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April 1, 2021

Follow the Instructional Leader

Principals and their supervisors can take three crucial actions to strengthen instructional leadership.

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New principals—and many veteran principals—often struggle to become strong instructional leaders. Principals are pulled in many different directions, making it difficult to focus significant time and energy on leading learning. In one study, researchers found that on average, principals spend only about 12 percent of their time on instructional leadership. 1

This was the case for Roddy Melancon, a primary grade principal in Ascension Parish, Louisiana, whom my organization, the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET), has worked with. When Roddy was a new principal, the urgent demands of the role repeatedly squeezed out his time for instruction. "I would be in a leadership team meeting or visiting a classroom, and if something was happening on the campus, I was the one [who] would leave to go take care of it," Roddy says. "My team was left there saying, 'Wait, what's going on?'"

Unfortunately, this scenario is one that plays out often in schools, even when leaders try to prioritize instruction over more immediate responsibilities. Creating a strong instructional leadership team with teacher leaders as key participants is a crucial step, but principals must have time to develop skills both in leading and in learning from their team. In fact, principals must be the core instructional leader in the building, demonstrating through their mindset and actions the kind of instruction they want for students. Roddy needed to be able to dig into student work with teachers and ask specific questions related to their lesson objectives and curriculum.

Supervision and Support

Principal supervisors can be a key support for principals in their work to be effective instructional leaders and coaches. Research from the 2020 report Changing the Principal Supervisor Role to Better Support Principals demonstrates that to be effective in supporting principals to improve, supervisors need to shift their role from compliance to coaching. 2 This requires specific steps, including: (1) ask reflective questions; (2) tackle instructional challenges; and (3) coach principals around feedback, self-reflection, and goal setting. In this way, principals experience the kind of support and coaching they are in turn expected to provide to teachers.

NIET works with districts like Ascension Public Schools to create more effective school-based systems of collaborative professional learning and coaching. Principals and teacher leaders are trained to support teachers to analyze data, identify and apply student strategies grounded in the curriculum, and continuously improve their practice through cycles of observation and feedback. District leaders, especially principal supervisors, participate in training—appropriate, considering their essential role in coaching principals to implement and strengthen professional learning.

Roddy worked with his principal supervisor, Latatia Johnson, who focused her support and coaching on instruction. As a former principal in the district, she had relevant experience and a track record of success. "She gave me the confidence I needed to be an instructional leader, not just a manager [who] could do all the other tasks on campus," Roddy says. As Roddy felt increasingly confident in his leadership of teaching and learning, he was able to delegate other tasks. The partnership between Roddy and his supervisor demonstrates the following three actions that principals and their supervisors can take to prioritize and more effectively use the time focused on instructional leadership.

1. Spend time in classrooms to engage in the learning.

To be an effective coach, principals need to fully know the curriculum, resources, and planning expectations and spend time in classrooms to observe the flow and key portions of the lesson. They also need to pay close attention to student work. Coaches can help principals deepen their analysis of what they see happening in the classroom, as well as what they might be missing. Why are students excelling in one classroom and not another? What are the most effective teacher actions or instructional decisions? What are students actually doing throughout the day?

Roddy's supervisor Latatia was intentional about helping to plan and schedule support for him. She attended leadership team meetings he led and observed him as he coached teacher leaders to plan and facilitate professional learning. She accompanied Roddy when he followed up with classroom coaching. They scheduled time for these visits on their calendars and also committed to working one-on-one to plan out where they would be going and the discussions they would be having with teachers in classrooms.

In one classroom, Latatia would model giving the teacher instructional feedback, with Roddy observing and taking notes, then let Roddy take the reins for the next classroom. She would provide coaching for him in real time as he looked at student work and asked questions. This helped the principal to make strong connections between the work of the leadership team, what was taking place in professional learning, how teachers were implementing strategies in their individual classrooms, and how the strategies were working for students.

Principal supervisors can also model how leaders are learners. Bob Bohannon, an assistant superintendent for career preparation at Perry Township Schools in Indiana, describes this shift in his district. "When I visit a school, I am there as an active participant," he says. "I learn something in every leadership team meeting, every time I go into a classroom, every time I sit down with building principals. That learning allows me to better support the other leaders in our buildings." By engaging as learners themselves, supervisors help to create a reflective culture at the district level that principals can replicate in their own schools.

