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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

Teachers Are Not Completely Confident in Their ‘Instructional Leader’

By Peter DeWitt — February 17, 2019 5 min read
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Recently, I posted a blog debating the idea that leaders need to be content experts (read the full blog here). I received hundreds of responses from readers through email and social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Many readers who are leaders agreed that they cannot be content experts because there are too many other demands of the job. Content knowledge and content equity are better places for leaders to start.

In workshops, and through my experience coaching principals on a monthly basis, I have met many leaders who would love to be able to focus more on content, but the reality is that they also get pulled out of their buildings for district meetings, professional development that often focuses on compliance, discipline issues involving students, supervisory duties that prevent them from researching that aspect of leadership (i.e. sporting events, chorus concerts), and get 10 emails in their inbox every time they answer one.

Many leaders would much rather focus on content.

The interesting part about the responses from the blog from a few weeks ago is that there were a few respondents who said that leaders should be content experts. Interesting enough, those responses mostly came from teachers who had not spent time in the role of principal. A cautionary tale for all of us is that it’s often easier to tell people what they should be doing in their job when we never have done that job.

What Is Instructional Leadership?
If we truly want to be impactful in our roles as principals, then we have to focus on trying our best to find slices of time in our day to focus on instructional leadership. That may be 45 minutes to one hour per day to allow us to get into classrooms. We also have to understand that there are four main areas of instructional leadership. Those areas are instructional strategies, student engagement, content knowledge (not expertise), and collective efficacy.

In a recent study I did involving the four areas of instructional leadership, respondents ranked collective efficacy as the #1 priority, instructional strategies as #2, student engagement as #3 and content knowledge as #4 (DeWitt. 2019). If leaders do not spend some time in their day focusing on those four, or one of those four, they are at risk of losing credibility in their role. That loss of credibility will make it very difficult to provide effective feedback during teacher observations or walk-throughs. Yes, that means that not only do we need to find one hour in the day, we also have to make sure that we do everything possible to make that one hour impactful for teachers, staff, and students.

The reality is that all of those other pieces of leadership (i.e., constant pullouts from the school building) are hindering not only the ability for leaders to focus on instructional leadership, but also the credibility they have with teachers in their buildings.

All Show, No Go?
The other concern with instructional leadership is that many leaders may know what it is, but those leaders are not convincing their teachers and staff that they are instructional leaders. In fact, in that same study on instructional leadership, many of the principals who responded said they were confident that they were instructional leaders, but teachers answering a similar survey seem not to be so sure.

In the survey for principals (please feel free to fill out the survey using the link below), 24 percent of the several hundred respondents answered that they are “very confident” in their instructional leadership ability. Forty-three percent of the principal respondents answered that they are “confident” in their role as instructional leaders. Eight percent of those who answered the survey confided that they did not feel like instructional leaders at all.

However, 14 percent of the several hundred teachers who filled out a like survey focusing on instructional leadership (please feel free to fill out that survey using the link below) answered that they were “very confident” their principals were instructional leaders, 24 percent answered they were “confident,” and 30 percent answered that they were “not confident” at all (“somewhat confident” was an answer choice for both principals and teachers as well).

It seems as though what complicates leadership, in addition to what I wrote above, is that there are leaders who feel confident and teachers who do not necessarily agree with that. The quick response by some will be that honest principals filled out their survey and angry teachers filled out the one for them. We know that is not the reality. It really seems to come down to five possibilities. Those possibilities are:

  • I know what I’m talking about and can follow through
  • I know what I’m talking about but do not communicate that effectively
  • I think I know what I’m talking about, but teachers don’t believe it
  • I know what I should be focusing on but can’t do it as much as I would like
  • I don’t know where to begin

In the End
I’m not picking on leaders. I’m actually trying to dissect leadership. Why? If we don’t figure out the complexities and miscommunications behind it all, we will never be able to move forward in a positive way. Leadership is hard, but instructional leadership seems to be even harder.

There are principals who cannot get to it, those who can, and others who feel like they are getting to it but are probably not ... or at least their teachers aren’t seeing it. We need to figure this all out, because the leaders I know are working very hard, and they should be able to get a bigger bang for that hard-working buck.

If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around, does it still make a sound? If a leader works hard to be an instructional leader and no one sees it, are they still an instructional leader?

It reminds me of when I ran a workshop in Texas and an instructional coach said that their leader “thinks” they are a good listener, and when I answered that listening skills on the part of the leader is important, she looked back and said, “No. He THINKS he is a good listener, but he really isn’t.” Perspective is important.

Leaders who believe they are instructional leaders should probably be collecting evidence to prove they are as good as they think, or at least learn where they have a deficit. That pursuit of evidence may help their teachers as well.

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). 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.