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How Instructional Leaders Change Teacher Practice

What can instructional leaders do to actually change teacher practice?

I believe changing practice starts with getting into classrooms and having conversations with teachers.

Office-based activities like analyzing data and planning professional development are important, but they're no substitute for actually seeing teachers at work, and talking with them about their work.

My book Now We're Talking! 21 Days to High-Performance Instructional Leadership is all about making a daily habit of classroom visits.

But what do we do when we get there?

For most school leaders, the answer is feedback.

We know we're supposed to provide feedback…but how is feedback actually supposed to work? And what kinds of feedback should we provide?

When we talk about feedback, we're usually thinking of directive feedback and reflective feedback.

In any given conversation, we want to either change the teacher's behavior, or help them change their thinking.

With a teacher who is struggling, we might take a more directive stance and play the boss:

“You must not raise your voice or yell at students. Instead of yelling, use a consistent signal to get everyone's attention, then give directions in a normal speaking voice.”

It would be a waste of time to ask reflective questions when you already know what you want the teacher to do.

But often, the teacher's behavior is fine. It's their thinking—the cognition and decision-making behind their actions—that you want to help improve.

So you might play the coach ask a reflective question:

“I noticed that you asked a series of questions during the discussion that gradually moved to the higher levels of Bloom's Taxonomy. What are some ways you could get students to start asking these higher-order questions, so they can take more leadership in directing class discussions?”

Because teaching is complex professional work, we can't make teachers' decisions for them. Relying on directive feedback with highly skilled teachers is a recipe for disaster.

But by asking the right questions at the right time, we can prompt the kinds of thinking that can help teachers improve their practice.

So these two roles are a core part of most instructional leaders' practice:

  1. The “boss” who uses directive feedback to improve teacher behavior, and
  2. The “coach” who uses reflective feedback to change teacher thinking

But I've noticed a problem with these two roles: they aren't enough.

A brief observation usually doesn't provide enough information to have a high-quality directive or reflective feedback conversation.

When we try to jump into directive or reflective feedback without enough information, something feels “off.”

We trigger the teacher's resistance, or our own. The higher the level of resistance, the more we hesitate to get into classrooms.

So we know we need to be doing something differently…but we're not sure quite what it is.

Too often, this confusion about our precise role as instructional leaders—how we change teacher practice—keeps us from taking any action at all.

So the norm in our profession is for administrators to spend very little time in classrooms—at least, very little substantive time, beyond the required formal observations.

I believe we can do much better, but first, we must understand precisely how the “boss” and “coach” roles function, so we can fill in the gaps.

The Boss Role: Changing Teacher Behavior with Directive Feedback

To help us think about the way teachers respond to directive feedback, let's consider the way we view advice from our doctors.

When you go to the doctor and get medical advice…why do you trust that advice?

Trust is essential, because if you go to the doctor but don't do what your doctor prescribes, your health won't improve.

All the prescriptions in the world won't help if you don't take your medicine…and often we feel like our struggling teachers just aren't taking their medicine.

We know what they need to do…so why won't they do it? Why do teachers resist directive feedback, and how can we increase our odds of success?

When your doctor prescribes a medication, or recommends a procedure…why do you take their recommendations seriously?

Three main reasons come to mind.

First, there's expertise. You expect that your doctor has been to medical school and developed a deep knowledge of:

  • The various types of injuries, illnesses and diseases
  • How to make a proper diagnosis
  • The various treatment and medication options
  • How to decide what kind of care is best for a given patient

But you also want your doctor to know you. So in addition to expertise, firsthand knowledge matters.

It's not enough to know about medicine in general—you also want your doctor to know about YOUR personal medical history. A medication that's perfect for one patient may be harmful to another patient, even if they have the same symptoms. The details of each individual case matter.

Third, you expect your doctor to listen to your complaint, and to ask questions that will help you describe the situation more clearly, so you can get an accurate diagnosis and prescription.

Listening is at the heart of strong relationships. According to the New York Times, the biggest cause of malpractice lawsuits against doctors is poor communication.

I would argue that similarly, the biggest reason we fail to change teacher behavior—even when we know exactly what needs to change—is a failure to listen.

These are the conditions for getting the professional treatment one needs to get better—and the same conditions hold whether we're at the doctor or in the classroom. We need:

  • Expertise
  • Firsthand knowledge
  • Listening

As leaders, if we're going to tell teachers how to improve, we first need to have expertise.

