Empowering Principals: Bringing Clarity to the Role of Instructional Leader

October 22, 2020

Empowering Principals: Bringing Clarity to the Role of Instructional Leader

Above: Southport High School, Indiana, Principal Brian Knight has a roadmap for setting teachers and students on a clear path for the future. (Courtesy Perry Township Schools)

This is the second part of a multipart series of essays that NIET is releasing this fall about the role of principals as instructional leaders.

Principals genuinely want to be instructional leaders, but they typically are not given a clear roadmap for how to do that among the many competing priorities and demands of the job. Guidance around exactly what principals should do as they visit classrooms, how they should supervise instruction, or how to establish the most effective visible presence is largely nonexistent. Compounding the challenge is the limited amount of time – researchers estimate it is less than 12% – that principals spend on activities related to instruction. Simply put: principals need support in all aspects of instructional leadership – and they need it now more than ever as they navigate supporting educators in virtual and hybrid settings.

A first step is creating a roadmap and a clear understanding of what is expected of a principal as an instructional leader. This should begin with principal leadership standards that emphasize growth, providing detailed, clear descriptions of the ways that principals engage in instructional leadership and build the capacity of others. These standards can inform the principal's job description, the interview process, and create consistency across coaching, professional learning, and evaluation. Clearly defined standards get principals and district leaders on the same page with a common vision and a shared language that describes expectations for principals around the instructional leadership aspects of their role. Better communicating expectations also helps principals to see ways that they can increase the time they spend on instructional leadership.

I appreciate the standards because they take some of the mystery out of it while leaving flexibility in how you personally approach things.
Amy Whittington, Pre-K-6 Principal, Central Decatur School Community School District, Iowa

Creating a Common Language and Expectations

Research-based leadership standards provide principals with a level of detail and specificity that is often lacking in the principal job description, coaching, or evaluation tools.

"When I became a principal, there was no guidebook. It's like, here are the keys to the school, go start school. I thought, I have to build a schedule, I have to hire people, what does this look like?" said Amy Whittington, the pre-K-6 principal in Central Decatur Community School District located in Leon, Iowa. "I appreciate the standards because they take some of the mystery out of it while leaving flexibility in how you personally approach things. The standards don't say, for example, that to be a great principal you need to have a staff meeting every morning to get everyone fired up. It is never going to be that specific, and it shouldn't be, because it depends on your local context."

Shifting the Role of Supervisors from Compliance to Support

By investing the time to build a shared language around strong instructional leadership and what that looks like in various aspects of a principal's practice, districts begin to shift the focus away from compliance toward reflection and learning.  

During the 2019-20 school year, Tangipahoa Parish School System in Louisiana piloted the NIET Principal Standards Rubric, which is an example of a research-based set of leadership standards. This resource put principals and their supervisors on the same page about expectations.

"From the get-go, the beginning of the year meeting between my supervisor and me was more focused and clear. It seemed less compliance-oriented and more meaningful and intentional," said Principal Bobby Matthews of Greenville Park Leadership Academy in Tangipahoa. "The structure of the goal-setting conversation with the Principal Standards Rubric provided me with a sense of clarity that I have not felt in quite some time. The support that I received from my supervisor did not seem like we were going through the motions, but our conversation was focused and evidence-based, and it prompted me to reflect on focus areas that seemed more intentional than previous goals that I set on my own in the past."

By monitoring and actively supporting the quality of collaboration between principals and their supervisor, districts can empower supervisors to coach principals around specific actions to foster growth and success and more clearly describe what exemplary performance looks like.

