by Dr. John J. Franey, CEO/Founder of Developing Difference Makers
Follow on Twitter | Connect on LinkedIn
One of the key aspects of effective school leadership is for the principal to be an instructional leader. Effective instructional leadership from the school site administrator can have major positive impacts on teachers’ instructional practices and students’ learning outcomes. However, taking on this role of instructional leader can be difficult in many educational settings for a number of reasons. The first limitation is that many principal preparation programs inadequately prepare aspiring school leaders to be instructional leaders. Darling-Hammond et al. (2010) state that what is lacking in principal preparation programs are “principles of effective teaching and learning, the design of instruction and professional development, [and the] organizational design of schools that promote teacher and student learning” (p. 10). Furthermore, many of these programs lack clinical experiences where aspiring school leaders are in real classrooms working with real teachers. Clinical experiences in schools provide the opportunity for aspiring school leaders to put into practice or try out what they have learned in their program, thus connecting theory and practice.
The perspectives and mental models of educational stakeholders regarding the role of a principal in classrooms is the second limitation to instructional leadership practices. Senge (2006) defines mental models as “deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action” (p. 8). According to Senge, these mental models limit a person’s ability to accept new ideas “because they conflict with deeply held internal images of how the world works, images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting” (p. 163). One of the key aspects of instructional leadership is the observation and supervision of a teacher’s instructional practice. However, many stakeholders in the education system, including principals and teachers, have a mental model in place that recognizes a principal’s observation of a teacher’s instruction as an evaluation. This perspective suggests that the principal is there to observe the ‘right vs. wrong’ and ‘good vs. bad’ in a teacher’s instructional practice and classroom management. As Dufour (1991) points out, traditionally “staff development and teacher observation/assessment have been regarded as separate processes in most schools” (p. 73). This common view of observation as a strategy for evaluating teachers limits the opportunity for observation to be used as a tool for developing instructional practice, thus limiting the ability of the principal to fulfill the role of instructional leader. If principals are to fulfill the role of instructional leadership on school sites, there is a need to transform not only the preparation of future principals, but the mental models of these future principals that instructional leadership is possible.
Part of the issue involved in changing the perspective of the principal as evaluator is due to another currently held perspective within education. This perspective places teachers and administrators at opposite ends of the spectrum and suggests that the two groups are not working together, but rather it is a case of ‘us’ versus ‘them.’ A school administrator who I was recently talking with explained this issue: "There will be difficulty with certain teachers that would be reluctant to have you in the room just because you’re the principal, but I think it’s a cultural thing, right? There is a culture of us and them in a lot of schools – the principal being them." This cultural norm of pitting principal versus teacher is built from a notion, as this school administrator shared, “teachers still fear principals, I mean just the title, that authority figure. They still feel unease to have a principal in the classroom.” This is understandable on one level since teachers are held accountable by the principal for student learning outcomes and so this perspective is fueled by defensiveness on the part of the teachers, especially when faced with criticisms from the principal. This limits the opportunity for school leaders to coach teachers on improved instructional practices and to be effective instructional leaders.
For our school system to continue to improve student learning outcomes, more attention must be paid to the development of instructional leadership in school site administrators. Much of this work must be focused on changing the traditional mental models of both teachers and administrators to be more open to collaboration towards the ultimate goal – positive impacts on student development. There is a need to provide professional development opportunities that do not just focus on curriculum, instruction, and assessment, but rather build the bridges between teachers and administrators. By building these bridges, we can begin to develop partnerships, rather than ‘us vs them’ cultures, and thus we can allow instructional leadership take off and make the difference it is meant to make on kids!
Darling-Hammond, L., Meyerson, D., LaPointe, M., & Orr, M.T. (2010). Preparing principals for a changing world: Lessons from effective school leadership programs. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Dufour, R. (1991). The principal as staff developer. Bloomington, IN: National Educational Service.
Senge, P.M. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art & practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday.