The Superintendent as Instructional Leader

21 ways to become a learning leader

Superintendents and District Leaders Matter

Teachers matter most in improving student learning.  Principals are a close second and are now expected to be instructional leaders.  What about superintendents and district level leaders.  Their role, though less visible, is every bit as essential in growing the culture and the capacity of those teachers and principals.  Here then, are 21 ways that I have endeavored to be a learning leader:

Create a learning culture: 

  • Learn by doing:

    Be the change you want to see. Be vulnerable.  What will you learn to do differently in the next 45 days?  How will you measure yourself?

  • Ask for feedback:

    People will sit up and take notice.

  • Take someone with you:

    Take your direct reports with you on school visits.  What do you notice?  What are you learning together?  How will you get better?

  • Grow your capacity:

    Learn to set goals together and report back regularly on progress. Make it okay … and expected … that we lead by doing.  None of us has all the answers.

  • Teach the skills:

    When you provide the skills the will often follows. Successful change requires will and skill.

  • Develop supports for learning:

    Check-in regularly.  Ask how it is going? This is where the real work happens.  When we discover and remove barriers we multiply learning.

  • Celebrate learning:

    Note successes and failures. Tell “case stories” about what change looks like.  Let everyone know that learning is messy.  Stumbles make us stronger.

Keep the focus on student learning: 

  • Champion Learning:

    Open EVERY meeting with a focus on student learning and why it matters. Be the evangelist for student learning … for each and every student.

  • Set Learning Goals:

    Make sure 50% of your district goals focus directly on student learning and include both goal, strategy, and progress measures.

  • Board Meetings:

    Make sure 50% of your board time focuses on student learning: goals, data, programs, progress.

  • Schedule It:

    Put school and student visits FIRST on your schedule.  Spend time in classrooms three days a week.  Report back on what you see.

  • Class Walks:

    Spend time in classroom walk throughs with principals and coaches and teachers to learn what excellence looks like.

  • Professional Development:

    Align all PD to your district goals. It takes 100 hours of PD, plus coaching and feedback, to implement one change reasonably well.

  • Use Assessment:

    Create a user friendly assessment system that measures and diagnoses student learning progress.

Create Collaborative Inquiry:

  • Write it Down:

    Write down what you want to create – your Manifesto.  Clarify your Teachable Point of View.  What are your goals and expectations for school and district leaders?

  • Shared Vision:

    Engage others in defining the compelling why … the higher purpose … what we want to become … five years, ten years from now.

  • Invest in Principals:

    Grow the instructional leadership capacity of principals.  Create Professional Learning Networks where principals invite colleagues into their schools.

  • Collaborative Inquiry:

    What one area can we become the best in? Invite principals and teachers into the discussion.  Figure it out together.

  • Check-in regularly:
    Ask regularly for staff commitment, and for their feedback. Check in with students; especially students of color.  Ask, What else can we do to support you in learning?
  • Showcase the learning:

    We learn best from people like ourselves.  Teachers learn best from teachers.  Principals learn best from principals.  Find and learn from positive outliers.

  • Celebrate success:

    Make a big deal of – and learn from – small wins, big wins, process failures and process improvements.

Chief Vision Officer:  Simon Sinek advocates for CVOs in his new book Infinite Game.  ‘Chief Vision Officer’ describes well the role of the superintendent in a school district dedicated to equity and improvement.  Cast the vision.  Focus on the higher purpose.  A be the chief vision officer to make it a reality.

Posted in
Larry Nyland speaking

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

To talk about growing extraordinary "high capacity" leadership for your team …
Contact: | 425-418-4398 |