The support I received from my supervisor did not seem like we were going through the motions. Our conversation was focused and evidence-based, and prompted me to reflect on focus areas.
Bobby Matthews, Principal, Greenville Park Leadership Academy, Tangipahoa Parish School System, Louisiana

Defining How to Lead Instruction

One of the most important areas of focus for principals this year is strengthening teacher instructional capacity. NIET's senior advisor and principal coach, Teddy Broussard, says in his second "Teddy Talk," "In order for principals to build capacity in others, he or she must first be skillful in their own practices, including the new set of tools, resources, processes, and teaching strategies that are necessary for our students to be successful this school year." For example, principals can support teachers to strengthen instruction through collaborative practices that can be used during in-person or virtual instruction:

  1. Creating collaborative opportunities for teachers to strengthen instructional practice by examining student work and student learning

  2. Developing a common sense of purpose by providing meaningful opportunities for teachers to contribute and inform decisions

  3. Monitoring professional learning and ensure it follows a logical continuum that addresses the specific needs of teachers and their students

By describing leadership practices across a range of levels of expertise, the standards help principals to reflect on their own level of practice and the specific actions they can take to improve and grow.  

Focusing on Growth and Capacity Building

Many times, coaching is not connected to standards or expectations for principals. Supervisors may coach philosophically around broad practices or focus primarily on helping to solve immediate problems, which is important, but that approach misses the opportunity to plan ahead and set goals or to establish routines and strategies that will directly further a principal's work as an instructional leader.

Shared understanding of leadership standards as a framework for growth creates a foundation for conversations about practice and improvement.

"The principal standards allow me to focus on the areas that will impact our school success in the most effective ways," said Principal Michele Smith of Pierceton Elementary in Whitko Community Schools, Indiana. "Yes, it is daunting. Yes, it is overwhelming at times. But now I have direction and a tool that focuses my reflection on things that will have the biggest impact on our students and teachers. It is easy to get off track and spend time on things that pull us away from high-impact actions. Whenever I feel the wheels spinning (or coming off!), I get my head back into the standards. It keeps me focused and allows me to move toward growth and success, one step at a time."

Clear expectations in specific areas of practice enable each principal to reflect on their own practice and what they need to grow. This mirrors the work principals are doing to better support teachers, as described by Brian Knight, principal at Southport High School in Perry Township, Indiana: "A lot of my focus, and that of my leadership team, is on individuals – making growth plans for each person in order to continue to stretch them and build their capacity. That is what I need as a leader as well." Using principal standards as a tool for growth makes clear where there are gaps and areas for improvement as well as what are specific strengths to build on.   

Now I have direction and a tool that focuses my reflection on things that will have the biggest impact on our students and teachers.
Michele Smith, Principal, Pierceton Elementary School, Whitko Community Schools, Indiana

Conclusion

To grow as instructional leaders, principals need a common language, clear expectations, and examples of effective behaviors and strategies. They need a roadmap as they visit classrooms, supervise and provide feedback to teachers on instruction, and establish an effective visible presence.

Principals also need a coach that can help them reach that next level. Encouraging supervisors to support principals in focusing on continuous improvement is essential in order for principals to reflect on their own areas for learning. Teddy's Talk encourages principals to ask their supervisor to be at their school more frequently as a visible supporter and partner in the work, to model reflective practices themselves, and establish collaborative learning opportunities for all principals in the district – so that they can grow together.

A lot of my focus, and that of my leadership team, is on individuals – making growth plans for each person in order to continue to stretch them and build their capacity. That is what I need as a leader as well.
Brian Knight, Principal, Southport High School, Perry Township Schools, Indiana

Districts can help principals to become stronger instructional leaders by investing time in the development of a common language and understanding of what strong instructional leadership looks like across the many aspects of the principal's role, diving into the specific actions that effective principals use to build teacher instructional capacity, and ensuring that principal supervisors are prepared to support principals to grow and improve by visiting schools more frequently as partners in the work. This kind of clarity and modeling is always key – and it will only be more important as virtual and hybrid learning continues. 

For more in the principal series, read the first essay, "Empowering Principals: Three Ways Principal Supervisors Can Support Principals as Instructional Leaders this Fall – Whether In Person or Virtual."