For as long as school building leaders are responsible for learning walks and formal observations, there will be pressure on them to practice instructional leadership. Some school building leaders can do it without any issue and have credibility within their buildings to practice it, while others lack the credibility, and their learning walks and formal observations do nothing more than create chaos within their school climates.
School leadership is not easy, and many of those who take the position have not necessarily had the professional learning and development to be successful. They are often handed the keys to the building, after they successfully interviewed for the position, and then left to their own devices. The interview was the easy part. Some of those new leaders are able to meet the challenge of leadership because they are provided with the support from their district, but in other cases, new leaders feel as though they have to fake it until they make it.
Fake it until you make it is not a successful model of leadership.
In fact, 42 percent of principals surveyed indicated they were considering leaving their position (NASSP. EPI). Among the most common reasons they cite are:
- Working Conditions
- Compensation and Financial Obligations
- High-Stakes Accountability Systems and Evaluation Practices
- Lack of Decision making Authority
- Inadequate Access to Professional Learning Opportunities (NASSP. EPI. 2021).
Leithwood et al (2004) found that principals are second to teachers when it comes to impacting student learning, so we need to be concerned that the challenges of leading through most of the above issues takes school leaders away from focusing on instructional leadership, which helps those leaders impact student learning. Even for those who do not leave the position in the first five years, the longer those school building leaders spend in their position being taken away from the important work of focusing on learning, the harder it will be for them to engage back in instructional leadership.
It is no wonder that we continue to see school building leaders who struggle with a balance between management and instructional leadership. For too long, leaders felt more comfortable with the management side of the position because it was taking up so much time, and instructional leadership took a backseat. However, what we know is that there needs to be some movement back toward instructional leadership if learning walks and formal observations are ever going to be impactful. That takes professional learning and development.
Professional Learning and Development?
First and foremost, there is a difference between high-quality professional learning and development and that of gimmicks. Gimmicks will not help retain the best principals and certainly won’t help them develop impact when it comes to instructional leadership. Plus, money is tight and so is the time leaders have to dedicate to professional learning in the first place. If leaders are to stay in their positions and have a positive impact on student learning, then they need professional learning and development that will help them focus on some of the following topics:
- Understanding the important aspects to instructional leadership.
- Understanding that instructional leadership is not just about a building leader. That type of leadership also includes teacher leaders, instructional coaches, and assistant principals, so they all can put a stronger focus on learning.
- Encouraging leaders to understand how they spend their time each day in a week, so they can find the balance between instructional leadership and management.
- Helping school leaders find a balance in their position through mindfulness and well-being. Statistics show that school leaders are under a great deal of pressure and many have a high level of anxiety, and we know COVID-19 didn’t help with that. A Harvard Medical Study shows that “stress affects not only memory and many other brain functions, like mood and anxiety, but also promotes inflammation, which adversely affects heart health.”
Fullan and Hargreaves write that “professional learning is often like student learning— something that is deliberately structured and increasingly accepted because it can (to some) more obviously be linked to measurable outcomes.” They continue the definition of professional learning and development by writing that “professional development involves many aspects of learning but may also involve developing mindfulness, team building and team development, intellectual stimulation for its own sake, reading good literature that prompts reflection on the human condition” (2017. p. 3).
School building leaders need to know not only when to engage in these conversations to help their staff and students but also to understand how to engage in these conversations to help themselves as well. It also means they understand that they need to have these conversations when they have the greatest proximity to all staff so they can all focus on learning and not just on discipline or union issues in their buildings.
Coaching as a Means of Professional Learning and Development
Leadership coaching is beginning to take steam after years of instructional coaching being a way to provide professional learning and development with teachers. In fact, I wrote this blog post on leadership coaching five years ago. The Learning Policy Institute and NAESP (2020. p. 6) found that “both mentors and coaches provide critical learning opportunities for principals. Principals often report that having a mentor or coach is the most valuable learning opportunity for them.”
Leadership coaching can help enhance the context beliefs of individuals and teams because through the experience the individuals and teams can see that their voice matters, their district or division cares about their success, and they develop a deeper impact on learning.
Unfortunately, in the combined report by EPI and NASSP, Levin et al. found that (2020. pp. 16 & 17), “while the evidence points to the efficacy of mentors and coaches for principals, less than one quarter (23%) of principals responding to the survey reported having a mentor or coach in the past two years—and this percentage was lower for principals in high-poverty schools (10%).” This is a missed opportunity for school districts that wish to retain those principals at risk of leaving the job.
Part of the issue is that of ego and vulnerability. So many school leaders are used to being the one in charge and looked to as being the all-knowing educator in the building that coaching creates a perception that those leaders who choose to do it are not as capable as others, when nothing could be further from the truth.
However, there is another way to look at leadership coaching, and that is when a school district promotes experienced leaders to become leadership coaches in their district. Or when a school principal uses coaching to help their assistant principals, teacher leaders, and instructional coaches understand how to practice instructional leadership. In fact, Huggins et al (2020) found that “leadership coaching capacities of experienced school leaders can be developed to support less-experienced school leaders to lead continuous improvement efforts,” and those efforts ultimately can have a positive impact on student learning.
This is not to provide the Oprah effect that, “You can be a coach and you can be a coach and you can be a coach!” It is meant to offer the possibility that not only can coaching be an impactful means to retain school building leaders and help them deepen their impact as instructional leaders; it is also to point out the possibility that capable and experienced school building leaders can coach their assistants and others so they can practice instructional leadership and their school buildings can have a stronger focus on learning.
In the End
What we know is that we have an issue. Forty-two percent of leaders want to leave their positions, and turnover is not going to help our school systems develop a stronger focus on learning. Turnover is going to chip away at the very foundation of our schools. In my own work, I am developing ways to empower principals through coaching but also helping them develop the skills to coach those within their building. We should be pouring as many resources as possible to help alleviate this issue, which means pouring resources into equitable funding, looking at de-implementation of initiatives as much as we focus on the implementation of initiatives, and should also focus on providing the professional learning and development leaders need to successfully navigate their circumstances.
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.