Creating The Conditions: Instructional Leadership
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I recently had the honour to present in the Leadership 2.0 MOOC series (in which I am learning alongside others) on “Providing Instructional Leadership” (To view the archive of the presentation click here – you can also view the slide embedded below). When George Couros asked me to be part of this, I looked over the sessions and chose Instructional Leadership not because I am an expert on this topic but more because this is the area of current focus for me as an educational leader and this would be a way to learn from others. I figured doing this would challenge me and give me the extra push to channel all of the reading and learning conversations I am having into one 60 minute session. (please note that due to the size of this topic, this is one of my lengthier posts but please have a read and add your stories at the end so I can learn from your experience).
As I communicated with people like Bill Ferriter (who continues to challenge me to be better), I realized that I had some concerns with the term “Instructional Leader”. To me, that term states that there is a single instructional leader; what the staff of Kent Elementary has taught me is that that everyone can and should lead – and that many people can work together to facilitate instructional leadership. The key role for me as a principal is to create the conditions for our staff to be more of a professional learning community and create more opportunities for people to be involved in the instructional leadership of our school.
My reflections lead me to discussions with Bruce Beairsto and Jacquie Taylor (2 former BC superintendents who now work as consultants and volunteer as mentors) about how I can work to create the structures for the conditions for instructional leadership. Both Bruce and Jacquie said they had a similar concern: the management side of school leadership had been given a bad rap and is something that is crucial to effective principal leadership. Bruce said, “Leadership and management are the yin and yang of administration… management and leadership are equally noble, complex and necessary.” He also used the analogy of a house when he said “You need management to build a house but only leadership can make it into a home” (more from Beairsto). Through these conversations, it became clear to me that I had focused mostly on relationships and conversations but had focused too little on the structures that could facilitate more effective dialogue and put these conversations into action. The key question for me this year is: how can I work to create the conditions for more instructional leadership in our school?
One book that I read in my Master’s program was by Blase and Blase and in it, based on their work with hundreds of teachers, they summarize how teachers described effective principals. The best thing about this list is that this is the feedback that has often been given to me by the staff in our school. Blase and Blase stated that effective principals:
- lead with a shared purpose
- empowered teachers (although I struggle with the term “empower”)
- fostered collaboration and collegiality
- supported risk taking and innovation
- helped teachers become inquiry oriented
- provided resources and time for professional growth
The majority of staff that I have worked with, both as a teacher and a principal, want to lead. They have an area of passion or interest or they have some questions and want to explore; the challenge is often creating the conditions in which it more comfortable to do this. When I think back to Deci and Ryan’s work on motivation (also explained by Daniel Pink), the ideas of autonomy and purpose stand out. How can principals work with staff to provide the needed professional autonomy and voice in developing shared purpose?
Professional autonomy is one of those terms that is defined in so many different ways. I strongly believe that in an environment of professional learners, professional autonomy can help teachers to flourish (we have “linchpins” in our schools that especially need that autonomy to fly and lead). I like differentiating between professional autonomy as “freedom FROM” and “freedom TO” that was discussed by Blase in “Bringing Out the Best in Teachers”. In a top-down controlled environment (think micromanagement), teachers often want freedom FROM doing things that they are directed to do; in a supportive, collegial environment, teachers want the freedom TO try new ideas and dive deeper into areas of interest. It is important to also note that there are some ideas and initiatives that are agreed upon by staff (the “non-negotiables”) that teachers should not move away from (ie. consistency in assessment). In our district, teachers have the option of doing some learning team professional development and are given time in lieu. The past year, we had 5 teachers discuss ways that we could increase the joy in reading at Kent School; they met and learned together far more than the “earned” time in lieu and their conversations and ideas have had a significant impact on our school (click here to read more). Professional autonomy significantly impacts student learning in our school as staff have shown that when they have ownership (purpose) of their learning, motivation increases.
