Recognizing the Value of Instructional Leadership

Being a school administrator is complex and multi-faceted.  There are parts of the job that involve managing tasks, making day-to-day decisions, and responding to any number of emergencies or difficult situations.  There are also parts of the school principalship and superintendency that require strategic thinking, being visionary, motivating others, cultivating relationships, and focusing on specific, long-range outcomes.  

I am humbled by the dedication and selflessness that I observe principals and superintendents demonstrate on a daily basis. However, finding a balance between being a “manager” and being an “instructional leader” has always been an important part of the job, and I am worried that we are out of balance.

For several years leading into 2019, I observed a number of what I believe to be positive shifts within school administration. One shift was placing learning ahead of teaching as the primary emphasis of what occurs in schools. Another was to move away from a factory model in education to emphasize the importance that instruction should be tailored to each students’ individual needs. A third, and certainly not the final, shift was de-siloing teachers in order to prioritize collective teacher efficacy and the significant effects it has on student and school success.

None of these shifts could have occurred, or be sustained, without strong instructional leadership. Unfortunately, the circumstances of the last three years have diverted school leaders’ energy away from what are arguably the most important parts of the job.  Student and school safety, anti-government activism, COVID-19 protocols, community unrest regarding curricular issues, and a host of other things have consumed school administrators’ time to the point of absurdity.  

But now, it has to change.  If public education is going to thrive, we need to help administrators recommit to the instructional leader aspects of the job. Day-to-day and managerial tasks will always exist, however the scale should lean toward instructional leadership and away from management.  And that comes with a couple challenges.  

First, humans are drawn toward success. Like it or not, the things immediately facing administrators–those day-to-day  and operational tasks–are easy pickings, and marking them complete can feel like a win.   This explains why as a superintendent, I looked forward to cutting the grass every Saturday.  Effort x time = job complete.  

The second challenge requires a commitment up the chain of command.  For a principal to shift their priorities away from short-term managerial activities to longer-term leadership activities requires a superintendent who recognizes the need for that change, and is willing to support a redistribution of responsibilities or resources.   The same applies to a board of education when considering a superintendent’s priorities.

The upside is that this type of systemic shift is merely a matter of mindset and will. Administrators whose balance is off need permission, encouragement, and support to shed less-than-impactful responsibilities.  They also need the people up the chain of command to fend off critics who don’t fully understand the impact of an effective instructional leader.   Whether you’re an administrator, board member, or other stakeholder, this starts with you.  

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