Posts tagged Instructional Leadership
Smart principals know the job of leading a school is too big for one person, so forms of distributed leadership have made their way into most schools. Leadership teams, site councils, departmental decision-making, and other forms of shared leadership can make a school a better place because they don’t rely solely on the principal’s expertise and influence.
But if you share the leadership workload with others in your school, will this take work off of your plate?
You might think so, since dividing a pie into more slices makes each slice smaller.
But the answer, according to recent research, is no:
Distributing leadership more widely in schools should not be viewed as a means of reducing principals’ workload. Leadership from teacher leaders and external sources is more likely to be goal- or initiative-specific. Principals, on the other hand, are responsible for a boundary-spanning role not typically performed by others, nor picked up by others in the absence of active principal leadership. Principals are typically involved in a great many leadership initiatives in their schools, including initiatives for which others have assumed lead roles. Their role to coordinate or link others’ leadership efforts is essential.
—Learning From Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning, from the Wallace Foundation Knowledge Center, by Karen Seashore Louis, Kenneth Leithwood, Kyla L. Wahlstrom, and Stephen E. Anderson, p. 65
In other words, sharing leadership doesn’t save principals time because it creates more work. The “slices” don’t get smaller because the pie gets bigger as more teachers take on leadership roles.
And this is a good thing.
I think it’s great that distributed leadership doesn’t reduce your workload, as long as your school is embarking on substantive improvement efforts. We can look for other places to save time.
As the overall leadership workload in your school increases, though, your work will become:
- More interesting
- Higher-level, and
- More impactful
as your time is increasingly devoted to coordinating the amazing work being done by your staff.
How do you see your role changing as others take on more leadership? What does that coordination look like?
The Pareto Principle states that 80% of our results come from 20% of our efforts – and conversely, that only 20% of our results come from the other 80% of our efforts. It’s more a rule of thumb than a mathematical or sociological law, but the Pareto Principle is useful for thinking about how we spend our time with staff.
It’s tempting to think that visiting every classroom for an equal amount of time and perfectly balancing our time conversing with each staff member is the right way to go. But in the real world, where time is so limited, we will actually accomplish less when we try too hard to be “fair” with our time and attention.
The Pareto Principle tells us we should identify the 80% of our efforts that have a low payoff, so we can shift more of our energies into high-impact work. Let’s walk through a few classrooms and see how we can have the greatest impact.
Steph is a master teacher who just finished teaching a workshop on the district’s curriculum to other teachers. I stop in, and she is leading students in a discussion of what they learned yesterday. Directions for the next activity are already on the board. Do I stop and watch the whole lesson, which I know will be great, or hit another classroom and come back mid-lesson to engage with students?
Karen is a veteran teacher who has been struggling lately, but she knows how to put on a good show. I stop in, and she calls on several students who answer articulately. The discussion continues in this way for several minutes without an apparent direction, and students seem anxious. I have other classrooms to visit, but I get the sense that I need to see what’s behind the dog-and-pony show.
Steve is a 3rd-year teacher who is making good progress but still has plenty of room to grow. Our conversations seem to help Steve reflect on his practice and strive to improve. I stop in to observe part of a lesson, then catch up with him later in the day to talk about how it went.
In these three scenarios, time invested with each teacher has a different payoff, as predicted by the Pareto Principle. Time I spend with Steve has an average payoff, so I try to give him a fair share of my time.
On the other hand, time I spend giving feedback to Steph is going to have a marginal (if any) impact on her practice. She’s going to need access to advanced training and leadership opportunities, and I’d be better off learning from her than pretending to give her feedback. My visits to her classroom are quick, and when we talk, I try to pick her brain rather than find some tiny thing she can improve on.
Time I spend in Karen’s classroom is going to have a disproportionately high impact, because it will allow me to address the potentially major problems that lie just beneath the surface.
The Harsh Truth: We Don’t Do This
Unfortunately, it’s tempting to do the exact opposite of what the Pareto Principle suggests. At best, we visit each classroom equally, but it’s more likely that we spend 80% of our time with teachers who are doing great, and only 20% in classrooms that desperately need our attention.
Kim Marshall reflects on this tendency in his must-read book Rethinking Teacher Supervision & Evaluation. As he made his way around the building on walkthroughs, he kept track of which classrooms he visited, and noted that
even though I wasn’t planning the sequence of visits, the same four or five teachers always wound up being at the end of the line. These were classrooms, I realized, in which I felt unwelcome and awkward or dreaded the negative feedback I knew I would have to give, and had been subconsciously avoiding them. My checklist made me aware of which classrooms I was putting off visiting and made me think about why. If it hadn’t been for the self-discipline imposed by my rotation, I would have gone for months without visiting them. (Rethinking Teacher Supervision & Evaluation, ch. 3)
How can we avoid this tendency to see only the sunny side of instruction in our schools? The first step is, as Marshall notes, to actually keep track of our classroom visits, so we can tell if we’re avoiding someone.
