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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

Help! My Principal Says He’s an Instructional Leader!

By Peter DeWitt — August 24, 2014 5 min read
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To me, instructional leadership is not about the leader at all, but about how the leader works as a team with their students, staff and parents to put the focus on learning.

What works? What doesn’t? What is the new fad? What are the tried and true methods that have always worked?

In these days of quick fixes and fast moving initiatives, we spend most of our time at the surface level. We look at numbers and sometimes make rash decisions. We read a blog, article or book and quickly believe what we read will solve our problems, only to find we had surface level knowledge and the fix was more of a distraction.

Although we know reflection is important in what we do, we often don’t do it until something goes wrong. Even with our best intentions, our haste makes waste when we try to solve our issues without having a true understanding of what they are, and how to use the “fix” properly. This happens in leadership all the time.

One of the focal points of educational leadership is that of the difference between transformational leadership and instructional leadership. Long ago when I was knee-deep in a leadership program, transformational leadership was all the rage. Over the past few years though, some researchers have pointed out the transformational leadership has a smaller effect size than instructional leadership (If you would like more information on effect sizes, feel free to read this article by Geoff Petty where he provides a description).

According to leadership expert Viviane Robinson, the effect size of transformational leadership is .11 while the effect size of instructional leadership is .42. In his several decades of research John Hattie has found that anything over a .40 (Hinge Point) can provide at least a year’s growth in a year’s time.

And this is where weak leadership can ruin the effects of instructional leadership...

It’s easy to get caught up in the numbers. Principals, new or old, read the effect size literature and note that instructional leadership can have an impact on student growth, so they begin walking into classrooms all the time. Without the proper mindset, knowledge of instruction, and prep work done with staff; leaders are in jeopardy of using the right term (instructional leadership) while doing it the wrong way.

And teachers and students are the ones on the receiving end of the out of control swinging pendulum.

Going Deeper...

I once read a Tweet by a teacher who said, “It irritates me every time I see my administrator walk in with his iPad.” As much as that may be an arrogant statement on the part of the teacher, they may have had many reasons for feeling irritated. What if their administrator liked to document everything and tell the teacher what they were doing wrong, but lacked the instructional knowledge to really offer effective feedback?

If school leaders do not involve teachers in the process of being an instructional leader, they’re really not leading at all. Leaders need to offer clarity of what instructional leadership looks like, and to do this correctly that need to make sure they are asking teachers for their input. What do teachers want out of instructional leadership? To be left alone is not acceptable. Teachers can really offer guidance of what good instruction looks like, and instructional leaders know that and have a lot of dialogue around it.

Leaders need to not only read the latest research, but become familiar with practical examples of how to be an effective instructional leader. In doing their research of the philosophical and the practical, they need to also make sure that they are using building structures like faculty meetings, Principal Advisory Council and student focus groups to make sure they are sharing (and hearing!) best practices and keeping the focus on learning.

Being an instructional leader is more than just saying they are the lead learner, but it’s about acting accordingly. It’s not just the words that leaders use, but how they act and what they model. It’s about using the expert teachers around them to model great instruction.

To me, instructional leadership is not about the leader at all, but about how the leader works as a team with their students, staff and parents to put the focus on learning.

Characteristics of an Instructional Leader

In this article, Viviane Robinson says, “While there is considerable evidence about the impact of instructional leadership on student outcomes, there is far less known about the leadership capabilities that are required to confidently engage in the practices involved.”

Robinson outlines the characteristics needed for leaders to be instructional leaders. They are:


  • Leadership Content Knowledge - Robinson says, “Their (Nelson & Sassi) research showed that as leaders gained a deeper understanding of what is involved in effective teaching of particular curriculum areas, they were able to detect and correct mismatches between those understandings and the administrative routines that were intended to support them.
  • Solving Complex Problems - Robinson says, “Experts in their field use problem-solving processes that are distinguishable from those of less expert performers and that expertise is inextricably linked with that discussed in the first capability--leadership content knowledge.”
  • Building Relational Trust - Robinson says, “The importance of relationships is evident from the fact that leadership is, by definition, a social process. Leadership is attributed to those members of a group or organization who are seen to influence others in ways that advance the group or organization’s progress toward its goals (Katz & Kahn, 1966; Robinson, 2001).”

In the End

Sometimes leaders work in the very silos that they accuse teachers of living in. Being an instructional leader is vitally important, but making sure that it is being done correctly is even more important. Saying and doing are two different things. Teachers are the ones who never left the classroom, and instructional leaders are the ones who make it a point to go into those classrooms as often as possible (every day!), but going into the classroom isn’t enough. We need to go deeper, and it takes the conversations before, during and after those classroom visits to bring us there.

Connect with Peter on Twitter.

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.


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