I’m proud to be a proponent of instructional leadership. So far, we’ve had over 9,000 leaders from at least 50 countries go through the 21-Day Instructional Leadership Challenge.
But the bigger the banner, the more it starts to encompass misconceptions and distortions. And I had a terrifying thought this morning:
What if the surge of interest in instructional leadership is actually undermining the teaching profession?
What if, in our efforts to improve the teaching profession, we’re driving out precisely the kind of professionals we need?
Olden Days and Elite Ways
There was once a time when principals were expected to be managers, but not instructional leaders.
Teaching was for teachers, and as long as they were relatively competent, they were best left alone.
The flaws in this mindset are obvious—teaching is a complex profession, and strong instructional leadership has a powerful impact on the quality of instruction. That’s been firmly established for several decades now.
But this “outdated” division of labor lives on in a surprising place: elite schools.
At The Principal Center, we serve public, charter, private, parochial, and international schools (which is why we’re in so many countries), and I’ve noticed a pattern.
By and large, public schools have made major changes in the way they evaluate teachers and they way they define the role of the administrator as an instructional leader. If you even hint that you want to be a manager—that instructional leadership isn’t your top priority—you’ll never get a job in any major public school district in the US.
But in elite schools, teacher professionalism is viewed differently—closer to the way tenured faculty are viewed at the university level.
I did some consulting with an elite boarding school in Pennsylvania a few years ago, and I was struck by the degree of autonomy afforded to teachers. They made decisions fearlessly—like professionals—without feeling the need to run everything by an administrator. I liked it.
Yet, while clearly skilled professionals, these teachers weren’t any better-prepared or more up-to-date than many of the teachers you’d find in any public school. If anything, they were free to remain a bit more traditional in their practices, due to their relative lack of struggling students.
If this degree of professional respect for teachers is good enough for our nation’s most elite private schools, why isn’t it the norm in public schools?
The answer is simple: because traditional practices aren’t up to the challenge of meeting the needs of all students.
Enter: strong instructional leadership.
The Charter Revolution
Instructional leadership as a force for improvement comes primarily from the charter school world.
Teach Like A Champion? Charter.
Leverage Leadership? Charter.
Driven by Data? Charter.
Teaching As Leadership? Charter.
You get the idea. And so have public schools, which are increasingly adopting the charter world’s “no excuses” approach to instructional leadership, which features:
- Intensive administrator-driven coaching
- Extensive use of data by teachers and leaders
- Ultra-specific expectations regarding curriculum and instructional strategies
While I think this has mostly been a good change, I’m a bit concerned by its impact on the status of teaching as a profession.
To be blunt, teaching is being reduced to an entry-level job. And that’s a tragic mistake.
Just look at the title of Doug Lemov’s latest book: Get Better Faster: A 90-Day Plan for Coaching New Teachers.
I don’t have a problem with helping teachers get better faster. That sounds like a good idea.
But this innocuous title reveals the charter world’s dirty little secret: teaching isn’t seen as a profession. It’s treated like an entry-level job.
In a profession, you invest in preparation. (Medical school is four years long, not including residency.)
In an entry level job, you invest in training, because the professional skill and judgment of your employees can’t be assumed.
Now, I understand why the charter movement has taken this tack: it’s hard to attract highly skilled veteran professional teachers to struggling schools. It’s easier to attract energetic young people who are eager to commit to a cause.
And if you’re working with new teachers, they certainly need a different kind of instructional leadership than skilled veterans.
And this is where instructional leadership is going off the rails: we’re treating everyone—including skilled professionals—like clueless kids fresh out of college.
The Differentiated Leadership Conundrum
Take your average big-city school as an example—not an ultra-high-poverty school, and not a charter school. Just a typical public school.
Who’s teaching there? Probably a mix of highly skilled veteran professionals, slightly overwhelmed new teachers on track to become skilled professionals, grizzled veterans who never became professionals, new teachers still in the process of finding themselves, and people at every point in between. It’s complicated.
It’s no wonder that old-school “building manager” who just leaves teachers alone gets terrible results with this kind of staff.
When a substantial number of teachers lack either the will, the skill, or the coordination to produce good results for students, strong instructional leadership is a lifesaver. It makes all the difference.
But what kind of strong instructional leadership?
If you don’t differentiate, you have to pick a style: Laissez-faire? Heavy-handed? Workaholic? Buddy-buddy? What’s going to work best?
And if you do differentiate, you risk coming across as inconsistent or unfair. If you require lesson plans from the just-skating-by teachers who really need the accountability, but not the professionals you trust, you’ll be accused of playing favorites (or worse).
Too often, we’ve chosen the no-excuses path blazed by charter school leaders. Yet there’s a fine line between trailblazing leadership and scorched-earth leadership.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say we all know a professional teacher who has been burned by an overzealous instructional leader. If you don’t think so, ask your family and friends. They know someone.
We reap what we sow. We get more of what we focus on. We end up with the kind of teachers our instructional leadership style assumes we have.
If you treat all of your teachers like clueless amateurs who probably won’t stick around long, you’ll have no shortage of clueless amateurs who don’t stick around long.
And the skilled professionals will start looking for the nearest exit like the building’s on fire.
How can we raise the status of the profession, and respect our teachers’ professionalism, without adopting a laissez-faire approach that leaves too many students in incompetent hands?
A Way Forward: Redefining Instructional Leadership
I believe the solution goes beyond differentiation.
Skilled professional teachers don’t need to be left alone, and they don’t need to be “instructionally led” differently. That’s not going far enough.
If this is a profession—and I believe it is—skilled professional teachers are instructional leaders.
“Instructional leader” isn’t a synonym for “administrator.” It’s a term describing a function, not a title.
“By taking leadership practice in a school as the unit of analysis, rather than an individual leader, our distributed theory of leadership focuses on how leadership practice is distributed among both positional and informal leaders.” (emphasis added)
—Spillane, J. P., Halverson, R., & Diamond, J. B. (2001). Investigating school leadership practice: A distributed perspective. Educational researcher, 30(3), 23-28.
If we want better instructional leadership—instructional leadership that works for students, as well as teachers at all stages of their careers—we must recognize that we aren’t in this alone.
Other researchers have noted that instructional leadership is inherently distributed.
Let’s return to the plight of the professional teacher who is being harangued, harassed, and driven out by an overzealous “my way or the highway” instructional leader. What’s going on in this situation?
The self-identified instructional leader assumes control, and when the teacher exercise instructional leadership and pushes back against that control, it becomes a power struggle.
Both are and should be instructional leaders. It shouldn’t be a struggle.
What about a school that’s lacking in instructional leadership, where mediocrity has been allowed to flourish?
Bringing in a strong leader to whip everyone into shape probably won’t be enough, because, again, instructional leadership is inherently distributed. If the rest of the staff is lacking in professionalism and leadership potential, the leader will be forced to treat them like entry-level employees, and the downward spiral will worsen.
Building Capacity for Instructional Leadership
Over the past year, I’ve redefined our mission at The Principal Center as building capacity for instructional leadership. I believe there are five key factors that determine a school’s instructional leadership capacity:
The foundation is, of course, professional culture. Within this larger foundation are embedded four other “containers” for instructional leadership capacity:
- Organizational Learning
- Leadership Habits
If you’ve been through the 21-Day Instructional Leadership Challenge, you’ve encountered much of my thinking on leadership habits.
If you’re interested in talking about additional approaches to building capacity in your school, I’m doing a limited amount of onsite consulting in the coming months. You can set up a phone call in which we can talk about your situation here.