Who’s the leader?

One of the greatest issues facing public education is the abdication of instructional leadership.

Unfortunately, this phenomenon is all too common in our school systems. It is a silent, but deleterious factor of underperformance with a complex, compound impact on low performing student groups, schools, and districts.

It is not my goal indict my colleagues who are working diligently to support children and families. I would never do that. However; I would like to broadcast a clarion call for a paradigm shift from abdication of instructional leadership to a stalwart focus on instructional due care – defined by (1) caring so much for our students’ intellectual development that we (at all levels of district leadership) consciously and consistently make it our top priority as educational leaders and (2) remain plugged into what is happening each day for children inside of the unit of change for school improvement – the classroom.

When we step into leadership roles (site-based or central office), we become responsible for the schooling experience of an expanded student body, beyond the classroom of children we formerly served as teachers. In effect, as leaders, our classroom expands. With that expansion comes amplified responsibility. The public expects leaders to (1) produce teaching and learning opportunities for children worthy of consumption; (2) take a strategic approach to refining the quality of instruction that children consume; and (3) ensure access for all children irrespective of race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, English language proficiency, and exceptionality.

To accomplish the aforementioned, school and district leaders (at all levels) must ensure that we provide clinical supervision of teaching and learning, high-end professional learning opportunities for all those who impact the student body’s instructional ecosystem, as well as a system of checks and balances to ensure that every instructional moment is characterized by excellence.  This is no small order – such a charge calls for an all-hands-on deck approach to instructional due care.

So, here is the epiphany for all level of instructional leadership.

Superintendents: Governance and board relations are vital to your survival as a superintendent, but do not take your eyes of off that which children are receiving in your classrooms. Make time and space to visit classrooms once a week; not as the chief evaluator, but as the chief advocate for children. Take a one or two staffers with you who know deeply understand content, pedagogy, and the local context. Use what you observe to set expectations for direct support to schools.

Academic Officers: You are the chief teacher (and in some cases, the chief principal) of the district. Your decisions must remain child-centered, informed by data, and shaped by that which teachers are faced with each day to support students and families. Do not get too far removed from the classroom – it will be evident in your decision-making.

Assistant Superintendents (Principal Supervisors): You have enormous influence. School leaders will study you to determine what is important to you and they will shape and reshape their leadership foci to match yours. If your focus is unfettered access to instruction aligned to the nuanced expectations of developmentally appropriate standards, therein will lie their focus.

Principals: You are the chief teacher and learner on your campus. You must, at all costs be the leader of instruction-related professional learning opportunities for your faculty. A sideline approach to instructional leadership is all too common in this role. Refrain from giving your instructional leadership responsibilities to instructional coaches and other teacher leaders. You must be viewed as knowledgeable of the content, ever willing to roll up your sleeves to co-plan, co-teach, facilitate demonstration lessons, and identify instructional resources.  Teachers expect you to lead. They won’t say it to you, but their respect for you is diminished when you are not at the helm of the most important work of school leadership – instruction.

Assistant Principals: You are the next generation of school leaders. Be careful not to allow your contribution to be limited to behavior management, ancillary duties, and master scheduling – it will cost you your credibility later. Yes, each of the aforementioned functions is important, but you have a responsibility to impact instruction. Just as it is for the principal, instructional leadership is your primary responsibility. Never lose sight of that. You will have to wear many hats in your role, but never take your eyes off the north star – improved instruction.

In short, we must be the change that we want to see in our classrooms, schools, and districts. The instructional leadership cavalry is not coming. You are the cavalry.

Donyall D. Dickey, Ed. D.

To read more about my work, follow me on Twitter at @DonyallD and subscribe to this weekly blog, Dr. Dickey’s Epiphanies.

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