Sunday, September 4, 2016

10 Strategies to Improve Instructional Leadership

I still vividly remember my early years as an assistant principal and principal. Instructional leadership was a routine part of the job along with the budget, master schedule, curriculum development, meetings, email, phone calls, and many other duties.  With the evolution of social media yet another responsibility was added to my plate in the form of digital leadership. The position of school administrator really requires one to be a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. This is where many leaders fail to live up to the most important aspect of the position, which is instructional leadership.  

Even though I tried, the frequency of which I observed teachers rarely extended beyond the minimal expectation. Not only was I not in classrooms enough, but also the level of feedback provided through the lens of a narrative report did very little to improve teaching and learning both in and out of the classroom.  If improvement is the ultimate goal, then we as leaders need to put the most focus on elements of our job that impact student learning.  Instructional leaders understand that management is a necessary evil associated with the position, but not something that should come at the expense of improving the learning culture in order to increase achievement. 

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It is easy to just say how one should improve instructional leadership or anything else for that matter. Below I offer ten specific strategies implemented during my time as high school principal that you can begin to adopt now.

Get in Classrooms More

This seem so easy, yet is a constant struggle. Begin by increasing the amount of formal observations conducted each year and commit to a schedule to get them all done. We formally observed each one of our teachers three times a year regardless of experience.  Another successful strategy is to develop an informal walk-through schedule with your leadership team.  I mandated five walks a day for each member of my team and we used a color-coded Google Doc to keep track of where we visited and the specific improvement comments provided to each teacher. 

Streamline Expectations and Eliminate Ineffective Practices

Begin with establishing a common vision and expectations for all teachers. We did this by using the Rigor Relevance Framework.  This will provide all teachers with consistent, concrete elements to focus on when developing lessons. Get rid of the dog and pony show ritual of announced observations. If lesson plans are still collected, ask for them to demonstrate what will be done two weeks into the future. Consider less of a focus on lesson plans and more on assessment. Collect and review assessments two weeks into the future. 

Improve Feedback

Provide at least one suggestion for improvement no matter how good the observation is.  There is no perfect lesson. Suggestions for improvement should always contain clear, practical examples and strategies that a teacher can begin to implement immediately.  Timely feedback is also essential.

Be a Scholar

Being a scholar not only helps you as a leader to improve professional practice, but it also puts you in a position to have better conversations with your teachers about their own improvement. This adds a whole new level of credibility to the post-conference.  I made the point of aligning every point of critical feedback to current research. As you come across research that supports the types of effective pedagogical techniques that you wish to see in your classrooms archive it in a document that you can refer to when writing up observations. I spent each summer as principal reading, researching, curating, and adapting this for use during the school year. It not only saved me time when it came to writing up observations, but also greatly improved my relationship with my staff as the instructional leader. 


Don’t ask your teachers to do anything that you are not willing to do yourself. This is extremely important in terms of technology integration in the classroom and professional learning to improve practice. If a teacher is struggling with his or her assessments don't just say you need to work on building better ones. Either provide an example that you have created or co-create an assessment together. 

Teach a Class 

This can be accomplished regularly during the year or by co-teaching with both struggling and distinguished teachers. During my first couple of years as an administrator I taught a section of high school biology. This is leading by example at it’s best. It also provides a better context for the evolving role of the teacher in the digital age. An instructional leader who walks the walk builds better relationships with staff and in turn will be in a much better position to engage staff in conversations to improve instruction. 

Grow Professionally

Attend at least one conference or workshop a year that is aligned to a major initiative or focus area in your school/district. Try to also read one education book and another related to a different field such as leadership, self-help, or business. So many powerful lessons and ideas can be gleaned once we venture outside the education silo. To compliment traditional means of professional learning, work to create or further develop a Personal Learning Network (PLN).  Social media provides a 24/7 pathway to ideas, strategies, feedback, resources, and support that every educator should take advantage of in the digital age.

Write in Order to Reflect

Like many other connected educators, writing has really enabled me to process my thinking resulting in a more critical reflection of my work in relation to teaching, learning, and leadership.  Our reflections not only assist us with our growth, but can also be catalysts for our staff and others to reflect on their own practice or grow professionally. Having teachers write a brief reflection prior to the post-conference is a great strategy to promote a conversation on improvement that isn't one-sided.

Integrate Portfolios

Portfolios were a requirement for my teachers and complimented our observation process nicely. They provided more clarity and detail on instruction over the entire course of the school year. Portfolios can include learning activities, assessments, unit plans, examples of student work, and other forms of evidence to improve instructional effectiveness. They can also be used to validate good practice.


During the first quarter of each year I co-observed lessons with members of my administrative team. This was invaluable for many reasons. For one we were able to utilize two sets of eyes during the observation, as some things will always be missed when done solo, no matter how much experience you have. This also allowed me to work with my team to help them improve their instructional leadership.  It also helped me improve as every conversation helped me to further reflect on what I saw.

There is nothing more important than ensuring quality learning is taking place in our classrooms. The ten strategies presented can be implemented immediately to improve your instructional leadership. Like all lists there are many great strategies that I missed. With that being said, what would you add to the list?


  1. Actually, I'd push back on the comment to stop the "dog & pony" announced observation. That IS the first lesson I need to see. I always want to start from a position of strength with the teacher and know everything they are capable of. THEN later when I'm in the classroom and things aren't going as well as that "dog & pony" lesson, I'm in a better position to coach the teacher--"So what was it that made that first lesson I saw so strong and this one not as good? Oh, you had a much clearer plan for that first lesson. So you see the connection between having a strong plan and a strong lesson..." AND if the "dog & pony" lesson isn't that great, I have a better understanding of what I'm dealing with. There can't be any excuse of "Well, if you'd just come in earlier, you'd have seen something great.." No, I really want to see what teachers do when they know I'm coming in. I do want to see them at their "best."

    1. Thank for the push back Jean. If see where you are coming from. Our line of thinking was that we should expect excellence every day and as such the preparation that went into the typical announced observation should be the norm. For us the scripted lesson was not very reflective of what took place on a day to day basis. It all comes down to what's best for your specific culture.

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  3. I talked to several elementary principals trying to get some questions about scheduling required for a principal certification class. None of the questions are super tough questions. I only had a week's notice to get the interview set up or for that matter the questions answered. Any suggestions as to what to do in the future to have better success.

    1. Not sure I totally understand what you are asking in relation to this blog post.

    2. The post can be deleted. I had tried to get an interview with some elementary teachers. Ultimately, I had to contact a superintendent friend for help.

  4. I talked to several elementary principals trying to get some questions about scheduling required for a principal certification class. None of the questions are super tough questions. I only had a week's notice to get the interview set up or for that matter the questions answered. Any suggestions as to what to do in the future to have better success.

  5. Hi Eric,

    Found this post really insightful and helpful. I work with many leaders in the schools across the east cost and these steps you laid out will be useful. Definitely sharing these tips.

    I really like the point you made about Instructional leaders understand management is important, but should not over-ride the students lean culture. It is hard balance, but it is something that can definitely be improved upon.

    Thanks for sharing!


  6. This post is a must-read for all in educational leadership. I especially agree that those in leadership roles should be aware of what is going on in classrooms and getting student input.

    In addition, with new teachers, it is imperative that our administrators be mindful in helping the teacher be successful. New teachers need time and guidance in developing this mindfulness, such as learning to pay attention to learning, how they are seeing with all senses, and awareness of their intentions. These are skills that build over time, but it is vital that new teachers have that support and encouragement of what to look for as an effective teacher.

  7. Found this post valuable in reflecting on what school leaders need to think about when facilitating school improvement processes.

  8. In this time of new normal, this kind of write up enlightens us to keep going despite the challenges we are facing now especially in the public school. Thank you !