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Are You a True Instructional Leader? The Specific Actions of Building Leaders Who Raise Student Achievement

Strong instructional leaders make big impacts on student achievement outcomes (Marzano et al., 2005). They help lead the work to ensure a guaranteed and viable taught curriculum that is aligned with how students will be assessed. In schools with high numbers of students in gap groups (such as economically disadvantaged, English language learners, students receiving special education services, etc.), ensuring the alignment between the curriculum, instruction, and assessment is even more crucial for student success (Wishneck, 1989). The alignment needs to not only be in terms of content—what is being taught—but cognitive level—the level to which students need to demonstrate understanding of the content (Gamoran et al., 1997).

In my role as a Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment in a high-performing school district with high numbers of students who fall into gap group categories, I’ve had the opportunity to witness dozens of strong instructional building leaders who refused to let the young people in their schools be defined by their zip code. A lot of research exists on what it means to be an instructional leader, but I’ve found most of it is written at a theory-level and focuses on broad categories of work like “Defining the School Mission” or “Promoting School Climate” (Hallinger & Heck, 1997). While somewhat helpful, many of these resources do not describe the specific actions that effective school leaders do on a daily basis in a way that others can replicate.

For that reason, here are some of the specific actions I’ve seen some of our highest performing building leaders perform consistently that actually make a difference for students who need it the most.

  1. They conduct frequent, purposeful instructional walkthroughs, provide specific feedback, and follow-up.

This one should come as no surprise on a website that features tools for classroom observations, but the difference is that the administrators who actually impact student achievement go into each walkthrough with a purpose and always follow-up on feedback. That purpose may come from a variety of sources, such as a review of student data, professional development, a pre-conference with the teacher, or a previous observation. Whether they are using the Teacher & Observer: Partners for Success Cycle, looking for indicators of student engagement, or assessing cognitive levels of questions and wait time, these administrators look for specific actions, collect qualitative and quantitative data, and most importantly-–follow up with the teacher. This follow-up is also purposeful and used to set goals to increase student engagement and outcomes. Of course, the type of feedback and degree of partnership frequently depends on the skill and will level of the teacher, but the expectation is that all educators are constantly growing and refining their craft.

  1. They attend all district level curriculum department training sessions and pay attention.

Building administrators have a lot to do. I get it. But the building leaders I’ve seen who truly move the needle are the ones who come to any curriculum department training session, take notes, and actively participate the whole time. They aren’t trying to answer their emails while half-listening. They dig into the material; they ask specific questions. They especially do this if it’s not a content area about which they are particularly knowledgeable. They do not assume that their teachers will just “get it,” but truly internalize the role of a learning leader and know that their job is to follow-up with their teachers afterward. These administrators exemplify and model what it means to be a learning leader.

  1. They plan instruction with their teachers.

Note that I said “with” not “for.” The strongest instructional leaders I’ve seen sit next to their teachers in collaborative planning meetings. They have the standards and curriculum in front of them, and they may lead discussions on how best to instruct students, but they do not dictate how it will be done. If you walked into a planning session, you might not be able to tell the principal from a teacher, because everyone participates and takes ownership for the instruction of students.

  1. They never stop teaching.

The best instructional leaders I’ve seen are ones who don’t hold themselves at a distance from instruction. They go into classrooms not just for instructional walks, but to co-teach or model teach with teachers. If they have a really experienced, successful teacher, they still go into that classroom—not to model but to see what they can learn from that teacher. They ask questions of that model teacher and then use that information to help provide feedback to teachers who are not experiencing as much success.

  1. They own the instructional areas that need it the most.

Sometimes we see a principal rely heavily on an assistant principal for certain curriculum areas. The school may be struggling with meeting benchmarks on state assessments in, say, reading—and when questioned about the strategies for helping student achievement in this area, some principals will deflect and say “Oh, that’s [Assistant Principal]’s job.” They may wonder why, at the end of the year, not enough progress was made in this content area.

While it’s fine to work with the assistant principal to address the most dire learning needs, the strongest instructional leaders throw themselves into the work head-first. They attend all the planning meetings for that content area or grade level. They are at every training for that content area. They dig into the curriculum or standards of that content area themselves and research what it should look like in practice. They find classrooms that excel in this content area (even if those classrooms are in other schools) and learn from those teachers, then take that learning back to their own buildings. They disaggregate data right beside their teachers and help create any reteaching or remediation plans.

  1. They ensure that failure is not an option—for anyone.

I’ve seen a lot of great posters on school walls about grit and growth mindset in my time, but they mean nothing if the building leader doesn’t insist that students are given genuine opportunities to improve their performance. (Read more about false growth mindsets here.)  It’s one thing to talk about high expectations, and it’s another to provide students with the support they need to achieve those expectations. Ensuring that extra credit is available, planning for students who fail assessments to retake them, providing specific feedback on work so students know how to be successful…these are all keys to truly ensuring student success.

  1. They know the difference between compliance and cognitive engagement, and insist on the latter.

Whenever I hear a building leader say that “the students just aren’t motivated” or “we can’t force them to learn” I raise an eyebrow. While it is true that we cannot force anyone to do anything, we can make the learning so appealing that students will clamor for it. I’m reminded of a history teacher who used video games to teach historical concepts—his classes were so popular that students would sneak out of other classes to sneak into his. True instructional leaders understand that every student can be engaged in learning, and they work with their teachers to plan lessons so engaging that students won’t want to miss a moment of it. More ideas about how to accomplish that can be found here.

  1. They have a sense of urgency and priority.

The strongest instructional leaders know they can’t wait until the end of the year to ensure that students receive engaging, aligned instruction. These administrators are the first ones to look at formative data and unpack it. They immediately work with teachers to craft plans to help students who need it. They prioritize their work and delegate non-instructional tasks whenever they can so that they can stay on top of instruction. If they go into a classroom and see a teacher struggle, they meet with the teacher that day to work out a plan. By the time anyone from the Central Office calls about any dips in data, our strongest instructional leaders already know about it and have a sensible plan that they can clearly articulate and is already being put into action.

  1. They are humble, know what they don’t know, and ask for help.

This last one may be one of the biggest keys to being a strong instructional leader. I have seen folks who were themselves strong teachers and therefore feel like they should know it all and not need help; they may even try to hide their own deficiencies or convince themselves their superficial knowledge is more than adequate. The best instructional leaders I know are the ones who reach out for support—even when the area for support is an area of their expertise. For instance, I have seen principals who I know have successfully taught reading (and could maybe even teach a course on how to teach reading) still reach out to our reading team for help in supporting teachers. These instructional leaders know that two brains are always smarter than one, no matter how smart that first brain is.

In Conclusion

It’s not enough for instructional leaders to know the buzzwords. It’s not enough even to go on instructional walks, to fill out long teacher evaluation forms, or give motivational speeches to staff and students. You might also notice that I said little about incentivizing learning through external rewards…the strongest instructional leaders may have systems like this in place, but they know those systems mean nothing without engaging, aligned instruction taking place in the classrooms. Strong instructional leaders are lead learners—they are in the weeds of planning instruction with their teachers, especially in content areas that need it the most, and they are in classrooms frequently to see where they need to provide more support. In short, strong instructional leaders absorb all the training and information they can and take ownership of the learning in their building. 

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