George was leaving the role of assistant principal to become a teacher again. He reasoned, “All we talked about in graduate school was instructional leadership, and 90% of my day is anything but instructional leadership. Easy to talk about in the graduate classroom, but nearly impossible to do with everything else expected of us.” Painful to hear, but does it sound familiar?
The challenges of instructional leadership are real and formidable. As an administrator for eleven years and secondary principal for six of those years, I adhere to the idea the Principal is lead learner and exists to improve classroom instruction, and ultimately, student achievement. Yet, I understood where George was coming from. After my relatively brief eleven years, I can share as many failures and pitfalls of improving instruction as successes. However, even failures provide helpful lessons and renew my faith in the importance of intentionally improving instruction.
Recently, Daniel Willingham (2014) inferred instructional leadership has little connection to student achievement compared to other tasks related to school leadership. Manager, accountant, mediator, counselor, safety officer, and human resource agent are a few of the roles making up the school leadership. However, growing and supporting teaching staff so they may best serve students is understood as the backbone of school leadership.
However, an abundance of exemplary evaluations in the face of lagging results, the lack of connections between teacher ratings and results, and pure cynicism bring instructional leadership into question. However, schools with strong instructional programs have a solid system of observation, coaching, and growth. While Willingham (2014) states instructional leadership (walkthroughs, lesson studies, and observations) doesn’t directly increase student achievement, the process of giving feedback shows a strong correlation to student achievement.
Observation and feedback as a combined process sounds simple enough, providing effective feedback in a manner focused on the right things is a skill in itself. Effective school leaders provide feedback in a meaningful way best tailored to the needs of the instructor (the lead learner in the classroom). To improve the quality of feedback, school leaders should seek to enhance the following aspects of instructional leadership to best serve teachers:
- Build relational capacity,
- Use a “coaching mindset” whenever possible to guide instructional improvement,
- Utilize a clearly communicated common language for evaluating instruction,
- A focus on student work.