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What makes an instructional leader

Randy Willison, associate superintendent of Fayetteville Public Schools in Arkansas, writes there are three ways to get the answer.

January 2008

Almost everyone agrees that the key to improving student achievement is quality instructional leadership. But there is still some question as to what being an instructional leader means. Most definitions of the term have two elements in common: creating a school culture that makes student learning the top priority, and providing the resources necessary to support teachers’ efforts to improve student learning. To make it simple, I focus on three things a district executive must do to become an effective instructional leader.

1) Talk the Talk

A principal who wants to be an instructional leader must become an expert on teaching and learning, and that means speaking the language. Building an informed vocabulary of pedagogical terms is difficult but manageable. First the easy part: There is a mountain of information out there. A simple Internet search using keywords like “lesson plan,” “instructional design,” and “pedagogy” will yield reams of articles about instructional design, instructional delivery methods, formative and summative assessments, learning styles, etc. The difficult part is finding time to read them. Reading research articles can be like peeling an onion, each piece citing another piece that cites other pieces, and so on and so on. However, after reading a few, the key terms that are emphasized over and over should become part of the principal’s vocabulary, and help refine the research.

2) Walk the Walk

Being able to use the term “transfer of learning” correctly in a sentence is not enough to be an instructional leader. Principals must demonstrate through their actions that teaching and learning are the center of what happens at school. Teachers, parents, and students must see for themselves that the principal is not only an expert in instruction, but is also willing to “walk the walk.”

Every administrative staff meeting must address improving student learning. Every conversation with a teacher must lead to an action plan to improve student learning. Every request of teachers or parents must be filtered through the question “How will this improve student learning?”

Additionally, the principal should constantly be visible in the classroom, in order to learn more about instructional practices within the school, and to provide feedback teachers can use to inform and improve their own practices.

An instructional leader should utilize time spent in the classroom to identify outstanding teachers and their methods, and in turn provide opportunities for those superstar teachers to share what they are doing with their colleagues.

Instructional leaders should also use their time spent in classrooms to identify teachers in need of support and professional development, and then provide the resources needed to help those teachers improve, resources gained by learning to “talk the talk.”

3) Be the “Caddy”
Behind every great golfer is an equally great caddy, who not only carries the bag, but also provides advice on shot and club selection. An effective instructional leader must be the “caddy” to teachers, providing the necessary tools and advice on how best to use them.

When a teacher is having an instructional problem, the principal must be able to recognize that teacher’s necessary behaviors, identify the needed resources, and provide opportunities to acquire both. Because the principal is able to “talk the talk,” and the teacher has seen the principal “walk the walk,” they can work together to solve the problem. 

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