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October 1, 2015
Vol. 73
No. 2

Principal Connection / What's an Instructional Leader?

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Professional Learning
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How important is it for a principal to be an instructional leader? Or is it important? And if it's important, is it realistic?
Perhaps there was a day when the principal was the best teacher in the building and knew the most about curriculum and child development. Maybe. But even if that was the case, those days are long gone. Knowledge about how children learn and what they need to learn has exploded, and it's not realistic for the principal to be the font of education wisdom for his or her staff. Indeed, something is amiss if the principal is the most knowledgeable person in the building! And as more responsibilities land on principals' desks each day, although those responsibilities may not be more important than student learning, they must not be ignored. So how can a principal be an instructional leader and lead a school to better education outcomes when he or she lacks time and has more knowledgeable people on the faculty?
It's essential for principals to view themselves as "lead learners." This doesn't mean they know the most; rather, it means they believe their job is to ensure that good teaching routinely takes place in every classroom. Principals need to be engaged in curriculum, assessment, and pedagogy in ways that are obvious to everyone. The principal needs to be integral to—initiating, encouraging, and sometimes pushing—student and faculty growth. Three attitudes bring a principal's instructional leadership role to life.
1. We need to ensure that differentiation is valued throughout the school culture. This begins with recognizing and appreciating student diversity. School needs to be a safe place where all students feel accepted and respected and, therefore, comfortable enough to learn.
Although the debate on the Common Core standards has been good (and necessary), I worry that we give so much attention to what we teach that we ignore how we teach. Principals can lead the effort to recognize all students' strengths. Honor rolls and team trophies should be evident, for example, but there's more. Highlighting students' progress, trajectories, and grit recognizes a wider range of learners. How can achievements in the arts be displayed? How can we publicly celebrate students' kindness? That's part of differentiation, too.
2. Curiosity about what's happening in classrooms is also important. Principals must be good questioners. Teachers grow through the questions we ask, whether or not we have mastered the content being taught. Prior to observing, we might ask these questions:
  • How will you know whether your lesson is successful?
  • How will you challenge the high flyers and support those who might struggle?
  • How can you assess in an intelligence-friendly way?
  • What's different in this lesson from when you first taught it?
After a lesson, we can ask,
  • How did the lesson evolve differently than you planned?
  • Which student(s) surprised you, and why?
  • What will you do differently next time?
  • What happens next?
These questions need not be part of one-on-one conversations (although there is merit in doing that with newer or struggling teachers). Bringing teachers together to respond to these questions is a wonderful way to facilitate and enhance collegiality. The instructional leader not only asks, but also does so in a way that supports reflection, candor, and collaboration. If a faculty meeting is designated for this discussion, teachers could come prepared to talk about a particular lesson they've taught.
Of course, asking good questions only counts if we're good listeners. We need to screen out distractions and focus on what is being said. It's helpful for me to write follow-up notes that I send back to others in the meeting to clarify and ensure that my understanding and memory are correct.
3. Earlier I noted that principals' engagement in instruction is essential. Actions count more than words, so we need to be active members of faculty committees that look at learning—and we must not just attend, but also participate.
As we lead adult learning, it's important to give as much attention to setting, focus, and outcome when we plan committee and faculty meetings as teachers do when they plan math or social studies lessons. We should be aware of what our teachers know and how they learn so we can differentiate learning for them just as they do for their students.
Being an instructional leader is the most important part of our job, and it's also the most fun. What ideas and strategies have I missed? What works for you?
End Notes

1 Fullan, M. (2014). The principal: Three keys to maximizing impact. San Francisco: Wiley.

Thomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

Hoerr has written six other books—Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, The Art of School Leadership, School Leadership for the Future, Fostering Grit, The Formative Five, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including "The Principal Connection" column in Educational Leadership.

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