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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

What Should Leadership Development Look Like?

By Peter DeWitt — February 09, 2020 7 min read
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In a 10-year study by the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), Fuller et al. (2018. p.1) found that the demands of instructional leadership are increasing. They write, “Over the past few years, the extent to which she uses assessment data for instructional planning has increased, along with her involvement in helping teachers use effective instructional practice and her efforts to develop the school as a professional learning community. She spends much of her time in contact with staff, especially in her supervisory role.”

There was a time when building principals were encouraged to focus on management. After all, the day-to-day operations are important in a building. When the boiler goes down, which creates a lack of heat, or an angry parent comes through the front door with little hope of being able to de-escalate their anger soon, it’s hard for a principal to focus on instructional leadership.

However, regardless of time, instructional leadership is the form of leadership that has the biggest impact on student learning. Researchers such as Viviane Robinson: “The more leaders focus their influence, their learning, and their relationships with teachers on the core business of teaching and learning, the greater their likely influence on student outcomes.”

(Robinson et al., 2018, p. 23). Michael Fullan goes so far as to call instructional leaders, “lead learners.” And in these times of accountability where principals are required to complete formal observations, and many principals delve into doing walk-throughs, instructional leadership is not just a “nicer thing to do,” it is now a “necessary role to take.”

The Gaps That Exist
Over the last six years I have been working as a consultant. I left the building role after eight years and had been a teacher for 11 years before that. I run workshops focusing on leadership, and I have learned a lot from the people who participate in those workshops. Yes, I hope they learn from me as well, but I have definitely learned a lot from them, and what I have seen is that demand the NAESP focused on often creates gaps in how leaders are prepared for the role.

Some of those gaps that come with increased demand are:
Lack of preparation - It begins with how leaders are prepared for the position. Leadership-prep programs offer research and philosophy. Unfortunately, it’s also dependent on an internship that may or may not be impactful. Many participants in workshops remark that there is so much about leadership they do not learn in their leadership programs, and instructional leadership is the area they highlight as the biggest gap.

Assistant principal duties - Many new leaders enter into leadership through the assistant principal door, meaning they become assistant principals first. Unfortunately, they are often required to focus on discipline more than they are encouraged to focus on instructional leadership, so when they ultimately become principals, they are ill-prepared for that part of the job.

Women in leadership - Five years ago, I wrote this blog, and it actually inspired an annual conference on the topic. Many women feel that leadership is the old boys club, and it was even pointed out to me a few years ago that many leadership books have men on the cover. It’s important to understand the complexities of being a woman in leadership.

Leadership positions without the background - Instructional coaches, PLC leads, and department chairs are often put into leadership roles, but many do not have a leadership background. I once asked a participant why they chose to be a department chair, and he answered, “No one else wanted it.” NAESP focused on the complexities of instructional leadership from a building-principal role, but what we know is that can be even more complex for those in a leadership position such as an instructional coach, PLC lead, or department chair, especially when they do not have a leadership degree or background. All of this led me to define instructional leadership as,“those in a leadership position who focus their efforts on the implementation of practices that will positively impact student learning.

Instructional leadership is hard - There have been a few examples in this blog to show that instructional leadership is easy to talk about but hard to do. Whether it’s due to an overemphasis on management, a lack of preparation, or a misperception on what instructional leadership looks like, participants in workshops say they have a deep need to understand how to truly focus on student learning. Maybe that focus is one hour a day or it could be all day long, but there are very specific actions leaders can take to focus on instructional leadership.

Equity is harder - “Equity” is a popular word these days, and it means many things to many people. Sometimes, equity may mean access to resources or the ability to offer rigorous curriculum to all students, not just those who can afford it. Other times, it means focusing on marginalized populations like African Americans, members of the LGBTQ community, or indigenous populations. There is not only a major gap in how leaders focus on these issues, there are gaps in whether leaders truly want to take on these issues.

With increasing demands comes increasing gaps in learning. It is too easy to ignore issues where we do not feel confident. In fact, Bandura found, “When faced with obstacles, setbacks, and failures, those who doubt their capabilities slacken their efforts, give up, or settle for mediocre solutions. Those who have a strong belief in the capabilities redouble their effort to master the challenge.” We need to find a different way to help prepare leaders, those with the degree and those without, for the changing face of education and help support their lack of confidence (self-efficacy) in a way that will turn it from a weakness to a strength.

Educational Leadership Collective
What all of this means is that leadership development needs to look different as well. It means that we have to see more diversity within leadership trainers who are prepared to take on these gaps created by the demands of the job. Whether that means gender, race, or sexual orientation, we need leadership-development trainers who mirror the changing face of our student population, and understand the needs of students in different ways.

In their new book, Leading Powerful Professional Learning: Responding to Complexity With Adaptive Expertise (Corwin Press), Le Fevre, Timperley, Twyford and Ell found that the most impactful professional learning involves:


  1. Adopting an evaluative inquiry stance
  2. Valuing and using deep conceptual knowledge
  3. Being agentic (agency)
  4. Being aware of cultural positioning
  5. Being metacognitive
  6. Bringing a systemic focus (pp. 7 & 8. 2020)

In relation to powerful professional learning researched by Le Fevre et al, and the need to figure out how we can have a stronger impact together, I have developed a new educational leadership collective that has a specific focus on school leadership (i.e. building/district leaders, instructional coaches, PLC leads). I find that there are so many gaps in how we formally or informally prepare school leaders, but there is also a gap in what the actual leadership trainers look like. The Educational Leadership Collective is our way to close some of these gaps and elevate the voices of diverse people in a leadership role, so we can better meet the demands of instructional leadership.

There is often a gap in leadership professional development. Leaders often show up to PD to hear a motivational speech, which is fine, but it doesn’t always equate to high quality practices after the leader returns to their school. We need to understand that leadership development needs to be a blend of research and practice, and it needs to focus on the collection of evidence to understand our indivual impact.

In the End
Leadership is difficult. I loved my time as a building principal. I learned so much from my school community and still continue to reflect on that learning to this day. I realize I was fortunate to work in a community that encouraged me to take risks, try out new ideas, and focus on ways to make sure we were inclusive of all of our students. Unfortunately, not all leaders are as fortunate as I was, and they are not always surrounded by supportive district leaders.

We also know that there are many teachers who leave their position, not because of the demands of the job but because they work in a school where the leader isn’t prepared for the job. And we know that there are students who feel alienated because they do not have an emotional connection to their school community and do not feel as though they have a voice in their own learning (Odetola. 1972). It is time to fully prepare leaders for those issues and have development programs that want to take on those issues.

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 the Educational Leadership Collective on Twitter, or with Peter through his YouTube station.

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.


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