes.”

Recently, the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) published a 10-year study focusing on leadership. In the study, Fuller et al. (2018. p.1) found that the demands of instructional leadership are increasing. They write,

Over the past few years, the extent to which she uses assessment data for instructional planning has increased, along with her involvement in helping teachers use effective instructional practice and her efforts to develop the school as a professional learning community. She spends much of her time in contact with staff, especially in her supervisory role."

Much of this seems like common sense. After all, if leaders put their focus on learning and practice instructional leadership, it will give them the biggest bang for their buck when it comes to student growth and achievement. Unfortunately, instructional leadership is easy to talk about but not as easy to put into practice.


There are so many demands put on principals and assistant principals that it becomes difficult to practice instructional leadership. In that same 10-year study published by NAESP, Fuller et al. (2018. p.2) write, “Her awareness and involvement have increased dramatically regarding student mental health and student socio-emotional awareness.

It’s difficult to try to manage a building filled with students and adults at the same time that we are supposed to be focusing on learning. However, there is another reason why instructional leadership is difficult. Many times leaders believe they are practicing instructional leadership when, in fact, their actions do not match up to their words. It’s something I wrote about earlier this year in this blog focusing on whether teachers are confident in their principal’s ability to be an instructional leader.

5 Reasons
There are at least five reasons why we may not be the instructional leaders we think we are in our buildings. It has a great deal to do with the identity we set for ourselves. Stone and Heen (2014) have researched areas like feedback triggers, which focused on why we sometimes get upset when we receive feedback. One of the triggers is the identity trigger. The feedback we receive doesn’t match up with the identity we set for ourselves. Instructional-coaching expert Jim Knight has researched using video to capture our coaching conversations, and one of the reasons he looked at this area is that how we think a conversation goes may not be the reality of how it really went.

So, in an effort to keep the conversation going about the complexities of instructional leadership, I wanted to add five reasons we may not quite be doing the job our Twitter feed leads everyone to believe we are actually doing. Those five reasons are:

Meetings - In the last week, our meetings with individuals or groups focused more on adult issues than they did on learning. We had to mediate two teachers who had an argument or had to spend our faculty meeting clarifying an email that we sent the day before. If we truly want to be instructional leaders, we need to make sure that our meetings focus on learning. What I learned from the research I did on leadership credibility is that proximity matters. That time alone with individuals or staff is precious time, and we should be talking about learning.

Implementation - These days it’s easy to get on Twitter and see what our “friends” are Tweeting about and then believe we are supposed to be doing the same thing in our schools. We have a Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO), and if everyone else is doing it, we should be doing it, too. You’re not. You need to take time to implement ideas and initiatives based on what your buildings need, not what others are Tweeting about.

Observation Bias - We go in to do walk-throughs and observations and we do not recognize our observation bias. I wrote about the issue in this blog on leadership coaching. Too often we walk into classrooms looking for the Pinterest classroom, and when we don’t see what we want to see, we make assumptions. If we truly want to be instructional leaders, sit down next to students and ask them what they are learning. That will help you truly see what’s happening in the classroom.

Learning from teachers - Sometimes I find instructional leadership to be really arrogant. Don’t get me wrong, I love instructional leadership. When I became a principal, I spent a lot of time in classrooms because I wanted to know what was going on, and I missed being a teacher. However, I find that some leaders feel like instructional leadership means their way is the best way, and I simply do not see it that way. You know who made me a better leader? The teachers I worked with when I was a principal. They let me make mistakes, were there to support me, and I learned a great deal about teaching from them. If you’re not learning from your teachers, I’m sorry to say you’re not an instructional leader.

Equity - If you are not seriously talking about marginalized populations, making sure that your resources reflect the experiences of marginalized groups, and you do not engage in conversations to improve a student and teacher’s understanding of marginalized populations, you are missing a big part of instructional leadership. Too often our resources are written from a white, heterosexual experience, and that’s not the experience of all of our students. Equity is much more than that, but this is a good start.

In the end
Instructional leadership is easy to do but hard to put into action. There are at least five reasons why those who say they are instructional leaders may not be practicing what they preach. I am sure that readers, teachers, and leaders have more to add, so please feel free to add those comments below.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D., is the author of several books including Coach It Further: Using the Art of Coaching to Improve School Leadership (Corwin Press. 2018) and Instructional Leadership: Creating Practice From Theory (2020). Connect with him on Twitter.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.