Instructional Leadership in Action

Principals: Our advice and resources for establishing instructional leadership teams

by Sandy Austin on Jan 12, 2018

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It’s a new year and you have made a resolution to create plans and work with teachers to improve teaching and learning. That excitement quickly turns to focused determination as you remember all of your other responsibilities as a school principal. You ask yourself, “How can I get into classrooms more and plan supports for teachers?”   

One idea you have is to form an instructional leadership team (ILT) of teacher leaders to identify teaching and learning challenges in your building and support teachers to solve these challenges. You imagine that leading a team in this sort of work will build their instructional leadership skills and expand your capacity to provide the kind of support that your teachers and students need and deserve.

Based on the research and experiences from the field, it is evident that without effective leaders who are able to focus on instruction and instructional leadership, meeting the needs of all students remains out of reach. Yet, the daily crush of non-instructional responsibilities for leaders seems insurmountable. The MetLife Survey of the American Teacher: Challenges for School Leadership reports that, “Most principals say that their responsibilities today have changed compared to five years ago and that their job has increased in complexity.” And, according to a Stanford University observational study, “Principal’s Time Use and School Effectiveness,” “principals, on average, spent only a little over 10 percent of their day on instruction-related tasks.”

In response to trying to solve this conundrum, the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership (CEL) partnered with the Florida Association of School Administrators, the Florida Department of Education, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to see if supporting school-based instructional leadership teams would help principals focus on instruction and support teacher growth.

Project Participants 

Broward County Public Schools
Hendry County Schools
Highlands County Schools
Indian River County School District
Martin County School District
Okeechobee County School Board
Pinellas County Schools

The project defined ILTs as a team of teacher leaders and a principal who collaborate together to focus on the improvement of teaching and learning. The following theory of action guided the work: If the principal has an instructional leadership team to collaborate with to identify teaching and learning challenges and to support teachers to solve those challenges, then teachers will be better able to improve their instructional practices, and students — especially students not making progress — will be able to learn at higher levels.

Nine instructional leadership teams from Florida participated in the project. The teams met throughout the 2016-17 school year in whole-group content sessions, regional walkthroughs and individual coaching sessions. During these sessions teams worked on the following:

  • Understanding the importance of teacher leadership and the crucial role teachers play in improving teaching and learning.
  • Identifying high-quality instruction.
  • Observing and analyzing instruction in a nonjudgmental way, focusing on what the teacher can do vs. what is lacking.
  • Planning professional development and school improvement.

Through the project, CEL created working documents and processes to support the development of ILTs.

Characteristics of Instructional Leadership Team Members

The first working document we developed was the Characteristics of Instructional Leadership Team Members. It is our belief that in order for teacher leaders to flourish, certain characteristics and conditions are important. Teacher leaders need to develop the knowledge and skills needed to lead as well as the dispositions and attitudes to be recognized as leaders. There must also be opportunities for leadership in the school, and the ILT, with its focus on student learning and improving instruction, is a perfect opportunity to grow teacher leadership. 

Below are the characteristics of team members that need to be present or developed as the members of the ILT continue to learn and grow.

  • A continuous learner
  • Effective working with adult learners
  • An effective communicator
  • Collaborative
  • Knowledgeable of content and pedagogy
  • Knowledgeable of assessment and data
  • A systems thinker

Framework for Effective Instructional Leadership Teams

The second working document is a Framework for Effective Instructional Leadership Teams (ILTs). This ILT Framework describes key actions of ILTs that effectively ensure that the school community works together to continually improve teaching and learning.

  • Key action #1: Focuses on improving teaching and learning schoolwide
  • Key action #2: Collaborates to ensure team success
  • Key action #3: Develops effective structures and processes to stay focused on teaching and learning

Instructional Leadership Team Growth Continuum

The third working document, an Instructional Leadership Team (ILT) Growth Continuum, describes what growth in an ILT’s practice might look like over time. Based on some of the key ideas of the Framework for Effective Instructional Leadership Teams, the continuum describes key actions of ILTs that effectively ensure that the school community works together to continually improve teaching and learning.  

By working together and developing a shared vision of high-quality instruction, collecting data, and analyzing trends across classrooms, the teams were able to create professional learning plans that included whole-group, small-group and individual professional learning opportunities. Throughout this process, solving high-priority student learning issues drove the ILTs’ decisions.

Although the jury is still out on determining if an instructional leadership team can work together to improve teaching and learning, it is clear from team reflections and observations of participants’ practice that this is a promising approach.

For those interested in beginning this journey toward establishing instructional leadership teams, here is some advice from your Florida colleagues.

  • Come to this learning opportunity with a growth mindset and team approach.
  • Learn from each other.
  • Keep working on your ability to assume positive intent even if it is frustrating.
  • Slow down, focus on building team capacity, and address one high-priority need. This is a multiyear process.
  • It is okay not to know everything, but it is not okay not to try.
  • Appreciate how hard the work is that we are asking students and teachers to do.
  • Celebrate your successes and your failures as this will create trust.
  • When selecting teams, be sure to create a team of open-minded individuals willing to listen and take on this work with a positive attitude.
  • Lean into the discomfort, embrace the process, and grow as a team. You will have to dig deep, have courage, and compassion. Be brave. All Grit No Quit.
  • Take the time to explain the rationale and the critical role ILTs can play in school improvement.
  • Protect the time for teachers to be able to contribute and participate fully in the ILT meetings, trainings, and visiting classrooms.
  • Persist in the development of an ILT because it is worth all of the effort when you see student learning improve.
  • Develop professional development and expectations for implementation based on student learning needs.
  • Keep a laser-like focus on one initiative at a time.

The development of instructional leadership teams and what we have learned about their formation and function cause us to feel optimistic. This strategy, focused on identifying high-priority teaching and learning challenges and working together with the principal to plan supports for teachers, will enable principals to exercise a critical role: to be the instructional leader that teachers and students need and deserve.

Written by Sandy Austin and Donna Anderson-Davis, project directors with the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership, Jason Graham, senior educational program director with the Florida Department of Education, and Michele White, chief operating officer of the Florida Association of School Administrators.

Photo courtesy of the Florida Association of School Administrators.

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Topics: Instructional Leadership, Partnership Stories

About the author: Sandy Austin

Dr. Sandy Austin manages district partnerships and provides instructional leadership support for district and school administrators. She joined the Center for Educational Leadership after serving as an assistant superintendent and a school administrator for fifteen years. Sandy is interested in the link between instructional leadership and improved teaching and learning. She received her Ed.D. from the University of Washington in 2006.

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