Being part of the instructional leadership in a school is crucial to the effectiveness of a principal. In order to be part of this, there must be TRUSTING relationships and credibility. When meeting with staff we must work had to listen… truly listen. When listening, I often come back to this story:
A little girl came home from school with a drawing she’d made in class. She danced into the kitchen, where her mother was preparing dinner. “Mom, guess what?” she squealed, waving the drawing. Her mom never looked up. “What?” she said, tending to the pots. “Guess what?” the child repeated, waving the drawing. “What?” the mother said, tending to the plates. “Mom, you’re not listening.” “Sweetie, yes I am.” “Mom,” the child said, “you’re not listening with your eyes.“ — Mitch Albom
If relationships and trust are important to us, whether it is with students, staff, or families – listen with our eyes. Doing this allows for us to not worry so much about what we are going to say next and more about actually hearing the message being communicated. Having trusting relationships helps with the personal credibility needed to be on an (informal) effective instructional leadership team in the school. Professional credibility comes from the earned respect from others based on knowledge and experience. Therefore, it is so important for principals to stay up to date on ideas and practices, share this with others, and, most importantly, be in classrooms. Both being in classrooms learning from teachers and actually teaching a small amount each week (one of the greatest learning experiences I have had as a principal was co-teaching grade 1 reading with a very experienced and effective primary teacher) can only work to build relationships and both professional and personal credibility with staff.
One of the biggest barriers to staff learning, leading and trying to go deeper with their ideas is RESOURCES. As Chris Kennedy has stated, “If we want people to do well, we need to give them the tools.” How can principals use the (often small) budget to provide staff with the resources to participate in instructional leadership by enhancing their practice? The cheapest way to do this is to offer a few tools and TIME. I find that few teachers ask for much other than time. As principals, I think we need to move from people asking permission to try new things to asking “how can we…” try new things. This year, I have offered teachers the option (this is not a requirement in our district) to do an inquiry-based growth plan, not for accountability and not to be sent anywhere outside of school, to help me provide the resources for teachers to grow in area of interest. I have been so excited to read these and engage in dialogue on how our school can help facilitate their learning. My former principal, Roxanne Watson, modeled to me the importance of offering teachers time to learn; I again have offered to cover classes for any teacher wanting to observe another. I will also again offer a “FedEx Prep: Time for Innovation” so teachers can have some extra prep to explore an area of interest and apply that to their practice. I am hoping that by engaging in reflective dialogue with our staff, I can better provide the tools for our staff to enhance their learning and, in effect, be more involved in instructional leadership.
As we model learning, it is important that we share this with staff and encourage collegial learning. As Linda Lambert writes:
For decades, educators have understood that we are all responsible for student learning. More recently, educators have come to realize that we are responsible for our own learning as well. But we usually do not move our eyes around the room—across the table—and say to ourselves, “I am also responsible for the learning of my colleagues.”
We need to share our learning and share the learning happening within staff. I believe one of my roles is to be a connector of learning in our school; I need to connect educators that are separated by bells and walls by sharing the learning story and encouraging staff with similar interests to connect. This can be done best through face to face but also through email and social media. Staff meetings are the only time we get to be together as an entire staff; as Scott Benwell said to me, “in BC, we have a total of about 15 hours in which we can meet as a staff – how are you going to organize that time? Is this time best used for reporting out information or is it best used for collegial discussions that drive us forward as a school?” Staff meetings must be effectively prepared in a way that leads to important dialogue and sharing for our staff (for a fantastic post on this, check out Cale Birk’s recent post or any of the posts at Bill Ferriter’s blog) as this can be a key structure to facilitating instructional leadership.