But instructional expertise isn't enough. We also need to know the person we're working with—their strengths, weaknesses, and current situation.

In order to make an accurate diagnosis and give an accurate prescription of what needs to happen next, we need to know the individual case in detail, and that means we need to listen.

Even when we're working with teachers who are making serious and obvious mistakes—like failing to plan lessons, or screaming at students—we need to have expertise, gain firsthand knowledge, and listen.

The best way to accomplish all three of these requirements is to spend time observing and talking with the teacher.

Once- or twice-annual formal observations aren't enough. The more time you spend in each teacher's classroom, the more you'll be able to provide accurate and helpful directive feedback to teachers who are struggling.

But what if teachers resist directive feedback? What if a teacher needs to make obvious and immediate changes to their practice, but refuses?

Overcoming Direct Resistance to Directive Feedback

I once supervised a teacher who wasn't planning his math lessons in advance—he'd just wing it, every single day.

When I discovered what was happening, I was fairly direct:

“This is not working. You need to plan in advance. You cannot read out of the teacher's guide during class without any planning ahead of time. You need to plan and prepare in advance so your students can learn.”

I was 100% right in diagnosing the problem and prescribing the solution. But accurate information wasn't enough to change his practice, because he resisted, head-on. He said:

“Actually, I don't really think I need to change the way I plan. So, no—I'm not doing that. In fact, I don't really want you to come in my classroom. I've got this under control. Just leave me alone—you do your job, and I'll do mine.”

He called the teacher's union, and just as quickly, I called my supervisor. Both the union rep and my boss backed me immediately—which, as a young principal, I greatly appreciated.

Direct resistance is usually best handled directly—with clear expectations, and clear role definitions.

Once he understood my expectations, and that they weren't optional, he made the necessary changes.

Positional power isn't the only way to overcome direct resistance, but sometimes it's the right approach.

In other cases, though, resistance comes not from a bad attitude on the teacher's part, but from a mistake we make as leaders: giving directive feedback to professional teachers who can only grow if we take more of a coaching stance.

And sometimes, we need to play both roles at different times for the same teacher. Once the teacher above accepted the fact that he needed to do lesson plans, I could play a coaching role in helping him develop effective lesson plans.

It wouldn't have worked for me to write his lesson plans. That was his job as a professional—and my job as an instructional leader was to help him get better at it.

The more frequently you observe and talk with each teacher, the more clearly you'll know when it's time to set the “boss” role aside, and start to take a coaching stance.

The Coach Role: Changing Teacher Thinking with Reflective Feedback

When I became a principal, I didn't have great expertise in elementary instruction, because I had been a middle school science teacher. I had never taught primary reading or math.

I could give directive feedback if a teacher was struggling with the basics, but what about stronger teachers? What if they needed ultra-specific feedback in an area I knew nothing about? How could I help a 25-year veteran Kindergarten teacher improve her 1:1 reading conferences?

Because I didn't have expertise, I couldn't diagnose and prescribe appropriate next steps for teachers who were already doing well.

So what did I do?

I didn't try to tell teachers what they did right and what they did wrong. Instead, I asked open-ended softball questions like:

  • “Tell me more about when you did ___…”
  • “What were your goals for the lesson?”
  • “What are you thinking you'll do next?”

I was worried that this would undermine my credibility. After all, what kind of doctor asks the patient

“So…what medication do you think I should prescribe for you?”

And sure enough, teachers did start to catch on. They realized that they could end the conversation quickly if they played the game.

Overcoming Indirect Resistance to Reflective Feedback

Indirect resistance often takes the form of what I call the Fake Feedback Game.

In this game, there are two players: the administrator, and the teacher. The rules are simple:

  • The administrator must pretend to provide feedback, and
  • The teacher must pretend to appreciate it,
  • They both must pretend teacher practice has changed as a result of the conversation

I was pretending to “provide feedback” with my softball questions, because I didn't really know what else to say:

“Oh, so you were trying to use higher-order questions in your discussion today? Great! I wonder if… you might use more analysis and synthesis questions with ELL students? Maybe…?”

I'd hope and pray the teacher wouldn't disagree or call me out on my softball questions.

Teachers knew the fastest way to get rid of me was to smile and nod and play along:

“Oh yeah, great point, Justin! I will definitely work on that and let you know how it goes, OK? Bye!”

When we play the game, the teacher's practice doesn't change.