But what if we want to take it a step further and try to differentiate our time? Here’s one idea – let me know if you take a shot at it.
- Make a list of all of your classrooms or staff, divided into three groups – high, middle, and low performers
- For each cycle of walkthroughs, visit teachers in the top tier once
- Visit teachers in the middle tier twice
- Visit teachers in the bottom tier three times
- Revise your list as needed and repeat
Obvious stuff, right? But I challenge you to actually try it, and actually visit your struggling classrooms three times as much as your best classrooms.
You’ll probably open a few cans of worms, but hey – that’s the job.
I’d love to hear from you if you give this a try – you can tell me here or leave a comment below.
A recent study found that principals spend only 8% of their time in classrooms. If you have 20 teachers per administrator, that means you’ll see about 0.4% of the instruction in any given class over the course of the year, assuming you spend equal time in each classroom.
It’s no wonder that walkthroughs have become a popular way to spot-check what’s happening in schools – when we can see only a tiny fraction of the teaching that takes place, we have to rely on intuitive judgments based on what little we do see.
But we don’t have to just stay for a minute. Perhaps it’s better to spend that 0.4% in 30 or 60-minute chunks, even if you have no intention of doing a formal observation.
When you see a whole lesson, the pieces fit together in a way they don’t when you see only a snapshot.
Yesterday was an office day. I stayed in my office writing observation reports and doing other office work almost all day. My door was open, and some people came to see me, but I didn’t venture out to observe in classrooms or elsewhere during the day.
Today was a classroom day. I visited every classroom at least once, and spent a great deal of time interacting with students and staff. I got very little office work done, but got quite a bit done in terms of communicating with people and having a pulse on happenings around campus.
I’m more comfortable mixing office and classroom time in the same day, since it doesn’t create the nagging guilt that I’m ignoring part of my role, but I seem to get more done when I split my week into office days and classroom days. One reason: I’ve realized that I sometimes would use visits to classrooms as a form of procrastination: Whenever facing unpleasant office work, why not “exercise instructional leadership” by visiting classrooms? Of course, unpurposeful time in classrooms isn’t instructional leadership; even if it has some benefits, I don’t want to get in the habit of deluding myself about the purpose and value of what I’m doing.
However, I’ve also realized you can’t always decide ahead of time whether a day will be an office day or a classroom day – sometimes the events just unfold in a way that determines the question for you.
What do you think – is it better to block off whole days for classroom time, and separate days for office work? Or is it better to mix it up and get into classrooms whenever you can?
I’ve been trying a few different methods for doing walkthroughs and giving feedback to teachers using my iPad. I used a paper log and paper notes for feedback in previous years, but now that I have an iPad, it’s time to go paperless. I’ve tried a few different solutions for organizing walkthroughs and giving feedback via iPad, and here’s what I’ve come up with.
Trial and Error
Chris Lehmann developed a great form using Google Spreadsheets, which I tried and found very easy to use (for entering feedback, at least). You create a form and enter information into the form, and the results are added to a Google Spreadsheet. The drawbacks are that you need constant internet access (wifi or 3G), and the spreadsheet format doesn’t lend itself to communicating feedback to teachers (though Chris has a partial solution to this in asking teachers to sign up to receive notifications when their spreadsheet is updated). I like using the form, but not the spreadsheet.
I’ve also tried using OmniFocus to keep track of both whom I need to visit and what feedback I provided. OmniFocus is a great task management app, and I rely on it to keep track of my to-dos, but I’ve found it’s not great for holding large amounts of text. You can type a note into a task, and even email it, but the resulting email is oddly formatted (so that the recipient, if also an OmniFocus user, can add the task to their to-do list), and adding lots of text can slow down your database loading and synching.
Hitting My Stride
However, OmniFocus shines when it comes to keeping track of whom you’ve visited. You can set recurring tasks, re-order them, and set reminders. Today I made a list of all the teachers in my school, and when I visit a teacher’s room and give feedback, I drag that teacher’s name to the bottom of the list so I know I’ll get to everyone. When it’s time to pick a room to visit, I look at my list and see who’s at the top.
