Growing Instructional Leadership

Growing Instructional Leadership.

We have made incredible progress in the area of instructional leadership.  As I came up through the ranks, principals often earned their job for time served.  Keeping the doors open and the buses running was the expectation.  Then came the effective schools research and the idea that good teaching mattered.  Good schools mattered. Good leadership mattered.  So, began our quest for school improvement … and instructional leadership.  We now know so much, much more about what instructional leadership looks like in successful practice.

Instructional Leadership 1.0: Classroom Walk-Throughs:   In the beginning instructional leadership was often equated with classroom walkthroughs.  Many of us spent countless hours on short 10-15 minute classroom visits to advance our own learning as instructional leaders.  Teachers wondered who the visitors were what they were doing with all those notes?  Looking back, we did get smarter at recognizing quality instructional practice; rigorous standards-based learning; and student engagement.  But we had little impact on classroom instruction.  Gradually we learned to do wows and wonders or provide other forms of feedback.  And we saw a national movement based on more rigorous evaluations.  The hope was that well defined practice would result in improved teaching and learning.

Instructional Leadership 2.0: Focused Professional Development (PD):  Eventually we realized that all those walk throughs should lead to action.  Based on those classroom observations how might we grow teacher learning? What were teachers doing well? What trends did we see for improvement?  Focused PD, we discovered, is another, higher level of instructional leadership.  Principals pick a focus by reflecting on walk throughs, analyzing student data, and consulting with their building leadership team.  They find presenters who: a) know good instruction; b) know content, c) know adult learners; and d) can facilitate … and possibly coach … adult learning.  The hope here is that good PD, along with coaching and feedback will improve teaching and learning.  Good instructional leaders opened sessions, participated in the PD and facilitated agreements about what would change in classrooms.  Classroom walks were used to see and support teachers trying on the new learning.  As a result, teaching may have improved but we still left too many students behind.

Instructional Leadership 3.0:  Communities of Practice (BLTs and PLCs):  Much of levels 1.0 and 2.0 can be done by rote.  You can tackle it from the standpoint of the knower, the leader, the boss.  But knowing only takes us part way. Making real gains requires each of us to become learners.  DuFour’s four questions asked among other things, What happens when students don’t learn?  The hope was that PLCs would use data, see student needs, teach differently and close gaps.  NCLB used assessment data to spotlight disaggregated gaps.  Linda Darling-Hammond notes that “teacher learning in community can be a source of efficacy and confidence in the process of adopting new practices.”  John Hattie’s recent work highlights the efficacy of teacher teams.  We learn better together.  When teachers know standards, assess progress and learn together how to improve learning, students progress.  The hope is that Instructional Leadership 3.0 grows communities of practice, “which share a concern and a deep commitment to what they do and come together regularly to learn how to do it better.” (Milbrey McLaughlin citing Etienne Wenger in You Can’t Be What You Can’t See).  But still learning gaps remain.

Instructional Leadership 4.0:  Principal Learning Networks (PLN): Instructional Leadership 3.0 creates the conditions for teacher learning.  Instructional Leadership 4.0 creates the conditions for principal learning.  Principal Learning Networks ask principals to learn by doing.  To set stretch goals that require inquiry and new learning.  PLNs ask principals to invite colleagues into their building, explain their goals and strategies, and then go see what’s happening in classrooms.  Colleagues then share their findings and offer suggestions on potential next moves.  This requires vulnerability.  We find that real life is messy.  Nothing goes exactly as planned.  Only when we are honest about facing the problems can we begin to learn how to find better solutions.  We learn far more from our failures than our successes.  And those failures show us the way to get even better.

Instructional Leadership 5.0: Improvement Science: Instructional leaders at school and district level, start with the student data.  They name the problems of practice; too many of students are not reading at level.  Certain racial and ethnic groups are not being served as well as they should.  They name and own the problem.  They identify root causes.  They devise strategies.  They check the data.  And they keep making adjustments until gaps begin to close.  Most often this work uncovers implicit bias in systems.  Instructional leadership becomes the voice for the voiceless and changes systems to eliminate opportunity gaps.

Instructional leaders who grow their capacity from levels 1 to 5 are making an impact on student learning.  They are growing the capacity of students, teachers, teacher teams and instructional leaders themselves.  They are creating the conditions for improved student learning.

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Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

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