Staff (principals included) also need to be encouraged, supported, and challenged. As most of you know, I am not a huge fan of public recognition of individuals so I believe that private conversations that acknowledge the hard work and efforts of our teachers are so important. Hand-written notes are something I need to do more of as I know how people appreciate these. Staff do not work hard to get the “prize of a note” but feedback on their (often amazing) efforts can go a long way. Feedback can also be used to challenge a staff member to reflect on certain practices. Having difficult conversations with staff is never easy for me, but as Johnny Bevacqua says: “we need to go skate into the puck and go to the hard places”. A colleague in the district, Mark Classen, has pushed me to seek to understand and see through the lenses of the other person; he has helped me to sit beside and discuss concerns rather than sit across from and debate. Even our best teachers need positive feedback as well as a push to be better. Tom Schimmer recently challenged me to approach educational conversations as “gentle nudges” rather than the right vs wrong ways of doing things. This perspective has helped me engage with a variety of educators (both in and out of our sch00l) in effective conversations that move the focus from teaching to learning and drive both parties forward. Having trusting relationships can open the door for 2-way feedback that will not only challenge our staff to be better but also make it easier for me to receive feedback to make me better. It is also important that principals and teachers in our schools understand that when principals enter the classroom, it is to be further engaged in the LEARNING of the school and not to just participate in surveillance. Although I realize that often when ANY adult enters a classroom to observe it is natural to see change, the more we are in classrooms (and GET OUT OF THE OFFICE!), the less likely it is to be viewed as an event and more as part of the conversation. Through the conversations, gentle nudges, and positive feedback, all those involved in instructional leadership will see more growth both individually and as a team.
To create the conditions for instructional leadership, it is important that we engage in discussions and are aware of literature on current effective pedagogy. For curriculum and assessment, one of the areas that we have focused on has been the practices included in Assessment For Learning, particularly having clear learning intentions and criteria as well as using effective descriptive feedback that student can act upon. When I first started to learn more about AFL and became an administrator, I made the mistake of coming across (preaching) as using the practices of AFL was “right” and not using them was “wrong”; by doing this, I alienated many people in the conversation. Since then, I have worked with teachers to highlight some of the work already being done in our school as well as setting up reflective staff meeting discussions of assessment practices to give some gentle nudges both in group and individual discussions; too, teachers have challenged my ideas and caused me to continually reflect. For summative assessments, we are currently trying to use school data to inform us (NOT evaluate) but we have to ensure that this data is as real as we can make it – we have to work to make the data more consistent, ensure that we are assessing the same standards, and not participating in grade inflation/deflation (through late marks, zeros, bonus, etc). Ideally, we would like to have what Benwell calls an effective dynamic tension between where we are now and where we want to be. Although we continue to challenge each other, the strengths of staff members,combined with avenues for reflective dialogue, have moved us all forward in providing more effective, consistent, transparent assessment practices in our school.
Creating an instructional vision must be done from within. It cannot be MY vision because if the staff does not feel they have ownership, it stays as MY vision and goes nowhere. I need to have a voice but so do others. The key questions I am asking myself and others are: how do we create a shared vision? how do we KNOW it is a shared vision? One of the responses is quite simply to truly listen and build the vision from the strengths within the school. Are other people being heard? Are we tapping into the effective practices already in our schools? A shared vision with a sense of purpose can guide us in so many instructional decisions; getting to that point requires active listening and open reflective discussions about what we believe as educators.
Another aspect of leadership that I am working on is being a more transparent educator. I think it is important to show that it is acceptable (and encouraged) to take risks and be vulnerable. Leadership requires people to put themselves out there and possibly be wrong. To facilitate instructional leadership, we need to model vulnerability and transparency and encourage staff to pursue the questions they/we have. David Wees and John Spencer have challenged educators to not only share the successes but also the failures. I have shared my “oopses” with staff and I plan to blog on this in a future post. As Brene Brown wrote, “To believe vulnerability is weakness is to believe that feeling is weakness.” It is important that we show care… that we show feeling… and, at times, we show vulnerability.
As I said, the topic of instructional leadership is vast as so many aspects of leadership come into play. I believe that the main role of a principal is to create the conditions for instructional leadership to occur in our schools. The key questions that I am exploring are: what are the conditions that facilitate more instructional leadership that drives each of to be better educators… and how do I create these conditions?
I look forward to reading any insights/stories you can share of the positives and/or negatives of instructional leadership in your schools.