So far, I’ve found Evernote to be the best app for taking notes and emailing feedback. I already use Evernote as my virtual file cabinet, so it’s easy to use it for this additional purpose. I take notes in Evernote (starting a new note for each classroom visit), then email them to the teacher directly from Evernote. Evernote works even if you’re offline, so you can take notes even if you’re out of wifi range, and they’ll send/sync when you’re back online. To make it easy to find all the notes for a particular teacher, I add two tags to each note: the word “feedback,” and the teacher’s name. A bonus is that Evernote syncs via Evernote’s servers, so your notes are always backed up and accessible from your computer.
One more essential tool: the Bluetooth keyboard. This $69 accessory almost turns the iPad into a laptop, but with 12 hours of battery life and half the bulk of even the smallest netbook. The keyboard multiplies my typing speed tenfold, and makes it viable to give substantive feedback directly from the classroom.
Workflow that Works
Using these tools, here’s the workflow I’ve developed: Whenever I can get into classrooms, I visit the room at the top of my list (in OmniFocus), take notes in Evernote, email them to the teacher, and move the teacher’s name to the bottom of my list in OmniFocus (I can also add the date to the note field in OmniFocus so I can quickly see all the dates I’ve visited the room).
So far this year, my schedule has been unpredictable enough that I haven’t scheduled informal walkthroughs, but if you can consistently make time, it’s OK to put them on your calendar. I would caution you to avoid using your calendar to motivate yourself, and have a way to ensure that, even if you miss a planned visit, you’ll still get to every classroom without too much reworking of your schedule. In other words, I wouldn’t recommend adding specific classes to visit to your calendar at specific times, because if you get interrupted and can’t make it to the class, you won’t want to completely redo your schedule. That’s why I keep an ordered list of classes to visit in OmniFocus, and just move each class to the bottom of the list when I visit.
I prefer to send feedback via email in most cases (since teachers can respond at their leisure if necessary), but some feedback is best given in person. If your walkthrough leads you to the conclusion that a personal conversation is in order, you can email the teacher from your iPad to set up the meeting, and put the meeting on your iPad’s calendar.
If you’ve been thinking of getting an iPad but have questions, please ask in the comments. See also my Essential iPad Guide for Principals.
How do you give feedback when you do walkthroughs?
Yesterday I spent the day at another elementary school in my district as part of our district’s Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) for principals. The five of us spent the morning identifying a problem of practice and visiting classrooms, and spent the afternoon debriefing and identifying implications for our work.
It’s always stimulating to talk with other principals and learn how they lead their schools. I got great ideas for what I could do in my school.
At the end of the day, though, I was exhausted by possibility. There is so much I could be doing, and so much I’m not doing, yet I don’t seem to have much room to add more to my plate.
This leads to a painful question: Am I doing the right work?
I always stay busy, but is it with the right things? Should I be ignoring some of what I’m currently paying attention to, in order to focus on something else? How can I decide?
One obvious way to decide what to focus on is to listen to others. What issues are urgent to teachers, parents, students?
The problem with allowing the squeaky wheel to get the grease, though, is that it’s not always the right wheel. Perhaps the issues that are coming up are not really the most important.
Learning from my peers (other elementary principals) forces me to ask the question “What am I not addressing in my school?” If an issue will require uncomfortable discussion or serious change, perhaps no one will bring it up. Perhaps it’s up to me.
Part of a leader’s job is to create and uphold a vision for the organization. This means speaking boldly, bringing up the important issues that we might not otherwise face, and making sure they get the attention they deserve.
How do you decide what deserves your time and attention? How you identify the “right” work?
In many districts, the annual evaluation process for teachers involves setting both student growth goals and professional growth goals. I’ve found that professional growth goals are often fuzzier, and the administrator’s role in ensuring that the goal is meaningful and challenging is even more important. What do you look for?
1. Strong personal commitment
A professional growth goal should be something at the top of the teacher’s list – in other words, it should matter to them personally. Otherwise, the evaluation process will be nothing more than a formality.
2. Connection to school and team goals
A professional growth goal should have relevance to the broader work of the school and the teacher’s teammates. While everyone has their particular interests, the work you are supervising should have specific relevance to your school’s current areas of focus, and should involve relevant colleagues.
3. Well-defined evidence
It should be easy to determine, at the end of the year, whether the goal was accomplished or not. For example, goals such as “I will get better at…” are incomplete, because they don’t give clear criteria that enable the evaluator and the evaluated to agree on whether the goal was met. (A student growth goal should be measurable, but professional growth goals shouldn’t necessarily include quantitative measures.)
4. Growth orientation
The goal should emphasize (as the title suggests) professional growth, not just the completion of an agreed-upon project such as rearranging desks for group work.