But there's a bigger problem—I don't know any more than I did before I walked into the classroom:

  • I don't know if my feedback was helpful
  • I don't know if the teacher will act on it
  • I didn't learn anything I can use to help other teachers improve
  • I didn't learn anything I can use to improve my school overall

When it comes to improving our schools overall, we need good information to make good decisions.

If all we're seeing is teachers who are doing OK and enthusiastically agreeing with all of our feedback, we won't discover our best opportunities for improving teaching and learning.

Fortunately, I had a great staff, and we developed great relationships pretty quickly, so I ended up not playing the Fake Feedback Game very much.

I'm incredibly grateful to the teachers who trusted me enough to be completely honest about what they were working on, how it was going, and what they thought they—and the school—needed to do next to improve.

It was through these conversations that I discovered the true reason it's so hard to change teacher practice.

And I discovered that neither the “boss” nor the “coach” roles would take us where we needed to go.

Seeing the Whole Iceberg of Teacher Practice

When we get into classrooms, it's essential to recognize that we're not seeing everything.

Like an iceberg, most of teachers' practice is hidden beneath the surface.

I would suggest that the ratio is about 90/10—that is, only about 10% of teaching and teacher practice can be seen when we visit a classroom.

We're not seeing:

  • The training and experience that shapes the teacher's judgment
  • What happened yesterday, and what's in the rest of the unit plan
  • The teacher's knowledge of, and relationship with, each individual student
  • Connections between concepts in the curriculum that we may not know about

We absolutely need to get into classrooms, but we shouldn't deceive ourselves into thinking that we're seeing the whole of teacher practice.

When we get into a classroom, we can see what the teacher is doing and saying. We can see how they're acting. We can see what students are doing and saying.

We can take note of the resources they're using, we can get a feel for the learning environment, but we must never forget that there's also much that we can't see.

When we fail to see “the whole iceberg” of teacher practice, we tend to focus on just the parts we can see—the easily observable behaviors, such as whether the teacher is writing the objective on the board every day.

Trying to change your school by focusing only on observable teacher behaviors is exhausting and futile.

You can solve blatantly obvious problems by focusing on teacher behavior, but to take teachers from good to great, consistently and at scale, you must focus on teacher thinking.

Teacher behavior is like the tip of the iceberg, and teacher thinking is what's beneath the surface.

Thinking is largely invisible…until we make it visible through conversation.

There's no way to see what happened yesterday or five minutes ago. We can't see what will happen tomorrow, or even five minutes after we leave.

But we can ask—and it turns out that asking is remarkably simple, and remarkably effective.

If you want to understand teacher thinking and decision-making, just ask.

But here's a lesson I learned the hard way: don't ask “Why?” questions.

When you ask “Why” questions, you get justifications.

And using evidence to ask “why” questions only triggers more defensiveness, which doesn't lead to growth.

If—like me—you've spent countless hours in conversations that seem to go nowhere, you know just how unproductive these conversations become when we trigger teachers' defensiveness.

When you instead ask “how?” questions, you'll discover what you need to learn to lead effectively.

The more I asked “how?” questions—out of genuine ignorance at first—the more I learned that I needed an entirely new approach to feedback if I really wanted to change teacher practice.

The Leader Role: Shifting the Iceberg with Reflexive Feedback

Why does our feedback so often fail to change teacher practice?

When we take responsibility as instructional leaders, we can't just say “Well, I gave them feedback, but they aren't changing.

That's like the teacher who says “Well, I taught them, but they didn't learn.

If we're leading, but no one is following…we're not leading!

Our leadership must be differentiated if we truly want to change teacher practice:

  • To deal with direct resistance, and change teacher behavior, we must play the boss and use directive feedback
  • To deal with indirect resistance, and change teacher thinking, we must play the coach and use reflective feedback

But teachers don't change their practice in a vacuum. So if we truly want to take responsibility, we must address the system within which teachers work.

Too often, when we try to change teacher practice, we focus only on the individual teacher. We try to change either the teachers’ actions or their thinking, but all of that occurs in a system—in a context that can't be ignored.

We must see the whole iceberg of practice—what's above and below the surface—but the current the iceberg is floating in matters even more.

W. Edwards Deming, who’s known as the father of the Quality Management movement, put it this way:

“In my experience most troubles and most possibilities for improvement add up to the proportions something like this: 94% belong to the system.”

So there's a third kind of feedback, which I call reflexive feedback, that gives us the greatest opportunity for improving our schools, because it gives us the feedback we need to improve the system.

  • To improve the system teachers work within, we must play the leader and use reflexive feedback.

Reflexive feedback conversations involve both parties in talking, listening, reflecting, and taking action. The idea of reflexivity, which comes from the social sciences, suggests a two-way street—a feedback relationship that runs in both directions.

Leaders who use reflexive feedback are more effective at changing teacher practice because they're willing and able change things other than the teacher, in order to support positive changes in the teacher’s practice.

Teachers who are engaged in reflexive feedback know they have a voice, and that their feedback to leaders will be taken seriously. As a result, they're more willing to invest effort in making changes to their practice—because they believe they'll get the support they need.

Reflexive feedback is what distinguishes leaders from coaches.

When I was a principal, I had a supervisor, and I also had a coach, and I had many great conversations with both of them. My coach was extremely helpful in getting me to reflect, and I know I got better as a result.

My supervisors did that too, but also did something else: they listened, and brought about changes in the district that would make me a more effective leader. So when we talked about a problem, I knew I’d have to do my part, but I also knew my boss would go to bat for me at the district office and get things done.

And that’s what we need to do, almost all of the time, when we’re working with teachers. There’s part they need to do to get better, but there’s also part we need to do as leaders.

Deming realized that, for too long, American companies tried to improve manufacturing by basically yelling at their workers and telling them to try harder.

Work faster! Produce more! Be safer! Have fewer accidents!

How did it work? Not very well. Blaming the front-line employee for factors beyond his or her control doesn't get us very far.

Deming realized that the next level of productivity wasn't about fixing the individual worker.

It wasn't that American workers were lazier or less careful than workers in other countries. The difference was that, in organizations that were improving rapidly, the focus was on improving their systems—not on individuals.

I believe it's time for us to learn the same lesson in education.

Teachers don't teach in a vacuum—they teach in a specific organization. The system they're working within determines the majority of the results that they get.

So if you want to take your school from good to great, it's not enough to address each individual “iceberg” of teacher practice. You're responsible for the current that moves the entire ocean.

As a new principal, when I got into classrooms, I often didn't know what to say, so I just listened and asked questions that would to tell me what I needed to know.

When I talked with teachers and learned what was going on beneath the surface of their practice—and what was going on within our school that might be hidden to me—I started to see my school as a system.

Once I saw the whole system, I was able to make better decisions:

  • Decisions about what to address in professional development
  • Decisions about who to hire to add to our team
  • Decisions about how to allocate our budget
  • Decisions about where to spend my time and attention

Having these conversations isn't difficult—and in any conversation, you can shift between directive, reflective, and reflexive feedback as needed.

To summarize:

Three Roles Leaders Play in Changing Teacher Practice

The boss role helps you deal effectively with direct resistance and change teacher behavior through directive feedback.

As I explain in Chapter 2 of Now We're Talking! 21 Days to High-Performance Instructional Leadership, the best classroom visits have seven key features:

  • Frequent—Approximately once every two weeks
  • Brief—Five to ten minutes of observation, followed by a brief conversation
  • Substantive—More than just making an appearance
  • Open ended—Focused on the teacher’s thinking, not filling out a form
  • Evidence based—Centered on what actually happened during the observation
  • Criterion referenced—Linked to a shared instructional framework
  • Conversation oriented—Designed to lead to reflexive feedback conversations between teachers and instructional leaders

For ten evidence-based questions to structure your conversations with teachers, download the free PDF guide, 10 Questions For Better Feedback On Teaching

Free PDF Download

How To Document Quick “No Feedback” Visits in Repertoire

Sometimes when you're visiting classrooms, you don't want to provide feedback.

Perhaps you didn't see anything you felt compelled to comment on, or perhaps you weren't able to stay as long as usual.

Whatever the reason, it's often useful to document visits to classrooms, even when you don't take any notes or provide any feedback.

In our web-based app Repertoire, you can document visits of any length—from a brief pop-in to a full formal observation.

Here's how you can document a classroom visit, even if you don't take any notes, and don't want to email the teacher.

1. Create A Template

In Repertoire, click Templates, then Create Template.

Give your template a descriptive name that will easily come to mind when you're making a brief visit to a classroom, such as “quick visit.”

In the Subject and Content fields, put “n/a” or whatever you'd like.

