How Administrators Can Embrace the Role of Instructional Leader

Dr. Rick Bolling
Dr. Rick Bolling
Elementary/middle school principal; Ed.D. in Leadership
Two professionals talk while one shows the other work on a laptop.

Principals have a non-ending list of duties. Furthermore, roles are added to principal expectations yearly. With these thoughts in mind, it is imperative that school principals:

  • Love the work
  • Embrace servant leadership
  • Aim to make the most significant impact possible as instructional leader and more

In alignment with the accountability movement, principals are expected to have an active instructional presence in their building and focus on teaching and learning. With all of the diverse roles expected of a principal, the primary role is to lead instruction, learning, and assessment. Principals need to focus attention and effort on building instruction and learning, embracing the role of instructional leader.

What is an Instructional Leader?

Most principals rise through the ranks of the educational system. The vast majority of school principals were teachers at one point so they deeply understand that learning is the primary objective of a school. Student growth and achievement are the pieces that make a school successful. Student achievement rests directly upon the shoulders of the school principal; it is the principal’s job to make sure students learn and are prepared for the future.

Principals becoming the “teacher” for the teachers is an effective way to frame instructional leadership. These individuals:

  • Provide feedback on instructional strategies for teaching
  • Review lesson alignment and rigor
  • Lead professional development for the faculty

Further, principals evaluate all instructional staff regularly. When making decisions about others’ careers and futures, the evaluator must have a robust knowledge of standards, curriculum, and effective teaching methodologies.

Student achievement and growth do not occur on an island. Student achievement is closely linked to a positive school climate and a supportive culture. As such, principals need to provide substantive, constructive feedback to teachers frequently. Teachers desire feedback when things are going great and in times when refinement is needed.

Building a relationship of trust and support is essential to be an effective instructional leader. Having sound curriculum knowledge and having a reputation as a great teacher serves as a foundation. As such, principals need to remain current in both training and application. Teachers value principals who share knowledge, model lessons, and lead school-wide professional development opportunities.

What Makes a Great School Instructional Leader?

An effective school principal is passionate about learning and genuinely cares about students and teachers. Management is not automatically educational leadership without work; a great school instructional leader makes the time to make their leadership role a priority.

Tasks and diversions can impede a principal’s focus, but an instructional leader must remain focused. Insightful principals know how to delegate other duties to their assistants and staff to take the time necessary for monitoring and driving instructional practices.

How Did COVID Impact Instruction?

The COVID-19 pandemic brought more change and reflection to the world of K-12 within a small timeframe compared to what would have occurred naturally in a decade. Few distance learning opportunities were available in K-12 before COVID, with those experiences mainly being linked to specific online providers. Technology was used to enhance instruction in the school but was not explored to extend learning outside the school environment.

When the pandemic began, principals were thrown into the role of online instructional leaders. Designing quality and equitable online instruction is a distinct role. With students being completely online, hybrid, or in-person at different times, designing and delivering quality instruction became more complex. Principals had to become knowledgeable about effective online instruction and learning management systems to support teachers and maintain credibility.

Learning loss must also be discussed when examining the impact of the pandemic. Teachers and principals worked diligently to maintain quality instruction during the various phases of the pandemic. While many students continued to show growth, some students had little to no engagement. As a result, it is even more of a priority for principals to prioritize instructional leadership as the school community comes together to fill any learning gaps so that students can continue to succeed.

Ways to be an Effective Instructional Leader in Your School

Provide Quality Feedback

Hiring and retaining talented instructional staff is one of the most significant ways a principal directly affects daily instruction. Teacher evaluation processes must be:

  • Consistent
  • Timely
  • Substantial-quality feedback

Great instructional leaders prioritize evaluation so that teachers do not view the process as simply a checklist or a formality, which can help with retention.

Principals should also walk through classrooms multiple times each day, so they are immersed in building instructional practices. Presence is a vital part of instructional leadership. Feedback should not be provided with only two formal observations used to build summative evaluations a year.

Instead, walkthroughs with short notes frequently combined with supportive feedback sessions and formal observations create a better instructional leadership framework for evaluation.

Professional Development

Instructional leaders model research-based instruction. Taking the time to lead collaborative professional development helps the faculty see the school leader as relevant in the instructional world, which builds credibility.

Further, these opportunities allow the principal to model quality instruction. Building-level teachers sharing their expertise shows the faculty that the principal knows the school. Oftentimes, professional development opportunities from within are the most relevant and practical. Further, attending outside professional development opportunities with teachers shows that a principal is invested in the school.

Instructional Coaching

Instructional coaching requires trust and a relationship allowing constructive feedback. This leads to reflection and refinement of instruction. A best-case scenario is to employ instructional coaches that do not hold an evaluative role, as trust is essential to successful academic coaching.

Yet, budget woes and limited candidates often lead to the principal also wearing the hat of instructional coaches. Principals must be versed in the curriculum to coach their teachers. While this task can be overwhelming, I have found that immersing myself in a couple of grade levels every year is the most effective way to understand the curriculum and grade-level standards within the building thoroughly.

Leading Professional Learning Communities and Data Analysis

Professional learning communities (PLCs) are an investment in culture and climate. These student-focused, collaborative communities are data-driven to help make instructional expectations clear. Data used to inform practice and research-based instructional strategies must be sound, aligned, and reliable. Focusing meaningfully on student learning and growth helps a principal allocate resources, including time and funds. Meanwhile, examining student achievement and instructional practices refines faculty skills and knowledge.

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