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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.

School & District Management Opinion

Instructional Leadership. Easy to Talk About. Hard to Do?

By Peter DeWitt — March 09, 2021 6 min read
Theory and
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Theory and

In the 1970s, Ronald Edmonds began publishing research on what has been referred to as instructional leadership. Edmonds basically found that school building leaders who focus on learning in their conversations and actions had a deeper impact on student learning. This was groundbreaking because many school leaders didn’t actually believe it was their job to focus on learning. They believed it was the job of teachers.

Over the decades since Edmonds’ important research, there has been important research to follow, like that of Leithwood in the early 2000s or that of the Wallace Foundation a few weeks ago. What we know is that school principals are second to teachers when it comes to an impact on student learning in a school. This is sort of common sense, right? After all, principals are in the building with teachers and see students every day. Shouldn’t they also be recognized as having impact?

What’s strange is that we would think that practicing instructional leadership would have become easier because of Edmonds’ research and the research to follow. However, the progress on the part of building leaders to practice instructional leadership has been slow. In fact, when I was engaged in research for my book Instructional Leadership: Creating Practice Out of Theory (2020), I read studies from Europe that showed a number of building leaders were taken out of the classroom and put into building-level roles because they excelled at management and not at teaching.

This management role is deeply embedded in the misbelief that the main office and hallways are the domain for school building leaders, and the classroom is the domain of teachers, and never should those two mix. That’s flawed thinking.

But most of us have experienced that thinking, right? For any of us who have spent many years in education, we know that sometimes those who went into building roles did it for the increase in salary, the power that came with running a building, or that they truly wanted to support teachers, students, and families from a social-emotional standpoint but not necessarily an academic one.

The bottom line is that it has taken decades to get to a point where building leaders feel more comfortable in the role of instructional leader, and that’s also part of the issue with instructional leadership.

You’re an Instructional Leader, You’re an Instructional Leader and You’re an Instructional Leader!!!

Instructional leadership is not just about the building leader. One of the issues I began to notice is that pressure mounted on building leaders to practice instructional leadership, but most of the research did not say how. I will get to the how next.

What I think is interesting about all the research on instructional leadership is that school building leaders put all the pressure on themselves to practice it, when in reality, it is equally as important for teacher leaders and instructional coaches to practice instructional leadership.

Why?

Instructional coaches are in the position to go into classrooms, work with teachers, and try to help home in on or improve the practices of those teachers. However, if the instructional coach doesn’t have the credibility as an instructional leader with those teachers they are trying to work with, very few of the teachers in the school building will want to work with the instructional coach.

It’s equally as complicated for teacher leaders. The teacher-leader role has come in vogue over the last few years, but what we know is that although the title is new, the practice of putting one teacher in charge of a group is not new at all. In fact, for decades, we have had department chairs, curriculum leaders, and grade-level representatives. More recently, that teacher-in-charge position has expanded to PLC leads.

The same issue that affects instructional coaches puts teacher leaders at risk, too. If they do not have credibility in the eyes of their colleagues, deeply impactful work around learning will most likely not happen. What makes it even harder for teacher leaders is that they often are seen as being in charge of colleagues they may have been teaching with for many years and yet they do not have the same “power” as school building leaders.

No one person in a building is the sole instructional leader, and instead of focusing on the power of the individual, we should instead address the focus of the group.

Where Should Instructional Leadership Focus?

After combing through all the research of the last 50 years, I found that there are six components to instructional leadership that everyone in the building should be concerned with if they want to have a deeper impact on learning. Those six areas are:

Implementation – Implementation is often difficult, and for too long, we have used the phrases “building the plane while flying,” or “initiative fatigue.” It’s time to move past that and use a program logic model to understand what we should really focus on in our schools, and that focus may be different for everyone and isn’t necessarily about the new fad we’ve heard about on social media.

Focus for Learning – So many leaders do learning walks, but it’s a one-sided conversation. School building leaders, coaches, teacher leaders, and teachers need to engage in conversations about the learning that needs to take place in classrooms. Is there a balance between factual, procedural, conceptual, and meta-cognitive learning taking place?

Student Engagement – Social-emotional learning became a very important topic during COVID. For years, I have been focused on SEL through this blog, and prior to COVID, it was the topic that I received the most pushback about. What we know is that students feel alienated from school for two reasons. One is that they lack an emotional connection to school, and the other is they feel as if they don’t have a voice in their own learning (Odetola. 1972).

Instructional Strategies – There are a plethora of instructional strategies we can use to engage students, and monopolizing the conversation isn’t one of them. The great aspect to these instructional strategies is that they work during in-person, hybrid, and remote times.

Self/Collective Efficacy – Self-efficacy is the confidence we have in our own actions (Bandura. 1977), and they are context-specific (Tschannen-Moran and Gareis. 2004). School building leaders aren’t the only ones who feel less than confident when it comes to a focus on learning. Sometimes teachers feel more comfortable building relationships with students, which is highly important, but they feel inadequate when it comes to focusing on different instructional strategies.

Evidence of Impact – The best evidence any group can collect is the evidence they decide on together. The important aspect is that those individuals actually collect evidence to understand their impact.

In the End

Instructional leadership has been around for a long time, but it is often misunderstood. Too often, people believe that instructional leadership falls on one person, the building leader, but the reality is that there are times when many different individuals have to engage in it.

Developing credibility is an important aspect to instructional leadership, but so is understanding where to start. Instructional leadership is easy to talk about, but if we want to move on beyond the talk, then we need to engage in implementation practices like the use of a program logic model to understand where to begin.

Instructional leadership is not a 24/7 job. We practice it through our conversations on learning, during our learning walks, and our faculty meetings, as well as our formal observations but instructional leadership needs to be balanced with the management that leaders need to engage in as well. Notice how I used the word “our” a few times? That’s because it shouldn’t fall on just one person. If we really want to engage in deep learning practices, it takes all of us, not one of us.

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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