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Instructional Leadership

This article was distributed to the Leaders Leading Leaders Network in July 2015.

Is the current focus of many districts’ reform efforts on principals as instructional leaders detrimental to the improvement of schools? Instructional leadership is a critical component of any effective school leader, but the all-encompassing focus on the principal as the all-knowing, all-doing instructional leader will not lead schools and districts to the Promised Land. Rather, a balance is needed that recognizes principals as leaders of teams of teachers and coaches that are collectively responsible for student success and that acknowledges the many other tasks that a principal must perform for a school to be successful. This balance is a main topic of the “Leaders Leading Leaders” (or 3L) Network comprising about 45 principal supervisors from 15 districts in the Midwest. The Network—funded by the Sherwood Foundation, managed by Cross & Joftus, and developed along with leaders from Omaha Public Schools—held its very first meeting in Omaha on July 15-16.

The singular focus on the principal as instructional expert is expressed in many districts through new teacher evaluation systems. These time-intensive systems expect the principal to possess technical instructional expertise and apply it to individual teacher/principal interactions through the evaluation process. Initially, proponents of new evaluation systems promised that this technical focus on instruction would lead to improved practice and increased student learning. This promise was built on the assumption that the principal is “the” instructional expert in the school and that instructional changes emanate from the principal’s expertise, one teacher at time. This assumption ignores the instructional capacity of the teaching staff, which, as instructional practitioners, have a wealth of instructional knowledge, expertise, and ideas. A number of districts have recognized this, including Cross & Joftus clients Hillsborough County and Denver, and have begun working intentionally to build distributed instructional leadership models that leverage the instructional capacity of teachers.

Michael Fullan, in his book, The Principal: Three Keys to Maximizing Impact, makes the case to “reposition the role of the principal as overall instructional leader … directing their energies to developing the group … while learning alongside them about what works and what doesn’t.”

Fullan’s ideas remind me of my first year as principal. I quickly realized that my staff had considerably more instructional knowledge than I, and the key to my success as a building leader was going to be in figuring out how to capitalize on that knowledge and expertise. Our school saw great gains in teacher practice and student achievement, certainly not due to me being the instructional expert. Instead, I positioned myself as a learner along with the staff and poured my energy into creating teacher teams responsible for student learning. I often wonder if I were a newly minted principal today, would I focus my time and energy on building effective teacher learning teams or would I succumb to the expectations of being “the” instructional expert.

It’s not that instructional leadership is unimportant, but defining instructional leadership beyond the technical expertise residing in, and wielded by, the principal is critical to school improvement. We need to broaden the definition to embrace the collective instructional expertise of the teaching staff and then charge the principal, as the instructional leader, with setting up the structures and expectations to unleash this expertise, leading to improved practice and improved student learning.

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Author(s): Steve Gering