2. Model being a reflective learner.

In an especially uncertain school year like this one, principal supervisors and principals can model what it looks like to take risks and to be a "lead learner" instead of someone with all the answers. This provides breathing room for teachers to try new strategies and makes clear that principals support innovation and have teachers' backs when a trial method doesn't work as planned. Principals can help by making connections between the strong practices teachers were already using in the classroom and virtual, hybrid, or other learning environments.

Getting this right requires principals to spend time in Zoom-hosted or hybrid classrooms and with collaborative learning teams. They need to engage in the specific content and classroom challenges teachers are experiencing—whether in person or virtual—and focus feedback on specific, detailed actions that are grounded in the curriculum, as well as teachers' and students' individual needs. For example, principals might make connections between expectations in standards for what students should know and be able to do, and a specific activity or assignment. That could mean asking a teacher to shadow a peer and observe a model of a particular strategy, or asking them to present in a collaborative group.

Principal supervisors should model this type of coaching for principals. After visiting a classroom together, Latatia and Roddy would sit down with questions and reflections. They'd look at student work and discuss what they were seeing across classrooms, asking, What happened when teachers received coaching? What were the results if there was no monitoring or follow-up to the coaching?

"I like to look at the results first—including observations of teacher practices and student work—and then ask 'How can the principal change their behavior or practices to get a different result in the classroom?'" says Latatia. Focusing on strengths and working in partnership to analyze and improve practice opens the door for principals to improve their own capacity for reflection and their skill in helping teachers to do the same.

3. Create schoolwide opportunities for leadership.

All principals are not going to be instructional experts in every subject area or be able to step in at every moment. That is why the leadership team is there—to support the overall instructional leadership capacity of a school. The leadership team offers principals support in understanding the application of new learning across classrooms, analyzing student work and results, deconstructing standards, and connecting the thinking they'd like students to do with the curricula.

One of the most important skills for principals is building the capacity of others to lead. Establishing structures and protocols for collective leadership and collaborative learning is especially important given the ongoing challenges schools face this year. Principals can create roles for teacher leaders to take on tasks such as coaching or facilitating professional learning, selecting or providing training on virtual learning platforms, developing assessments for online learning, or creating a plan to identify and address student learning gaps. Even as districts provide platforms and district-level training, they can continue to support and emphasize the role of school-based teams in making these tools and resources work for everyone.

Principal supervisors also must recognize the importance of supporting principals and their team members (master teachers, mentor teachers, and administrators) to develop skills in a variety of settings. In some situations, a principal may be driving the agenda in the weekly leadership team meeting. In others, the principal may take on the role of facilitator and coach for the teacher leaders who are leading a collaborative learning team. Supervisors might observe and then offer reflective coaching on strengths and areas of improvement with the principal and their team.

In addition to the collaborative learning structures within a school, principal networks provide connections to other principals and ideas for new initiatives, research-driven strategies, or ways to best approach specific learning requirements. "The support that I most value from my peers and district leadership is focused on how to sustain change and how the change process can move forward," says Roberto Lopez, a principal at Fannin Middle School in Grand Prairie, Texas. "We all have some grand ideas, but what does it look like to sustain that in October, in February, in April?" Districts can offer opportunities for collaborative learning among principals that enable them to share effective practices and successful strategies with their peers. Follow-up coaching by principal supervisors helps individual principals to apply new learning in their unique school context.

Leadership for Success

Principals are the leaders of learning in their building, but they need help from their team members and district-level administrators to be successful. If principal supervisors don't see themselves as coaches, districts are failing to employ a key resource that is already in place in most school systems. The partnership between Roddy and Latatia demonstrates how powerful this support can be—enabling a principal to change both his actions and his mindset and, in the process, to become a strong instructional leader.

By intentionally focusing on the supportive aspects of their role, principal supervisors can model effective coaching and create job-embedded opportunities for principals to build their skills in classrooms, in professional learning moments, and in the variety of settings where the work of the principal already takes place. If ever there was a year to prioritize and lean in on principal support to lead learning, it is now.

End Notes

1 Grissom, J. A., Loeb, S., & Master, B. (2013). Effective instructional time use for school leaders: Longitudinal evidence from observations of principals. Educational Researcher, 42(8), 433–444.

2 Goldring, E. B., Clark, M. A., Rubin, M., Rogers, L. K., Grissom, J. A., Gill, B., et al. (2020). Changing the principal supervisor role to better support principals: Evidence from the Principal Supervisor Initiative. Vanderbilt University and Mathematica.

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