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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

5 Reasons You Should Be an Instructional Leader!

By Peter DeWitt — July 11, 2014 4 min read
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Hopefully, leadership in most school looks different from a decade ago. In most cases, principals stayed out of classrooms because they had other duties that were more...administrative. They managed the budget, were the deans of discipline, and met with other administrators to focus on district initiatives. From time to time they worked with parents...mostly at PTA meetings.

The boundary lines were drawn, and principals stayed in their office or were usually seen in the hallways making sure teachers were bringing their students to lunch or specials on time. They worked as lunch monitors to make sure students behaved, and hopefully tried to create relationships with students, especially if they truly cared about creating a safe school culture.

Most times though, school leaders did not consider themselves instructional leaders.

As a former school principal, and student of administration, I was always told to be visible. Staff, students and parents need to see us. They needed to see that their administrator was close by in case something happened. So...most of us who became school leaders focused on being visible. We stood at bus arrival, went out for recess, roamed the halls, and put students back on the bus in the afternoon.

Somewhere along the way though, we needed to ask ourselves if we were visible enough. We needed to ask ourselves if we went deep enough with the relationships we created with staff and students. We needed to ask ourselves if we really knew about the learning taking place in the classroom.

School leaders need to be more than visible. They should be more engaged in the classroom environment. Not just because of accountability, but because every stakeholder in a school needs to have the same focus. It is now more important than ever.

Five Reasons Why

School leaders are busy with managerial issues. They have to make sure the building is clean, the parents are listened to, school resources are used appropriately, students are behaving, teachers are behaving, and the building is safe and secure. However, more importantly, they have to ensure that students are engaged and challenged when it comes to learning.

There are lots of reasons for the change in leadership mindset, but there are five very important reasons why school leaders need to be instructional leaders. They are:

1. A Focus on Learning - Learning needs to be the primary focus for leaders, staff, students and the whole entire school. When leaders enter the classroom for a quick walkthrough, they need to focus on how many students are engaged in learning before they notice what is hanging on the walls. What are the students learning about? Can all of the students articulate what they are learning?

2. A Focus on Learning - High stakes accountability has completely shifted the focus of leaders from a variety of areas to compliance. Leaders need to make sure they are compliant with new mandates, but more importantly, they must prioritize conversations with staff to focus on learning. No mandate will ever be as important as learning. If leaders get too caught up in compliance, they are missing the point of their job, and they certainly shouldn’t consider themselves instructional leaders.

3. A Focus on Learning - Staff and students need leaders who understand the diverse needs of learners. That takes a principal who had many years of teaching under their belt before they became school leaders. Understanding the learning process is key to becoming a successful instructional leader. If they enter the position without teaching experience, they should make sure that they have other experiences that have helped them become instructional leaders.

4. A Focus on Learning - Staff meetings and curriculum meetings need to focus on learning, and not on all of the adult issues that take place in the school. Discussing and debating instructional strategies is key to being a successful instructional leader. It doesn’t mean school leaders can’t address other issues, but learning should be at the core of any staff meeting.

5. A Focus on Learning - Parents need to know that their children are doing more than “behaving” or “sitting quietly in class.” Parents need to know that their children are safe and challenged. Most parents think it’s great when a principal says their child is polite, but if leaders truly want to blow parents away, sit in a meeting with them where the leader can talk about the child’s learning strengths and the areas that they need to work on.

How to Principals Become Instructional Leaders?

Principals become instructional leaders when they sit in on Child Study Team meetings to learn more about the students learning needs, or they have focused conversations with teachers around the learning issues and strengths of the students in the class. Leaders need to sit in on class time, and offer to teach from time to time.

Principals and central office administrators become instructional leaders when they send out research-based articles to staff or flip their faculty meetings so the focus can be on instruction instead of a list of tasks that teachers have to complete by a certain date. Instructional leaders challenge the thinking of staff.

Principals and central office administrators become instructional leaders when they walk into building or district meetings with one idea and walk out with a better one because of the collective voices of the teachers and staff they work with everyday.

Principals become instructional leaders when they offer ways for students to provide feedback to them about the strengths and weaknesses of the school. That means encouraging students to set up appointments through the school secretary or having open dialogue at lunch, recess or in the hallway. It means visiting classes so students know that their school leader puts an emphasis on learning and not on test scores.

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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.