I still vividly remember my early years as an assistant principal and principal. Instructional leadership was a routine part of the job along with the budget, master schedule, curriculum development, meetings, emails, phone calls, and many other duties. With the evolution of social media, yet another responsibility was added to my plate in the form of digital leadership. The position of school administrator really requires a jack of all trades, master of none. This is why many leaders fail to live up to the most important aspect of the position, which is instructional leadership.
Even though I tried, the frequency of my teacher observations rarely extended beyond the minimal expectation. Not only was I not in classrooms enough, but also the level of feedback—provided through the lens of a narrative report—did very little to improve teaching and learning both in and out of the classroom. If improvement is the ultimate goal, then we as leaders need to put the most focus on elements of our job that impact student learning. Instructional leaders understand that management is a necessary evil associated with the position but not something that should come at the expense of improving the learning culture in order to increase achievement.
It is easy to just say that one should improve instructional leadership—or anything else for that matter. Below, I offer ten specific strategies from my time as high school principal that you can begin to adopt now.
Get in Classrooms More
This seems so easy, yet it remains a constant struggle. Begin by increasing the number of formal observations conducted each year and commit to a schedule to get them all done. We formally observed each of our teachers three times a year regardless of experience. Another successful strategy is to develop an informal walk-through schedule with your leadership team. I mandated five walks a day for each member of my team, and we used a color-coded Google Doc to keep track of where we visited and the specific improvement comments provided to each teacher.
Streamline Expectations and Eliminate Ineffective Practices
Begin with establishing a common vision and expectations for all teachers. We did this by using the Rigor Relevance Framework, which provides all teachers with consistent, concrete elements to focus on when developing lessons. Get rid of the dog and pony show ritual of announced observations. If lesson plans are still collected, ask for them to demonstrate what will be done two weeks into the future. Consider less of a focus on lesson plans and more on assessment. Collect and review assessments two weeks into the future.
Provide at least one suggestion for improvement no matter how good the observation is. There is no perfect lesson. Suggestions for improvement should always contain clear, practical examples and strategies that a teacher can begin to implement immediately. Timely feedback is also essential.
Be a Scholar
Being a scholar not only helps you as a leader to improve professional practice, but it also puts you in a position to have better conversations with your teachers about their own improvement. This adds a whole new level of credibility to post-observation conferences. I made a point of aligning every piece of critical feedback to current research.
As you come across research that supports the types of effective pedagogical techniques that you wish to see in your classrooms, archive it in a document that you can refer to when writing up observations. I spent each summer as principal reading, researching, curating, and adapting this research for use during the school year. It not only saved me time when it came to writing up observations, but it also greatly improved my relationship with my staff as the instructional leader.
Don’t ask your teachers to do anything that you are not willing to do yourself. This is extremely important in terms of technology integration in the classroom and professional learning to improve practice. If a teacher is struggling with their assessments, don’t just say you need to work on building better ones. Either provide an example that you have created or co-create an assessment together.
Teach a Class
This can be accomplished regularly during the year or by co-teaching with both struggling and distinguished teachers. During my first couple of years as an administrator, I taught a section of high school biology. This is leading by example at its best. It also provides a better context for the evolving role of the teacher in the digital age. An instructional leader who walks the walk builds better relationships with staff and in turn will be in a much better position to engage staff in conversations to improve instruction.
Attend at least one conference or workshop a year that is aligned to a major initiative or focus area in your school or district. Try to also read one education book and another related to a different field such as leadership, self-help, or business. So many powerful lessons and ideas can be gleaned once we venture outside the education silo.
To compliment traditional means of professional learning, work to create or further develop a Personal Learning Network. Social media provides a 24/7 pathway to ideas, strategies, feedback, resources, and support that every educator should take advantage of in the digital age.
Write in Order to Reflect
Like many other connected educators, writing has enabled me to process my thinking, resulting in a more critical reflection of my work in relation to teaching, learning, and leadership. Our reflections not only assist us with our growth, but also can be catalysts for our staff and others to reflect on their own practice or grow professionally. Having teachers write a brief reflection prior to the post-observation conference is a great strategy to promote a conversation on improvement that isn’t one-sided.
Portfolios were a requirement for my teachers and complimented our observation process nicely. They provided more clarity and detail on instruction over the entire course of the school year. Portfolios can include learning activities, assessments, unit plans, examples of student work, and other forms of evidence to improve instructional effectiveness. They can also be used to validate good practice.
During the first quarter of each year, I co-observed lessons with members of my administrative team. This was invaluable for many reasons. For one, we were able to take advantage of two sets of eyes during observations, as some things will always be missed when done solo no matter how much experience you have. This also allowed me to work with my team to help them improve their own instructional leadership. It also helped me improve, as every conversation helped me to further reflect on what I saw.
Nothing is more important than ensuring quality learning is taking place in our classrooms. These ten strategies can be implemented immediately to improve your instructional leadership. Like all lists, there are many great strategies that I missed. With that being said, what would you add to the list?
Eric Sheninger is a senior fellow and thought leader on digital leadership with the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE). Prior to this, he was an award-winning principal at New Milford High School in New Milford, CT. A 2012 Digital Principal of the Year, he has authored six books, including the best-seller Digital Leadership. Follow him on Twitter (@E_Sheninger) or visit his website.