Opinion Blog

Peter DeWitt's

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

Does Instructional Leadership Have to Be So Complicated?

By Peter DeWitt — May 05, 2019 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Instructional leadership is one of the most researched forms of leadership. It’s definitely been one of my areas of interest for many years because much of the research shows it has a positive impact on student achievement. However, for me, it’s a bit more than that. I was a classroom teacher for 11 years before becoming a principal, and when I entered into school leadership, I missed the type of interactions with students like I used to have when I was a teacher.

I was concerned that my life as a principal would be all about management and discipline and I felt like there was more to leadership than that. I held the belief that if I could be a little more proactive with how I engaged students, I would have fewer discipline issues. That meant I needed, and wanted, to work more in collaboration with teachers than many of the principals I worked for when I was a teacher.

For full disclosure, I never wanted to be a school principal. When I was pursuing a master’s degree, my principal at the time was the stereotypical school manager. That was not a bad thing. It was exactly the role most principals learned to take when they led a building. I just didn’t feel it was the job for me. So, when he talked with me about getting an advanced degree in school administration, I politely responded that “I would never be a school principal.” Instead, I went to get a master’s in educational psychology.

I was naïve at the time I said I never wanted to be a principal.

In fact, I had two friends who were both retired educators that I used to see at the gym. When I told them about my conversation with my principal, whom they both knew, they responded, “What if you could be the principal you want to be and not the one you think you have to be.” Five years later, in a new school and new city, I went to school to get an advanced degree in administration. It was a decision I never regretted.

Instructional Leadership Is Complicated
Salo et al (2014) write, “Despite the emphasis on the effects of school leadership regarding teaching practices and learning outcomes, research on direct instructional leadership is scarce.” The researchers have referred to instructional leadership as a sort of black box. In fact, Salo et al (2014) write, “Not much is known about why, when and how principals guide teachers’ work in the classroom.”

Part of the reason for this is due to the fact that we really don’t have a common understanding in our schools when it comes to instructional leadership. I wrote about it in this blog, which was based on survey responses where leaders show a greater confidence in their level of instructional leadership than teachers who took a similar survey. The teachers who responded had less confidence in their leader’s impact as instructional leaders.

If I’m a teacher and my leader doesn’t spend as much time in my classroom, or we talk very little about instruction and spend more time talk about discipline, I’m probably not going to be too confident that my leader is an instructional leader. However, if I often talk with my leader about instructional strategies and experience flipped faculty meetings that focus on learning, I’m going to be more confident in my leader’s level of instructional leadership.

Proximity, and our level of conversations, matter when it comes to the perspective that my leader is an instructional leader.

How Do We Position Ourselves as Instructional Leaders?
A couple of months ago, I posted this blog about the need for leaders to be content experts. In the blog, I highlighted four areas that I believe instructional leaders need to focus on. Many times when I am writing a blog, I am processing through information I’m collecting in research, and I learn from those readers who support or criticize the blogs.

After that blog was published, I found that instructional leadership needs to be expanded to encompass two more very important ideas. All of this research I did, read, and learned from was in preparation for a book I have coming out this winter focusing on instructional leadership.

The six areas are:
Implementation - Without properly understanding implementation science and putting it into practice, any new improvement is doomed to fail.

Concepts of Learning - I changed content knowledge to concepts of learning because instructional leadership is about understanding areas of learning like conceptual understanding, knowledge dimensions (i.e. Factual, Conceptual, etc.) and surface, deep, and transfer-level learning.

Student Engagement - This needs to be separated from concepts of learning and instructional strategies, although there is a steady thread that runs through all of them. The reality is that when we look at the research around student alienation, we will find that student engagement has to be looked at from two different standpoints. Those two standpoints are social-emotional learning and academic learning.

Instructional Strategies - Research shows that there are specific strategies that need to be used for surface learning, others that lead to deep learning, and many others that inspire transfer-level learning, which is why we must separate concepts, student engagement, and instructional strategies to understand each one properly.

Collective Efficacy - Too many leaders approach collective efficacy as if it’s the thing they need to build. The reality is that we build collective efficacy when we bring diverse people together and focus on an improvement that will impact students. Collective efficacy is built when people work together on a specific improvement.

Evidence of Impact - If you’re not collecting evidence of impact, then you are just having really nice conversations around learning that may not be going anywhere.

In the End
Instructional leadership is something district and building leaders, as well as instructional coaches and teacher leaders, have to learn about because they need to build credibility in the role in order to have a real impact with teachers and students. Teachers are classroom experts who deserve leaders who can engage in dialogue around learning with them.

Instructional leadership is complicated, but it doesn’t have to be as complicated as we make it. It may seem as though breaking instructional leadership into six elements may add to the complication of it all, but I believe it helps clarify it. Leaders do not have to be experts in each one, but developing an understanding about them is important. That understanding focuses on the different ways students learn; both the academic and social-emotional aspects of it, and is helpful to deciding which strategies to use in the classroom.

Instructional leadership is about engaging in these conversations with a beginner’s mind where we are open to learn from those we are talking to. Through our discussions with teachers around this student focus, we can build collective efficacy. However, in order to do that effectively, we have to understand implementation science and how to collect evidence to understand impact.

We never get to spend as much time in this learning role as we want, but the more we can find time to do it, the more we could have that positive impact that we were hoping for when we entered into the position.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books includingCoach It Further: Using the Art of Coaching to Improve School Leadership (Corwin Press. 2018). Connect with him on Twitter. Join him for a free leadership coaching webinar on 5/28 at 3:30 PAC/ 6:30 EST. The webinar will combine the topics of coaching & instructional leadership. https://buff.ly/2Y9w2w1

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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.