Principal as Instructional Leader: Basic Yet Important Cautions for New Principals
Give Teachers What They Need
Instructional leadership is not theory vs. practice. Rather, think of it as theory with practice. A conscientious principal recognizes the needs of their teachers. Some teachers need to understand the “why” before the “how”, and some just need a place to start, i.e. the “how”. A good instructional leader provides both, because both are important to growing teachers’ best practice capacity. For example, if a teacher abandons the archaic practice of the weekly spelling list simply because their new principal asked them to, the teacher’s best practice capacity hasn’t grown. However, if the principal takes the time to grow the faculty’s understanding of “why” spelling lists are not best instructional practice, teachers’ capacity for creating meaningful lessons across the curriculum is expanded. When a teacher understands why learning spelling in context, across several platforms, across various content leads to real learning, that teaching skill is transferable to other learning standards.
Therefore, the caution for new principals is two-fold. First, taking too much time to build the understanding of theory before implementing best practice sacrifices precious learning time for students. Second, jumping in and directing teachers to abandon a lesser practice, such as a weekly spelling list, can have isolated instructional impact.
Lastly, don’t forget that adage; if you take something out of a teachers’ instructional toolkit, replace it. Model the best practice you are asking your teachers to implement. Keeping with our spelling example, model how to teach spelling patterns across multiple texts by having teachers read short articles and locate the spelling patterned from the model lesson. Pull up the daily news online and have teachers use laser pointers to find examples of the spelling rule in context. As you walk classrooms, video examples of teachers attempting to use the highlighted best practice in their lessons and share with faculty. Take pictures of students work samples with captions reading, “Ms. Teachers’ class practices identifying phonics patterns during guided reading”, or “Mr. Instructor has students locate this week’s phonics patter in word problems during math class”.
By positively highlighting teachers’ attempts to replace a lesser instructional practice with best instructional practice, the culture of the staff begins to change and resistance is defused.
Give Parents What They Need
A second caution for new principals as you lead your campus into best instructional practice. Many lesser practices have been around for decades, and often our parents struggle with letting go of them as much as some teachers struggle. Imagine as a parent you have had three children in Ms. Teacher’s second grade class, and for some reason this year you did not receive the spelling list your first two children received. This can be unsettling for parents, especially if they are not prepared ahead of time.
New principals do yourself a big favor, communicate with your parents as you introduce instructional change. Assume nothing. Work with your grade level chairs to create a back to school and a monthly newsletter that explains what will be taught and how it will be assessed; link research articles to lend credibility to the change if needed. Use this platform to give parents heads up about why things may be a little different this year. Inform your PTA about your instructional focus. This will give you a mouthpiece in the community and a buffer as needed.
Lastly, prepare your teachers to respond to parent concerns in a supportive, non-defensive manner. Teachers should not have to feel as though they are caught in the middle or defending a principal’s new initiative. Rather, if a teacher can articulate to a parent the “why” behind the practice and present the best practice as their own, most parents will embrace the change. It’s important to prepare your teachers ahead of time for these difficult discussions with parents. The more prepared teachers feel, the more comfortable they will be when parents express concerns over changes.