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March 1, 2019
Vol. 76
No. 6

The Instructional Leader's Journey

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Leadership
Instructional Strategies
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Credit: ZargonDesign
In 2017, as an educator with a wide range of school leadership experiences, I took a position as principal at the Blackstone Innovation School, a public elementary school in Boston. I spent much of my time and effort that first year wrapping my mind around the complexity of the school, its varied programs and needs, and the district bureaucracy. In addition to the day-to-day building operations and systems to manage (we require 25 school buses daily for arrival and dismissal), there were larger challenges to tackle to improve student learning. As critical as all the operational demands were and continue to be, I knew there was no way I was going to help strengthen instruction if I spent the bulk of my time focused on administrative duties.
The Blackstone School has nearly 600 students—a diverse population with many different needs. Twenty-six percent of our population is made up of students with disabilities, so I had to quickly learn the complex nature of their medical, physical, and communication needs. The majority of our students are English-language learners and 76 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The student population is about 73 percent Latino and 25 percent black. Six years ago, the school came out of turnaround status for underperformance—but in the three years before I arrived, there was a steady backslide in standardized test scores. While I hesitate to cite all these statistics, as too often they become a proxy for deficit narratives about the children and the communities in which they live, they do give a glimpse of the complexity of the school and its challenges.
To begin to unpack why my students were struggling academically, I knew my presence and focus needed to be on the inner workings of classrooms and the myriad ways that instructional moves and student experiences impacted (or didn't impact) student learning. The belief that I could do two jobs equally—building manager and instructional leader—became foolhardy. The instructional leader needs to become the expert on all things teaching and learning. For me, that required a lot of listening and research and paying close attention to instructional details.
Here are some things I learned and practiced in that first year that helped me develop my focus as an instructional leader.

Research and Borrow

When I say research, I'm not talking about poring over stuffy, lengthy journal articles and quantitative data sets with long multisyllabic stretches of words and abstract concepts. Well, that's a small part of it. But a greater portion, I propose, is talking to our fellow principals and finding out what they do well and what they continue to struggle with.
I enjoy visiting my colleagues' schools. It gives me a chance to see how my counterparts operate, and I can stack up my practice against theirs. How do they define their priorities? What strategies can I learn from them? Sometimes it's as simple as a mission statement posted in every room; other times, it's more in-depth, such as a calendar format that will help me better manage my time. I explore how other principals manage staff personalities and create collaborative and professional learning environments. In school leadership, borrowing is not a vice.
Research also means attending conferences, networking, and reading about education leadership, though sometimes you may have to take the stories you read about with a grain of salt. I find that many practitioner books present success stories and journeys that end happily ever after—with every student outperforming the district average on standardized assessments, or 100 percent of their graduates going on to college. These stories can be inspirational, yet also belie the complexity by what they tend to omit—the special education students, the behavioral outliers, the traumatized students, and the atypical learners. True instructional leadership finds the path of success for those children, too, and that may mean challenging traditional ideas on school improvement.
With each new idea I explored during that critical first year, I kept my students' diverse needs and their context front of mind.

Help Teachers Develop a Growth Perspective

To be an instructional leader is to know intimately where your school's strengths and challenges lie. Much of that intelligence should come right from the teachers themselves. In conversations with my teachers, I discovered that they knew well where students might falter, which concepts always seem to trip them up, and which standards or skills require more or less practice to master. I also found that while teachers can be experts at diagnosing where the gaps exist for kids, they are sometimes less skilled at identifying what more is needed in their teaching toolkit.
A growth perspective encourages us to see an unending learning progression rather than a moment of cognitive arrival—though "aha!" moments do happen. I learned to ask teachers: Is the concept as delivered too dense? Is vocabulary obscuring the question, or is it a matter of students needing more wait time? Are there enough visuals? Have they had enough practice? The only way I could codiagnose was to learn alongside the students and teachers, as a way of co-constructing meaning. That meant much trial and error, and I had to convince my teachers that that was OK. I needed to understand the terrain before I'd be able to lead the way through.
As my first year at Blackstone got underway, I learned about the roller-coaster trajectory of the school over the past eight years: How it slipped into turnaround status as a result of poor standardized test performance; emerged out and held steady; and then, in the three years before I came aboard, slid back into the lower echelons of the school-performance rankings in the state of Massachusetts. As much as I push back against the singular story of test scores, there is no escaping the fact that some part of our narrative will be defined by it.
For me, test scores were symptomatic of a deeper challenge: How to increase the quality of instruction schoolwide, which over time would lead to accelerated growth in academic outcomes, of which standardized exams are one measure. The only way we would accomplish sustainable improvement was to identify and address the tier-one weakness in our pedagogy.