Click Save to finish creating your template.

2. Use Your Template

Select this template when documenting a visit with no notes and no feedback.

This will save you the trouble of filling something in the Subject and Message fields, which can't be blank. It'll also help you distinguish visits in which you purposefully didn't takes notes from those that, say, were interrupted by an emergency.

3. Save as Draft or Hit Send & Discard Email


Then, you can either click “Save and continue editing” and leave the entry as a draft; or, you can click “Send” but then close the email when it opens in your email program, without sending it.

Clicking “Save and continue editing” to save the entry as a draft may be helpful for quickly seeing which visits had feedback and which were just pop-ins with no notes/feedback. Here's how they'll appear in your list of entries in Repertoire:

Note: You can also use the radio button on the Add New Entry screen to indicate whether an entry contains feedback:

Another Idea: Send A Quick Note

It's not a bad idea to send a quick email of acknowledgement when you visit a teacher's classroom, even if you don't have any feedback.

Repertoire's template feature makes this very easy:

As you can see, Repertoire will even fill in the teacher's name using template variables:

Try Repertoire

If you're already a Pro Member, you can login to Repertoire here.

If you aren't yet a member, you can try Repertoire for 30 days for just $1.

Try Repertoire for $1 $19month after 30 days—cancel any time

How To Track Your Classroom Visits

When I was a new principal, I spent a lot of time and effort figuring out how I wanted to do walkthroughs.

I knew I wanted to visit classrooms, but…

  • what app should I use?
  • How should my form look?
  • How should I structure my feedback?

Those may be important issues…but first things first.

I was missing a more fundamental question: How often was I visiting each teacher?

Avoidance

I assumed I was getting around to every teacher every week or two.

After all, I tried to visit classrooms every day. Rarely (I thought) did a day go by when I wasn't spending time in classrooms.

Then I decided to check my records.

In reality, I was systematically over-visiting the “easy” classrooms:

  • The classrooms closest to the office
  • The classrooms where I felt most welcome
  • The classrooms where I was unlikely to see anything troubling

And I was unintentionally avoiding the “tough” classrooms:

  • Teachers with performance issues
  • Teachers who didn't especially want me in their rooms
  • Teachers who had unusual schedules or physically isolated classrooms

Never did I sit down and say to myself “I really want to get into classrooms this year, but only certain classrooms. I think I'll just visit the most pleasant and most convenient classrooms, and avoid any that might be a hassle or give me extra work to do.”

That wasn't my intent at all, but the outcome was the same: Some teachers saw me almost every week, while others went weeks or even months without a visit.

This pattern of avoidance is completely natural, so if you've been doing the same thing, don't feel bad. We all do it.

And the remedy is simple: start keeping track.

3 Tools for Tracking Visits

Keeping track of your visits to classrooms doesn't have to be difficult.

Here are three simple options—it doesn't matter which one you use; what matters is that you use something, and start keeping track, to push back against your natural tendency to avoid certain classrooms.

The simplest way to track your visits is to just print a staff list—you probably already have one handy, so get a fresh copy and start recording your visits.

For now, just put the date (and perhaps the time of day) by each teacher's name when you visit.

This isn't an especially good way to track your visits long-term, but it'll get you started.

If you want to prompt yourself to visit teachers in a certain order, you might consider one of the other options.

Set A Goal

Finally, as you visit classrooms this year, work toward a specific goal.

We all want to be in classrooms “as much as possible.” That's not specific enough to guide your choices on a daily basis.

Life will get in the way. People will call you back to the office. Your schedule will fill with other meetings.

If you want to get into classrooms, be intentional. Set a specific goal that you can fight to achieve every day.

So here's my recommendation: strive to get into every classroom within a week—the first week of school, or the first week after you're reading this. It doesn't matter whether school is just starting, you're halfway through the year, or it's almost over.

Just start. Get into classrooms. Keep track.

And when you've made it around to everyone, I have something special for you:

Visit every teacher in your school, and I'll send you a limited-edition #EveryClassroom sticker while supplies last.

Visit #EveryClassroom The First Week of School

What's the most important thing for a leader to do in the first week of school?

Among a zillion tasks, it's this: Visit every classroom.

In fact, let's make it a hashtag:

Sure, everyone tries to do it. Most people probably end up visiting most classrooms.

But let's get serious: let's visit every classroom in the first full week of school.

