-by Garry McKinnon, Superintendent
If you were to ask anyone involved in education about the importance of instructional leadership, there is no doubt the response will be that it is critical to the success of any school. If you were to enter into a dialogue with school principals, it is very likely they would all describe themselves as being instructional leaders, but, what exactly is instructional leadership and to what extent is it actually taking place in our schools? We have been exploring this question through a series of informal professional development sessions at the Calgary Science School involving the principal, two assistant principals, the Professional Development and Collaboration Coordinator and myself.
As well, we have undertaken a two-year research project, which is being facilitated by Dr. Pam Adams from the University of Lethbridge. The focus of the research is on exploring the question – What are the essential conditions and practices in a school culture that support and promote exemplary teaching, student learning, and instructional leadership? Through the study we will be exploring various aspects of instructional leadership with the ultimate goal of developing a frame of reference for exemplary school leadership.
We invited Dr. Adams to join us for one of our biweekly informal dialogue sessions on instructional leadership. She introduced us to a unique approach for generating ideas through what she described as “free fall writing”. Dr. Adams asked us to write continuously for 8 minutes everything that comes to mind about instructional leadership. This exercise generated some very interesting ideas and a rich dialogue as we shared our key ideas about instructional leadership. I invite you to take 8 minutes now and to personally replicate this experience. The ideas you generate will serve as a frame of reference for our dialogue on the school leader’s role in providing instructional leadership.
One of the key themes that evolved from our dialogue is that instructional leadership ultimately involves having a positive impact on student learning. We discussed various roles in education from classroom teacher, learning coach, school administrator, school jurisdiction administrator and various roles beyond the school jurisdiction including that of Minister of Education. We concluded that the further away one is from working directly with students, the more difficult it is to provide instructional leadership. We also concluded that if what you are doing in any given role in education is not having a positive impact on student learning, you need to either make some changes in what you are doing or get out of the role. I provide these thoughts as background to our exploration of the fourth dimension of school leadership. It is a very important aspect of school leadership and one could easily make the case that the seven leadership dimensions in the Alberta School Leadership Framework are ultimately related to instructional leadership.
The fourth Professional Practice Competency, providing instructional leadership and the associated descriptors make reference to: ensuring that all teachers consistently achieve the Teaching Quality Standard expectations; demonstrating a sound understanding of effective pedagogy and curriculum and ensuring that teachers use appropriate pedagogy; ensuring that students have access to appropriate programming, based on their individual learning needs and implementing strategies for meeting the standards of student achievement; ensuring that student assessment and evaluation practices throughout the school are fair, appropriate and balanced; recognizing the potential for new and emerging technologies and enabling their appropriate integration in support of teaching and learning and ensuring that teachers and other staff effectively communicate and collaborate with parents and community agencies to support student learning and development. Clearly, providing instructional leadership is a complex, challenging undertaking and at the same time it is very important work. As in previous blogs, I offer a scenario based on my experiences with school leadership through the years, to facilitate a discussion of the school leader’s role in providing instructional leadership.
Scenario – A school administrator is contacted by a colleague who has been recently appointed as a school principal and she comments, “I want to make a difference as a school leader and the research is clear, the most important aspect of the leader’s role is to serve as an instructional leader. It’s easy to say, but I’m not sure what it looks like in reality. I know one thing, I need to get into the classrooms, but I feel intimidated as a new principal and one of the youngest members on staff. I feel like an insurance salesman making cold calls. I don’t think the teachers want to see me in their classrooms. We talk as a school staff about promoting exemplary teaching, but the teachers are going to question what I know about teaching because I am now a full-time administrator. Quite frankly, I’m not even sure what to look for or what to do when I go into a teacher’s classroom.
The reference to cold calling is descriptive of the feelings that an individual in a supervisory role may experience in knocking on the door and entering a teacher’s classroom. It is not exactly like trying to sell an insurance policy, but there are some definite similarities. It is not uncommon for teachers to feel uncomfortable when a school administrator is in their classroom. They may feel they are being judged and it can be intimidating, even if the administrator makes every effort to put the teacher at ease and indicate that no judgments will be made. The situation is further exacerbated if the administrator has not been able to establish a positive, trusting relationship of mutual respect with the teacher. The administrator must be seen as having something to offer. Furthermore, for the instructional leadership experience to be positive the administrator must demonstrate a good understanding of learning and teaching and sound pedagogical practices and it must be a value-added experience for the teacher.
It is very helpful to have in place a shared understanding of the school’s expectations in regard to learning and teaching such as the Calgary Science School descriptors of Exemplary Learning and Teaching, which I have mentioned in a previous blog. Reference is made to the framework in: the teacher recruitment and hiring process; the organization of professional development activities; the development of teacher professional growth plans and the engagement of the teacher in a focused dialogue associated with a classroom observation. A visit to the classroom should be a natural extension of the ongoing dialogue the administrator has with the teacher in regard to his/her professional growth plan. There may be some aspects of the plan such as areas for growth, which the teacher has identified as a focal point for a classroom observation. I believe there is tremendous potential in making the teacher professional growth plan a living document that is referred to on an ongoing basis throughout the school year. In the Calgary Science School a growth plan format based on the 16 descriptors of exemplary teaching is used as a focal point for celebrating areas of strength and articulating strategies for ongoing professional growth. The principal and assistant principals assist teachers with the development of the growth plan and meet during the school year for what are described as “fireside chats”, to discuss the growth plans and identify where they can provide support and assistance to the teacher. The growth plans provide a common frame of reference for classroom observations.
It has been my experience that teachers welcome “quality, value-added” interactions and opportunities to share what they are doing and they are most appreciative of recognition and positive reinforcement. As well, they appreciate feedback and opportunities for dialogue about the observations of learning and teaching in their classroom. The Calgary Science School recently amended the Teacher Growth and Supervision Policy to make provision for school administration to maintain an ongoing dialogue with teachers about learning and teaching and to provide written feedback following classroom observations to every teacher at least once every three years. Ideally, a classroom observation should be a positive experience for the teacher and an opportunity and incentive to continue to grow professionally. The individual making the classroom observation is able to develop a deeper understanding of the teaching context and the nature of interactions between the teacher and the students and among the students. Ultimately it should be a very positive and rewarding experience for the teacher and the school leader in which they are working together to enhance the quality of teaching and positively impact the learning experiences of the students. This is what instructional leadership is all about!
I will continue the dialogue on instructional leadership in my next blog in the series on school leadership.