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Finding Common Ground

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

Does Instructional Leadership Keep You Up at Night?

By Peter DeWitt — February 23, 2020 6 min read
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Instructional leadership is one of the most researched forms of school leadership, and one that has always been a particular interest on mine over the years. Researchers began looking into this particular type of leadership more than fifty years ago, because of the impact school leaders were having on learning in their buildings, which also happened to be in high poverty areas where there seemed to be many issues stacked against the students, teachers and leaders in the building (Edmonds. 1979).

Although instructional leadership has been around for decades it seems like a new phenomenon in many schools, because the role of manager is still very strong for many leaders. After all, there are a number of leaders who took the position due to their management talents (i.e. scheduling, discipline, safety, etc.), and not because they were outstanding teachers in the classroom. Just to be clear, that is not a slight on leaders. Instructional leadership was just not an expectation for most building leaders.

Then came along NCLB, accountability and high stakes testing. Students were being tested, and teachers were being held accountable for student learning in formal ways that had not taken place before in many schools, districts or states. With that increased scrutiny over testing and what should be taught, came a new role for building leaders to become more involved in day to day instruction.

Is it fair for principals to be asked to be instructional leaders? We could debate that all day long, but the reality is that if people want to take on a leadership role in a building, they need to find greater balance between the management role, which is still very important, and the role of instructional leader, which may not be something they feel confident in.

With this role of instructional leadership comes some complications. As Voltaire said so well, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Unfortunately, there is such a pressure to be an instructional leader in many schools that leaders often feel like the need to “fake it until they make it,” which is probably not the best leadership philosophy.

What’s equally complex is when leaders feel confident they can be instructional leaders, but in reality, they may lack credibility in the eyes of their teachers. After all, there is a strong 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 did a survey of leaders asking leaders how confident they felt in the instructional leadership role. The image below shows the results.

A few weeks later I surveyed teachers asking them how confident they felt in their principal’s ability to be an instructional leader. Those results are below.

Additionally, in this interesting column from the Education Week Research Center, they looked at the discrepancy between leaders and teachers perceptions about different topics in education. The image below is taken from that research, and hits at the heart of instructional leadership. If teachers are doing innovative things with students in the classroom, do leaders see it, and do they support it? And, do both groups collect evidence to understand whether that innovative thing actually worked?

Instructional leadership is about putting some of our focus on learning, and that means we have to have a common language and common understanding about what learning looks like in the classroom. And that is often part of the struggle too. People within the same building have different ideas about what good learning looks like, and principals who plan on being instructional leaders need to bring all of those differing ideas together, and engage in dialogue around them. But that’s hard...

The Negative Consequences to Instructional Leadership
So, now we have leaders in a newer defined role, some of whom did not want the role of instructional leadership in the first place, and they have teachers who do not necessarily see them as a credible source in that role. How do we all move forward to improve the role of instructional leadership?

First and foremost we address the topic and engage in dialogue around it, even if that means taking on some criticisms of the instructional leadership approach. For example, there are researchers, leaders, teachers and pundits who say that instructional leadership is but a small focus in the world of school leadership. This is very true. Instructional leadership cannot be a 24/7 focus for leaders because they have so many other issues that they are taking on at the same time. It really comes down to looking at how we spend our time as leaders when we have the most proximity to staff, and in those areas where we are responsible for already (i.e. observations, walkthroughs, faculty meetings, etc.).

What we know is that if leaders get that small focus wrong, it can have negative consequences in a school building. Two examples of how this small focus can create chaos.

Example #1. At the beginning of the year a principal bought a book focusing on collaboration for all of his teachers, told them to read the book, and also directed them to come back with a collaborative goal at the end of the week. The teachers were dumbfounded, because they had so many other tasks to complete before the school year began, and their principal now wanted them to read a book they didn't ask for, and needed to come up with a goal within 7 days.

Did the leader truly believe they were being an instructional leader? After all, they bought all of their teachers a book on collaboration.

Example #2. Another principal was told by their superintendent to begin walkthroughs in her building. All in all it seemed like a good idea, but the superintendent wanted her to begin immediately, and said she needed to do at least 10 walkthroughs a day. Every time the principal began walking into classrooms, the teachers stopped instruction, looked up and asked how they could help the principal. They were not used to having her stop in so much.

Walkthroughs are a common practice these days, but if a leader doesn’t build a clear vision with teachers around what a walkthrough should look like, then it can create chaos in a building.

These examples, which are actual examples I have heard while I’m on the road can go on and on. What we believe we are doing as instructional leaders because of the pressure we feel to do it, may actually be harming our school climates more than helping them.

Where Do We Start?
After researching instructional leadership for a number of years, I found six areas that we need to focus on. Given the small focus, and how important that small focus is, these are the areas where we get the biggest bang for our buck. Those areas are:

Implementation - We need to take time, and engage in dialogue around why we are doing, what we are doing. Some tools like program logic models or implementation cycles help us clarify all of that, and are more likely prevent us from quitting when we hit the implementation dip.

Focus for Learning - What do we actually look for when we enter into classrooms? Do we have walkthrough biases, and do we look for the Pinterest classroom? Or do we look for opportunities for students to learn in different ways, like using factual, procedural, conceptual and metacognitive knowledge? And do we understand the cognitive appropriateness for each of those dimensions?

Student Engagement - We have students who are disengaged, which leads to tardiness and absenteeism. How do we build an emotional connection to our school community for our students, and how do we encourage them to have a voice in their own learning? Those are the issues that research (Odetola) shows we should address in order to build engagement.

Instructional Strategies - Virtually every instructional strategy used in classroom has been researched. Do we know which ones encourage surface level learning, and the ones that encourage deep to transfer learning?

Efficacy - Bandura (2000) found that when leaders feel confident they will double their efforts and when they don’t, they will slacken their efforts. However, there is a long road between confidence and competence, and sometimes we have to build that competence through collective leader efficacy, and what we know is that not all leadership teams function well.

Evidence of Impact - Hattie has said many times, I don’t care how you teach as much as I care about your impact. We have so much data and evidence at our finger tips in schools. How do we use it?

In the End
Many building leaders find themselves in a position they never accounted for 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 poorly and it can rip a building apart. Which one would you choose?

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including his newest release Instructional Leadership: Creating Practice Out Of Theory (Corwin Press. 2020). Connect with him on Twitter or through his YouTube channel.

Opening image courtesy of Getty.

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.