Supporting Principals as Instructional Leaders

In my work as a senior leader, I’ve long-held the belief, that the most influential person in a school division is the principal. Their ability to “lead from the middle” as explained by Andy Hargreaves is certainly influential but it also comes with some significant pressures from top and bottom. That simple fact should be enough for senior leaders to constantly focus on supporting these school leaders.

One of my priorities during my years as a superintendent was to visit schools. Early in my tenure, these visits focused on fostering relationships and building trust. The art of just being visible without any pre-conceived judgments is essential. But continuous improvement, whether at the classroom, school or system level stalls if those strong trusting relationships don’t lead to hard work. And that hard work needs to be supported by any and all members of senior leadership but especially from the seat of the superintendent.

In the last number of years, my visits still focus on relationship building by getting into staff rooms, having coffee with staff and informal chats but they’ve become far more intentional in assisting school leaders as instructional leaders. When I visit classrooms with one of the school leaders, teachers are pretty aware that my work is to support the leader’s development and not about the evaluation of the teacher’s practice. After visiting a classroom for about 10 minutes, I utilize cognitive coaching skills to begin the conversation with the leader. I might pose questions like:

  • What might be something you would like to affirm?
  • In a short statement, what might you say to affirm that teacher in what you saw?
  • What might be 2-3 questions you would like to ask in order for the teacher to be reflective of her practice?

You’ll note that the above always comes from a positive frame. The questions are based on what the school leader observed and are not about passing judgment but rather more intentional reflection on the part of the teacher.

That is all fine, but leaving it there is not enough to assist in instructional leadership. Now, I must either role model the conversation with the teacher or coach the leader through a conversation with the teacher. When demonstrating these conversations, I either work face to face with the teacher or elbow to elbow.  To be honest, I’m favoring the elbow to elbow conversations because they seem to be less intimidating for the teacher and with the Teaching Quality Standard  in front of us, we are seeing the same thing. It is always amazing when I hear a teacher say through her own reflection, “I never thought about that” and then, “I need to think about this more!” Reflective practice, no matter what you do, it an essential component of continuous improvement.

Being a role model, doing the work, asking the right questions and framing the affirming statements are all part of what I believe are important in supporting principals (and other school leaders) in their role as instructional leaders.  Senior leaders, need to get out of their office and practice their own skills to assist their school leaders. You should never ask your leaders to do something that you won’t do yourself and what I’ve found is by doing it intentionally, it is becoming more of a standard practice in our schools. By supporting your principals as instructional leaders, you are supporting your teachers, who are at the front line of offering optimum learning opportunities for ALL students.

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