It might seem that #1 and #2 are in tension, as are #3 and #4. A good professional growth goal, though, can meet all of these criteria and provide a meaningful challenge and direction for the teacher’s efforts for the year.
Here are a few examples:
Goal: Increase skill in using writing workshop instructional model, with particular attention to modeling the writing process using my own work. By the end of the year, I will model three lessons for my grade-level team, and will develop a portfolio of my own writing that I have revised in front of students.
Goal: Increase collaborative learning in math by creating project-based lessons to allow students to work in groups. By the end of the year, I will develop, teach, and evaluate 6 lessons, and share them with our school’s math council for feedback.
Goal: Increase positive communication with parents of struggling students. By the end of the year, I will make at least 5 positive contacts with my 10 lowest-performing students’ families, and will update the student support team on their progress.
How do you help your staff develop meaningful professional growth goals?
Is education a science, and if so, what kind of science? What implications does this have for instructional leadership?
We typically think of physics as the ideal science – it is consistent, universal, and predictable. An experiment conducted in France can be replicated in Mexico or the United States, and the same results can be expected. If teaching is a science, why isn’t there a similar level of predictability?
This question has enormous implications for both instructional leaders and for policymakers. In the October 2009 issue of Educational Researcher (AERA), Pamela A. Moss, D. C. Phillips, Frederick D. Erickson, Robert E. Floden, Patti A. Lather, and Barbara L. Schneider take up the question of quality in education research in their article “Learning From Our Differences: A Dialogue Across Perspectives on Quality in Education Research” (38: 501-517).
Erickson explains why educational research is constantly (and unfruitfully) compared with natural science research:
The reason social science has suffered from physics envy is the assumption that the social world is basically like the natural world. What makes physics and chemistry work is an assumption of the uniformity of nature—a unit of force, or of heat, or a chemical element is the same in Britain as it is in France or on the face of the moon or in the most far-flung galaxy.
In the 19th century, as the social sciences were developing (looking over their shoulders at the mathematical physics of Galileo and Newton), there was a serious argument over whether social sciences should model themselves after the natural sciences or try for something else.
Adherents of what became the meaning-oriented approaches to social inquiry, the hermeneutical approaches described by Moss (2005b), took a position that meaning differences made such a difference between one social setting and another that there was in effect a nonuniformity of nature in social life (as I called it in my 1986 article on qualitative research on teaching; see Erickson, 1986). The notion was that it is local meaning that is causal in social life, and local meaning varies fundamentally (albeit sometimes subtly) from one setting to another. One of the consequences of this notion is deep distrust of the possibility of any generalization at all in social research…
Close descriptive study of a setting, based on extended participant observation and interviewing, doesn’t try to generalize directly from that setting to others…what happens in Miss Smith’s first grade is fundamentally different as a local ecology (subtly different, despite surface appearances of similarity) from what happens in Miss Jones’s room across the hall in the same school building. (Parents know this—that’s why they fight to get their kids into Miss Smith’s room, away from Miss Jones.) Nor is what happens in Miss Smith’s room quite the same as what happens in Miss Robinson’s room in the next school district. It follows that policy evidence for “scaling up”—trying to get everybody to adopt “best practices”—no matter how well produced technically—just doesn’t tell us what we need to know as educators. Best practices, as specific behaviors, don’t travel intact across the hall in one school building, let alone across the country. (p. 508, emphasis added)
Erickson’s extended argument implies what we, as instructional leaders, have long known: good teaching can’t be measured simply by checklists of “best practices.” Some of our best teachers don’t use the best practice du jour, and some of our most compliant adopters of new best practices are unable to pull everything together to create powerful and coherent learning experiences for students.
This suggests that instructional leadership is going to remain a labor-intensive, and inherently local, endeavor. If we want to improve the quality of teaching and learning in every classroom, we will need to be in every classroom. We will need to know the research, but the research will not save us. It may give us direction and help us understand what is taking place in our classrooms, but it does not (and cannot) provide a recipe for high-quality instruction.
In order to understand what is happening in a classroom and whether it’s good for kids, we need to adopt what Elmore (in Instructional Rounds) calls a descriptive-analytical-predictive approach. Briefly, we must ask three questions:
- What is taking place in this classroom?
- What dynamics does this create?
- What learning do we expect this set of dynamics to cause?
After asking these questions, we can consider what next steps will improve the teaching and learning taking place in the classroom.
How do you see social science research influencing your work as an instructional leader?
Linked below are the documents from my presentation at the WASA/AWSP 2009 Summer Conference in Spokane, WA. Use the contact form if you have any questions or would like more information. Thanks to everyone who participated.