You can even give yourself a few days to deal with opening-of-school emergencies. Start on the 2nd or 3rd day if you like.

But in short order, get out of the office and get into classrooms.

And don't stop till you've visited #EveryClassroom.

Tips for Visiting #EveryClassroom

  1. Visit systematically—a department or grade level at a time 
  2. Keep track—print a staff roster, or have your secretary help, so you don't skip anyone
  3. Don't give yourself any homework yet—just show up
  4. Don't evaluate teachers or provide feedback—that can come later

For now, focus on getting around to every teacher in your school. Just make an appearance, so no one is surprised to see you in October.

Be friendly, say hi, pay attention, and build relationships.

As a bonus, you'll have a great deal of information and context you wouldn't have without these visits. So make it happen!

We'll have more on #EveryClassroom soon, including a way you can track your progress.

If you're on Twitter, use the hashtag #EveryClassroom and mention me (@eduleadership) to let me know you're in.​ 

Whether you start school on Monday or not for several more weeks, I hope this is the year you make it happen!​

Finishers:

#500c Success Stories: Leaders Who Made 500 Classroom Visits This Year

And some remarkable variants on the challenge:

I'm a department chair of a department of 10 members in high school. During this school year I didn't get into 500 classes this year but I did visit every member of my department once every two weeks providing them feedback (email or face to face). That's 180 classroom visits in addition to my teaching classes. The visits have given me evidence of what I thought was happening, that I have an awesome department that knock it out of the park when it comes to educating our students.

Chris Geiser
Mathematics Department Chair, Central High School, Evansville, IN

How To Be Taken Seriously As A New Leader

Leadership isn't much fun if no one is following you. Yet that's where we almost all start.

A reader asks: 

How can I manage professional interactions with those who may not have respect for me or take me seriously?

If you're new to a school, in a new role in your school, or simply different from previous leaders in some way—age, gender, culture, etc.—it can feel like an uphill battle to establish your credibility and legitimacy.

I became a principal at the age of 26…about as close to starting from scratch as you can get. I had teaching experience, of course, but not at the elementary level.

Here are three essentials for quickly gaining respect as a leader. They helped me, and I believe they can help you.

Have A Plan

By default, people judge you against their own expectations for the role you're in.

If they've come to see the role as unhelpful to their work—perhaps because of your predecessor—they'll naturally assume you won't be much help either…

…until you prove that you're different.

As a leader, it's not your job to make everyone happy or fulfill their expectations.

It's your job to define your agenda, define your contributions, and determine the criteria against which you'll be judged.

People will still have their own expectations of you, but if you make it clear that you have a detailed set of actions that you're carrying out, they'll have far more respect for you than if you just show up and ask what your predecessor did.

In short, you need a plan.

I suggest developing a 90- or 100-day plan for the start of your tenure as a leader. Base this plan on: 

  • Interviews with individual staff members (more on this below)
  • Existing goals from your organization's strategic plan
  • Any particular mandates you've received in the hiring process (e.g. resolving major discipline or safety issues)
  • Consultation with your supervisor
  • Your notes on the school's needs as you begin your work

If you've already been on the job for a while, look for the next natural opportunity to develop a plan of action, such as the start of a new initiative or a new school year.

Suggested resource: Entry Plan: Your First 100 Days (available to Pro Members on-demand)

Listen

The problem with a lot of new leaders' plans is that they're based on assumptions, with little input from existing staff.

As a newly hired principal, my first action was to set up 1-on-1 interviews with every staff member, in which my goal was simply to get to know everyone and hear them out.

I asked questions like: 

  • How would you describe yourself as an educator, and what do you want me to know about you?
  • What about this school are you most proud of?
  • What's an emerging challenge or issue that you believe we need to address?
  • What are your hopes for what we're able to accomplish together?
  • Is there anything else you think I need to know?

If you've been in your role for a while, you might want to conduct similar interviews, but with a more topical focus.

For example, if you're a central office administrator in charge of a particular subject area's curriculum, you might set up interviews with teachers and principals and ask questions such as “What do you see as our gaps in this subject area? What are we doing well, and how can we support you more effectively?”

Follow Through

Finally, if you want to gain respect, nothing speaks louder than action.

If you say you'll do something, write it down. (I used a pocket Moleskine notebook.) Let people see you writing it down.

Then, do it. On time. As promised.

Follow through.

Everyone expects administrators to be busy, and most people only half-expect them to follow through.

