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March 1, 2019
Vol. 76
No. 6

Leading Together / Toward Shared Instructional Leadership

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Are we ready to debunk the myth of the lone instructional leader?
Instructional Strategies
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Ask a teacher today whom they turn to when they want help with a classroom dilemma. They'll likely report talking to school colleagues, reaching out to teachers in their networks, or connecting with online communities. Some teachers may also identify their principal as a professional resource, but seldom is the principal the first stop for instructional support.
Throughout much of the last century, norms of professional privacy and an egalitarian culture in teaching limited teachers from learning from their peers (Johnson & Donaldson, 2007). In addition, professional learning was not something most schools were organized to provide, outside of centralized "staff development." Adults' learning was stagnant, and so was student achievement, especially for schools in lower-income zip codes.
The tide turned in the 1980s, when increased accountability for results created pressure for someone to assume ownership of the quality of instruction in schools (Jenkins, 2009). Principals stepped up to this challenge by embracing instructional leadership. To their administrative responsibilities, they added the commitment to setting expectations for instructional practice and supporting teachers to meet those expectations.
Since that time, the knowledge bases on instructional leadership and our understanding of how teachers learn have grown. Professional learning activities have become more job-embedded, relevant, and collaborative, and a new generation of teachers who crave these opportunities has turned its back on prior norms of privatized practice. As a result, teachers' expectations and support today are not only shaped by the principal; teachers take some of their biggest cues from each other and they see each other as key sources of support. Recent research corroborates both the importance and the impact of social learning among teachers. Studies have demonstrated that those who learn to teach within collaborative cultures become more effective teachers; that teachers improve their effectiveness faster when they collaborate; and that students of teachers with stronger social networks make stronger gains (Quintero, 2017).
This makes sense because teaching is complex, and the knowledge and skill required for it is vast. It's unrealistic to expect that any single individual, like a principal, would have deep expertise in every content area, pedagogical and progress monitoring strategy, child development level, and classroom management approach found in a school. But it's entirely realistic that deep expertise in all of these areas can be identified or built across the faculty. Teachers have tremendous potential to be influential leaders from their areas of strength.
School leadership is recognized as one of the most influential school-based factors in student learning, second only to teaching. And where leadership influence is coming not just from the principal, but potentially from every teacher in the school, leadership capacity is practically unlimited (Leithwood, 1992). From this perspective, schools cannot afford not to consider how they might better organize to enable teachers to benefit from each other's expertise and serve as instructional leaders.

Formal and "Stealth" Roles

For teachers to be a positive influence on the quality of each other's instruction, logistical and cultural challenges need to be overcome. Teachers and principals play essential and complementary roles in addressing those challenges, whether in the context of formal or informal instructional leadership roles.
In some schools, teachers share their expertise as mentors, coaches, professional learning community leaders, or curriculum directors. Whether these formal roles are designed by teachers, the principal, or through the collaboration of both, the principal can ensure that a clear description of each role is created and communicated to all. In addition, the principal must provide the teacher leader with the time and resources needed to perform the role, access to the teachers who need support, and professional learning to grow within the role.
Teachers, for their part, have a different position of advantage in supporting shared instructional leadership through formal roles. Their proximity to the classroom allows them to provide instructional leadership support with the credibility of one who knows the challenges firsthand. They are well-positioned to translate district curriculum mandates and lead implementation of schoolwide priorities with their colleagues, just as they are able to relay teachers' instructional concerns and team dilemmas to school and district leaders.
More common than formal roles, however, are the informal ways teachers influence each other. Over time, teachers' interactions in meetings, chance encounters in hallways, and possibly even observations of each other's classrooms help shape teachers' expectations about what is accepted as good teaching at their school. This kind of stealth instructional leadership has an impact on instruction that can be subtle but significant.
To maximize the positive impact of teachers' informal influence on each other's practice, the principal should ensure that ample time is provided to develop a shared vision and common language around effective teaching, and that examples of quality instruction are visible to the faculty. At the same time, teachers can be catalysts for spontaneous conversations about quality instruction. They might engage each other with data or professional articles to stimulate conversation or recruit peers to participate in professional learning networks beyond the school. Contributing to each other's learning with honest feedback will raise the bar on teaching expectations and benefit all students in their shared care.

The "Entire Faculty" as Instructional Leaders

Seen from this perspective, regarding the principal as "the instructional leader" may hold schools back from improvement. It may keep teachers from recognizing the powerful role they already play as instructional leaders, including in informal ways. And it may distract principals from the critical role they stand to play in facilitating meaningful instructional leadership among teachers.
To be sure, a principal is uniquely positioned to communicate high standards, secure resources for instruction, and hold educators accountable for the quality of teaching and learning. But as teachers commit to pooling their expertise to improve instruction throughout their schools, the principal no longer needs to be—and should not be—the only one holding the community to those high standards, making decisions about the resources needed for instruction, and feeling accountable for the quality of teaching and learning throughout the school. There is no reason the entire faculty cannot also be instructional leaders. When schools are organized to support teachers' productive interaction around teaching and learning, they are organized for shared instructional leadership.

Jenkins, B. (2009). What it takes to be an instructional leader. Principal, 88(3), 34–37.

Johnson, S. M., & Donaldson, M. (2007). Overcoming obstacles to leadership. Educational Leadership, 65(1), 8–13.

Leithwood, K. (1992). The move toward transformational leadership. Educational Leadership, 49(5), 8–12.

Quintero, E. (2017). Teaching in context: The social side of education reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Jill Harrison Berg is a leadership coach, school improvement consultant, researcher, and writer committed to supporting education leaders to recognize and maximize the critical role of teacher leadership in ensuring instructional equity.

Berg is an educator of leaders at all levels. She began her career in the classroom, teaching students to be leaders who take ownership of their own learning and are a positive influence on others, then moved into supporting teachers and other education leaders to do the same. Berg earned her doctorate at Harvard’s GSE while working as a researcher with the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers. She was one of the first teachers in Massachusetts to become a National Board Certified Teacher.

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