Principals as Instructional Leaders

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on the Sound and Fury blog by FutureEd, an independent, solution-oriented think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. It has been republished with permission.


Research makes clear that effective school leaders are key to effective schools. Increasingly, that means paying more attention to what’s going in classrooms. Here are several ways to think about that.

First, embrace the role of instructional leader, be more than building managers. If it’s bus schedules and student discipline all day, it’s very difficult to support high-quality teaching.

This means making time to get into classrooms. Carve out a couple of hours a day, at least, to observe and work with teachers. Handoff some traditional school leadership roles to others. Have assistant principals or lead teachers (yes, teachers who don’t teach all day) manage parent relations or the transportation system. The District of Columbia Public Schools and the Uncommon Schools charter network have gone further, creating dual-leaderships models that pair a designated building manager with a designated instructional leader.

[Read More: A Policymaker’s Playbook for Transforming Teaching]

Establishing high instructional standards is essential. Send a clear signal that you expect every student to learn at high levels, irrespective of race, class, learning disability or anything else—via staff meetings, community events, mission statements, correspondence with staff, and even hallway posters. Messaging matters. Also, establish explicit achievement targets that are ambitious but achievable.

Create a culture of professional practice that signals that strong teaching is a high priority. Have teachers visit each other’s classrooms and organize trips to other schools, then debrief the visits. Have regular, structured grade-level and whole-team conversations about instructional best practices. It’s a win simply to get teachers talking to each other about their work. The longstanding practice of isolating teachers in their classrooms day after day kills both morale and productivity. School-based professional development is a valuable antidote.

[Read More: The Path to Professionalizing Teaching]

Take teacher evaluation seriously. Teachers have told a wide range of researchers that they value tremendously the shared vocabulary and more frequent conversations about effective teaching that new teacher evaluation systems have engendered in many schools in recent years. They particularly value evaluators’ guidance on improving their performance—support that has been too rare in public education in the past and that teachers say has made their work much more attractive. Not surprisingly, teachers care more about the quality of their work when they feel cared about.

A 30-minute drive-by visit with a checklist once a year, the traditional practice in public education, shortchanges teachers and students. Multiple observations during the school year by multiple people using published rubrics is a far more effective model. Incorporating observations from outside experts help address “building bias,” the tendency of building administrators to give teachers higher ratings than they deserve. Adding student surveys of what’s happening in classrooms further clarifies the teacher-performance picture.

[Read More: Scaling Reform: Tennessee’s Statewide Teacher Transformation]

The battle that has raged for a decade over the use of student test scores in teacher ratings, on the other hand, has been tremendously counterproductive and accountability hawks were wrong to press so hard for the reform, as some of them now acknowledge. Sure, student achievement is what matters most. But the backlash among teachers in classrooms (as opposed to accountability-averse teacher unions) hasn’t been worth the controversy.

A key piece of the instructional puzzle for principals is providing effective after-observation feedback for teachers. It’s what teachers want most. What are the elements of a successful feedback session? Start with an affirmation of what’s working. Allow teachers to share their perspectives. Focus on improvement. Have a supportive demeanor. Build an improvement plan that both parties agree on. Make the plan concrete, actionable.

If possible, own the staffing in your building. You are much more likely to create a team culture in your building if you, rather than the central office, are in charge of hiring. A rigorous selection system in important in signaling your commitment to high standards, and in attracting top candidates. New research reveals that a multi-step process that includes resume reviews, candidate essays, candidate-selected video teaching samples, on-site teaching of model lessons, and interviews with multiple team members, including teachers, produces the strongest hires.

Principals also need to find ways to reward excellence in their classrooms through bonuses, salary hikes, and leadership opportunities. Research on new performance-based compensation systems confirms what common sense suggests: Outstanding teachers are motivated by professional recognition.

Of course, some of these steps are much tougher to take than others, given collective bargaining agreements, public education’s ingrained traditions, and resource constraints. But none of these changes are rocket science and, taken together, would make a big difference for both teachers and students.

Hear more from Thomas on the NAESP podcast here