Be different. Follow through, and you'll quickly gain the respect of your staff.

Is Instructional Leadership Undermining the Teaching Profession?

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 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.

How To Build Capacity for Instructional Leadership In Your Organization

How To Build Capacity for Instructional Leadership In Your Organization

Your school needs more instructional leadership than any one person can provide. There are simply more opportunities, more needs, and more challenges than you can respond to personally.

How can you get more people involved—without chaos or hassle—in making decisions for the good of your school?

What Is Capacity for Instructional Leadership?

Let's begin with a definition: an organization's capacity for instructional leadership is its ability to make and implement operational and improvement decisions.

The reason you're the bottleneck for much of what happens in your school is that you're the only one who can make certain kinds of decisions…perhaps too many of the decisions that need to be made.

The solution, of course, is distributed leadership—creating more leaders who can do the work that you're currently doing all by yourself.

Distributed leadership is powerful, but hard to manage well. Let's take a look at why distributed leadership is uniquely challenging.

The Challenges of Distributed Leadership

Distributed leadership is much more than delegation. Delegation is fairly straightforward: 

  1. Decide that something needs to be done by someone else
  2. Tell them what to do and how to do it
  3. Make sure they do it, and provide guidance as needed

Pretty simple, right? But creating more leadership isn't merely a matter of delegation; you're still the bottleneck, because you still play a challenging and central role: decision-maker.

We need to delegate not just discrete tasks, but the decisions themselves. And that's where we can get into hot water.

It's easy to delegate certain types of decisions to people with titles that seem to come with the authority that those decisions require. If you have an assistant principal, no one will be surprised or bothered if you fully delegate decisions about student discipline or transportation.

Yet the real power of distributed leaderships comes from involving teachers, especially in decisions that directly affect teaching and learning.

But will handing over decision-making authority to teachers reduce the effectiveness of principal leadership? When we share the decision-making aspects of leadership, what happens to our own authority? Does it create chaos and confusion? 

The research is encouraging:

Principals may be relieved to find out, moreover, that their authority does not wane as others’ waxes. Clearly, school leadership is not a zero-sum game. ‘Principals and district leaders have the most influence on decisions in all schools; however, they do not lose influence as others gain influence,’ the authors write.” —The School Principal As Leader: Guiding Schools To Better Teaching And Learning, quoting Learning From Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning: Final Report of Research Findings, Karen Seashore Louis, Kenneth Leithwood, Kyla L. Wahlstrom and Stephen E. Anderson, University of Minnesota and University of Toronto, 2010. (emphasis added)

So we don't have to worry about having less influence when we build greater capacity for instructional leadership in our organizations.

But we do need to address potential confusion about who's really in charge, and why not everyone gets a say in everything.

Obnocracy: The Pitfalls of Open Discussion

Involving teacher-leaders in school-level decision-making doesn't mean turning your school into a direct democracy where all issues are decided by consensus or whole-staff vote. Nor does it mean that every issue is discussed in faculty meetings until everyone is satisfied.

Turning decision-making over to the “consensus” of a staff discussion is a failure of leadership, pure and simple. When unmoderated discussion becomes the way decisions are made, it's not distributed leadership. It's what I call obnocracy.

Simply put, in a group discussion, the most obnoxious and outspoken person usually has the most power. We'd never choose this form of decision-making on purpose, but I've seen it play out time and time again in schools, and it's not pretty.

Everyone wants a voice, and everyone deserves a voice in some way for many decisions, but open discussion and obnocracy don't serve adult or student needs well.

Instead, we need a structure for making decisions. We need a decision matrix.

Developing A Decision Matrix

A Decision Matrix clarifies three sets of agreements for various types of decisions:

  • Decisional Roles: Who makes the call? 
  • Consultation Methods: How do we talk with one another about the decision?
  • Decision Methods: How do we reach final agreement?

The decisional roles define decisional authority:

  1. The Decision Owner (DO) is responsible for ensuring that the decision is made, but may or not be the decision-maker
  2. The Decision Maker (DM) makes the call, and may be an individual or a group
  3. A Consulted Stakeholder (CS) provides input before the decision is made
  4. A Represented Stakeholder (RS) has a voice through a designated representative
  5. A Notified Stakeholder (NS) is kept in the loop, but not always before the decision is made
  6. Non-Party (NP) stakeholders may be affected by the decision, but are not directly involved or notified

Find out more about the Decision Making Matrix and how you can create a Decision-Making Handbook in our course High-Performance Decision Making (as part of our Pro Membership.)