Finding an Instructional Focus

It was when I listened quietly in that first year to the ways that students answered teacher queries that a little light began to be shed on why our students struggled to communicate content-based ideas, something that clearly affected their test scores. Our students tended to give long-winded and rambling explanations of situations, formulas, or phenomena. They often repeated phrases in a kind of think-aloud, searching for language to clarify what was going on in their heads. What my teachers and I began to see is that our students lacked the academic vocabulary and the ability to name and describe with accuracy and specificity.
We believed that was a product of limited exposure to content-specific terminology and limited opportunities to practice structured and unstructured discourse. The students needed more frequent opportunities to discuss ideas, challenge each other's thinking, share their knowledge about the way things work, and respond to big questions about the world they inhabit. We recognized that there were times to directly facilitate those conversations and other times to create the conditions and expectations for how students might engage with peers when the teacher isn't at the front of the room. Those were things the teachers could change through adjusting and growing their own practice.
As it turns out, our school community is composed predominantly of Latino students, a cultural group that tends to value communication at home. Zaretta Hammond discusses this cultural trait in her book Culturally Relevant Pedagogy and the Brain (Corwin, 2014) and identifies it as an asset for developing student comprehension. Our students certainly had ideas and abilities to aptly describe other aspects of their environment, such as the playground or a favorite movie or hobby, but I could see during observations that they were struggling to transfer that rich vocabulary into the classroom. The challenge, I realized, would be to support teachers in creating instructional moments where students could apply the oral skills valued in their home cultural settings to the academic demands and content taught in school.
This realization informed my instructional focus, and I worked with our school's instructional leadership team—made up of team leaders for every grade and program at the school—to identify areas where these deficits showed up in assessment data. From there, we determined which learning standards to focus on and what instructional shifts were needed. We reasoned that planning lessons around these key standards, varied questioning, and vocabulary development were the areas where we needed to grow our practice, and the team developed those topics for professional development sessions.

The Power of Classroom Observation

Because observing the classroom was so crucial—and because we started to see results from the changes implemented—I realized that I needed to build my weekly schedule around non-negotiable observation blocks in classrooms. I found—and continue to find—this the hardest and, also, the most important discipline to enact if one is to be an effective instructional leader. Those moments in classrooms must be sacred. It must rise above all else (with the exception of emergency drills and unaccounted-for students).
Observation blocks are the only times in my calendar when I do not schedule meetings or deal with discipline, lunch duty, or paperwork. Generally, these are 90 minutes during the school day, in either one block or two 45-minute blocks. I try to stay in each class for 15 minutes (unless it's a more formal observation). I post my schedule on my door, hoping if I make it public I can hold myself accountable.
I still feel the tug of operations and the need to put out fires, but it's no longer overwhelming. Part of the reason is that I no longer try to solve every dilemma brought to me—I delegate tasks or suggest other people who can help instead. I've also developed a team that serves as first responders to behavior issues that I would historically be the first to address; those can be the most time-consuming and open-ended of challenges that keep me out of classrooms.

Model Teaching and Transparency

It's also important for school leaders to reflect on their ideas, successes, and missteps. Modeling and public reflection give the instructional leader credibility as a partner in the school-improvement journey, rather than someone with all the answers.
I open my model teaching lessons to the critique of my staff. This has shown me up close the difference between self-perception and how others see me. There is great value in discussing the planning and instructional moves that went well and those that flopped in my own lessons. For example, one teacher who I was working with around community building observed me running a morning community circle, and she pointed out that I had done what I had coached her not to do—over-attend to the off-task students. I've also been humbly reminded of how I need to use timers to monitor my pacing. During a model science lesson, I got so engrossed in the rich questions students asked that I could not resist offering at least partial answers; needless to say, I totally abandoned the timer and also did not give students sufficient independent time.
During observations, I am usually silent, except when asking students about what they are learning. In the course of these experiences, I identify the teachers who can use additional support, and then offer coplanning and coteaching or model teaching as an aspect of that support.
I'm also very careful to celebrate teachers and highlight their experiences. In my weekly email update to staff, I have a "Spotlight on Instruction," where I summarize teaching moves that I observed the past week that were effective or produced high student engagement. Teachers desire recognition just as students do, and effective leaders take every opportunity to publicize teacher efforts. Being new to the school, this was especially helpful in building and strengthening relationships with faculty.

Empowering Marginalized Voices

One final thing that I consider central to good school leadership is working to raise the voices of those historically silenced within the education landscape. Instructional leadership requires a recognition that parents are the first teachers of their children and that they bring their own parental and cultural expertise. Parents and caregivers must be informed about, and have influence over, the academic priorities and direction of the school. When I was discussing our school-improvement plan during parent council meetings, for example—a topic that teems with jargon about data and accountability—I made sure in my short presentations to explain some of the technical language in everyday terms and allow time for questions. Our parent mentor group also organized a learning walk to share findings with the general parent body. In this way, we empowered parents in the learning process, made our goals and work transparent, and enabled stakeholders to make informed decisions about the school's direction.
Paraprofessionals are also key school personnel who are often overlooked even though they have a unique lens on the teaching and learning process. They need tailored professional learning to best support what happens in classrooms. School leaders need to recognize that paraprofessionals desire a role as instructional partners and don't want to be seen as just "the help."
Beginning last spring, I began a professional development series specifically for paraprofessionals, at their request. I discovered they knew very little about the school's instructional focus. Some had not even read the IEPs of students they were expected to support! The extent to which paraprofessionals were included in academic decisions largely depended on the individual relationships they had with their lead teacher—and as a result, the experiences they had at the school were quite varied.
I have been addressing this challenge in several ways. Simply talking about it is one way—many teachers were unaware that this disconnect even existed among paraprofessionals. I also provided a stipend that allows paraprofessionals to attend before-school professional development with the entire staff. I surveyed them about their learning priorities and organized building-wide learning walks where they could evaluate our instructional focus. These efforts have helped to foster more collaboration across staff and elevate the status of paraprofessionals in the work they do with our students.

Embrace the Journey

The future of Blackstone Innovation School is filled with promise, thanks in no small part to the dedicated staff who have changed its trajectory. As I discovered early in my journey, the true power of instructional leadership lies in the demand for collaborative learning, being present in classrooms, and honing in on instructional gaps. School leaders who embrace and model these dispositions through their beliefs and actions can set the tone for instructional improvement and illuminate the path toward excellence.

Jamel Adkins-Sharif has been a contributor in Educational Leadership.

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