September 17, 2013 by

Instructional Leadership: Walking the Talk

Becoming a Great High School quoteBy Tim Westerberg

Of course everyone is talking and writing about the need for principals to become “instructional leaders,” what with the push for all students to be college- and career-ready by the time they leave high school; the implementation of the Common Core State Standards in most states; and new evaluation systems based on classroom observations and student test scores, to name just a few current initiatives placing the spotlight on classroom instruction and assessment.

And yet, in my visits to dozens of schools each year, particularly high schools, more often than not I find yawning gaps between what district documents (principal position descriptions and evaluation instruments, for example) and district and building leaders espouse and the behaviors building principals exhibit on a daily basis. In short, many principals are not walking the instructional leadership talk.

My research into the characteristics of great high schools and my experiences as a high school principal for twenty-six years suggests that there are 10 behaviors, taken as a whole and performed within the context of each school’s unique culture and circumstances, that separate the doers from the talkers.

Becoming a Great High SchoolInstructional leaders exhibit the following behaviors:

1. Articulate a clear vision of what effective instruction and assessment look like in this school. In the schools in which I work, I recommend the model outlined in the ASCD book Becoming a Great High School: 6 Strategies and 1 Attitude That Make a Difference. When I was principal of Littleton High School (Colo.) teachers could expect to be asked three questions reflecting that model during any interaction regarding teaching and learning:

  • What are you intending to accomplish (clear instructional goals)?
  • How are your students doing, and how do you know (frequent formative assessment and tracking progress)?
  • What adjustments are you making for those who are struggling and for those who have already demonstrated mastery (timely intervention and celebrating success)?

Of course, there are other research-based models schools can adapt and adopt (Danielson, Marzano, Fisher and Frey, Reeves, and Schmoker, for example). The point is that virtually all high-performing schools have institutionalized a common language of instruction that the school principal references and reinforces on a daily basis.

2. Fight isolation and fragmented effort. I once heard a conference presenter proclaim, “Inbreeding does not give rise to genius.” Principals as instructional leaders insist on a collective, coherent approach to improvement through promoting and facilitating structures and processes such as PLCs; department/team meetings; course-alike/grade-level meetings; common rubrics; common assessments; collaborative data analysis, goal setting, and evaluation; and walk-throughs/instructional rounds.

3. Remain intimately familiar with the technical core of schooling. Principals that lead schools from good to great know teaching and learning. They read professional literature, attend conferences and workshops, monitor and contribute to targeted professional social networks, and take advantage of available online webinars to stay abreast of the latest research and practitioner advice regarding curriculum, instruction, and assessment. As important, instructional leaders share what they learn with their teachers.  

4. Model high-quality instruction. Think of faculty meetings as classes.

5. Conduct observations and walkthroughs on a daily basis.A principal who is an instructional leader is in classrooms every day interacting with students and teachers about teaching and learning. Time for classroom visits is a priority on these principals’ schedule, and their secretaries, teachers, and supervisors know and respect that.

6. Model effective feedback. Instructional leaders expect teachers to give students focused, specific, and constructive feedback. Teachers need the same kind of feedback, and principals in high-performing schools model high-quality feedback to teachers following classroom observations and walk-throughs.

7. Play a key role in planning, implementing, and evaluating professional development. Professional development must of course be a collaborative effort, but principals must be active members of that collaboration if they are to be viewed by faculty and staff members as valuing lifelong learning by all in the school community—a core value undergirding instructional leadership.

8. Actively participate in building-level professional development. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve led professional development training in which the principal made only a brief opening appearance before disappearing into the office for most or all of the rest of the day. Terrible modeling! What does that communicate to teachers? “This training isn’t really very important?” “I’m above any need for professional growth?” “I’m busy but you’re not?” Ouch!

9. Build productive relationships. Principals who are instructional leaders are constantly working to build relationships among members of the school community by being good listeners, by being open to divergent ideas and viewpoints, by always acting with integrity, and by following through on personal and professional commitments. After all, people, rather than processes, create great schools.

10. Delegate management duties. It should be obvious by now that to effectively engage in the behaviors outlined above, principals must be masters at delegating school management to other members of the leadership team as well as to support staff. Delegate, monitor, and lead.

Both research and common sense tell us that principals who exhibit these 10 behaviors walk the talk of instructional leadership and, in the process, move their schools from good to great.

Editor’s Note: This book is available in print and e-book formats in the ASCD Online Store. A free study guide is also available online, along with Chapter 1: Moving Schools from Good to Great and Chapter 3: Strategy 1—Developing Clear Instructional Goals.