Why No One Wants To See Your Stupid Portfolio

“Thanks for coming in. Do you have any questions for the interview team?”

“Well, I just wanted to show you my portfolio before I go…”

Thus ended half a dozen interviews I've conducted over the years. Every time, a thick folder or 3-ring binder was briefly passed around, barely perused, and returned to its owner.

We seem to love portfolios in education. Certainly, for some purposes, they're better than any alternative.

But please—stop bringing them to job interviews.

Nobody wants to look at your portfolio, and nobody is going to give you a job because they were impressed by your binder.

How Portfolios Caught On

I blame universities.

Students in teacher and administrator certification programs do a great deal of work that doesn't really deserve space in the applicant's résumé, so portfolios seem like a natural way to organize this work.

The portfolio format is a great fit for the university's assessment needs. Since graduate students may not have actual student data to share, yet may be required to demonstrate competence in a variety of areas, portfolios make a ton of sense.

Somewhere along the way, though, university supervisors started to suggest that candidates should bring these portfolios along to interviews.

More evidence can't hurt, right?

I don't think bringing along a portfolio hurts your chances, but it certainly doesn't help.

Why Interview Teams Don't Care About Portfolios

As a candidate, your role is to make the best case you can that you're the best person for the job.

You want to bring everything to the table, so all the evidence is taken into consideration. You want them to see the real you, regardless of what format you may choose.

But the interview team's goal isn't to learn everything about you. It's not to see the real you. It's to compare you to the other candidates on pre-determined dimensions, using pre-determined data sources.

Your cover letter matters. Your résumé matters. Your interview matters.

But unless you were specifically told to bring a portfolio, it won't be considered—because it doesn't allow for a comparison with other candidates.

So is it a waste of time to compile a portfolio?

Not quite.

How To Capitalize On Your Portfolio In Your Interview

If you're not required to compile a portfolio, don't bother. But you should at least keep a comprehensive list of your achievements as an educator.

And if you are required to make a portfolio, it's a great start on your comprehensive list.

Now, as I said above, no one will want to see your portfolio or list. But it's invaluable as a preparation tool.

Here's why.

In your interview, you'll be asked a variety of questions about your experience, and more and more employers are asking “behavioral” questions that ask you to share an example from your professional experience of how you've addressed a particular type of situation.

For example, you might be asked how you resolved a conflict between two parties, or how you responded to a complaint, or how you identified and addressed an inequity.

More than any other type, these are the questions that catch people off-guard.

But you'll be amply prepared to answer behavioral questions if you've carefully compiled a list of: 

  • Projects you've managed
  • Committees you've worked with
  • Problems you've solved
  • Challenges you've overcome
  • Students you've reached

By itself, the list has no power.

But if you use it to rehearse your answers to the most common interview questions you're likely to face, you'll blow your competition out of the water.

(You can download a set of 52 practice questions here.)

You'll wow the interview team with specific, well-told stories of how you've made a difference. And you'll find that a single story can lend itself to a number of different behavioral questions.

But only if you've prepared yourself to talk about your experience in a way that sells you as a candidate.

Practice Making The Case

Most job-seekers understand that they'll be expected to talk about themselves in interviews—a task that's profoundly uncomfortable for many people.

Because it's uncomfortable, many candidates don't practice, and do a very poor job of making the case that they're the best person for the job.

Some people are naturally confident—perhaps overconfident—and as a result, they have an outsize chance of landing the job.

If you're naturally humble and hesitant to toot your own horn, you're at a disadvantage.

Unless you practice.

The way to practice is straightforward: using a list of interview questions, draft your answers briefly on paper. Then, with a friend or by yourself, practice answering a barrage of questions in real time, and record the results on video.

If you expect your real interviews to last 30 minutes, practice 30-minute interviews. Strive to match your practice approach to the type of interviews you'll actually face.

Then, watch the video.

(Most people won't do this, because it's uncomfortable, and that's where you can gain an advantage.)

Look for awkward responses, incomplete answers, or missed opportunities. Look for odd mannerisms or facial expressions.

Revise your answers, and keep practicing until they're perfect.

Rehearse until you don't sound rehearsed. And you'll be ready.

Practice Interview Questions

If you're applying for educational leadership positions, download my 52 practice interview questions here.

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