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North Star

The term “instructional leader” has been in vogue for decades as the desired model for education leaders.

Unfortunately, the term is often more a buzzword than a well-defined set of leadership practices. While it certainly conveys the importance of keeping teaching and learning at the forefront of decision making, most educators struggle to articulate what it means to be an "instructional leader."


Without fully understanding the concept, many school administrators proclaim, “Instructional leadership is my top priority!”

However, a closer look at how they spend their time paints a different picture. While many administrators believe over half of their day is spent "doing" instructional leadership, a study by the Wallace Foundation revealed administrators spend a measly 13 percent of their time engaged in this practice.

Rather than spend time in instructional leadership, many administrators get caught up with administrative tasks, behavior management, and organizational planning. Although they are important aspects of running a school, managerial duties do not provide the same return on investment as instructional leadership.

In Assessing Instructional Leadership Phillip Hallinger and Wen-Chung Wang contend,“Recent syntheses of the literature on educational leadership support the conclusion that … instructional leadership has demonstrated the strongest impact on student learning outcomes.”

Furthermore, in Student Centered Leadership Vivian Robinson argues instructional leadership is "the leadership practice that makes a significant difference to student learning.”

Countless other studies arrive at the same conclusion: School administrators must delegate managerial tasks so they can engage in instructional leadership.


The following is a real-world job description for a principal opening.

"(Our) School District is searching for a new principal. We are seeking candidates who have strong interpersonal and communication skills, maintain high expectations for promoting a culture of excellence, have a passion for working with students and families from diverse backgrounds, and are proven instructional leaders."

Unfortunately, the job posting stops there when it comes to defining instructional leadership.

When we hire new administrators in our school district, we get crystal clear on what we expect from an instructional leader. We provide candidates with our definition of instructional leadership so they are aware of our expectations when applying. Furthermore, during each step of the hiring process, we ask committee members to provide feedback according to the lead-learner description we have developed.

Once an administrator is hired, she is given a set of job expectations and responsibilities. Rather than give her generic leadership standards, we revisit our instructional leadership expectations. Needless to say, new administrators quickly realize where our priorities lie.

Before I share our interpretation of instructional leadership, I would be remiss if I did not mention our definition was inspired by Joe Sanfelippo and Tony Sinanis who do an exceptional job discussing instructional leadership in Hacking Leadership. Many of their ideas are woven into the following:

“For schools to operate at the highest levels, administrators must go beyond the traditional role of school manager and disciplinarian. Rather than govern from their office, administrators must serve as lead learners for the staff and students they lead. Administrators who embrace their instructional leadership role have the greatest impact on student learning.

How do administrators demonstrate instructional leadership?

First, administrators are expected to spend time engaging with students and teachers by being present in classrooms and visible throughout the school community. Administrators nurture healthy, trusting relationships with stakeholders when they listen attentively, lead with optimism, and act as role positive models.

Administrators actively build the confidence of others. They realize when students feel valued, they develop confidence to take risks with their learning. Likewise, when teachers feel trusted, they gain courage to push their students to high levels of learning.

Administrators foster trust by being collaborative. As opposed to making decisions in isolation, they encourage all community members to have a voice. When administrators deliberately seek productive interactions with stakeholders, they collect valuable feedback needed to make decisions that best meet student needs.

Administrators realize communication is the beating heart of school culture. School leaders who are assessable and disseminate information effectively can positively influence the entire school district. Understanding their far-reaching influence, administrators are thoughtful with every message they convey.

Finally, administrators embrace a lead-learner mentality. They model lifelong learning and continually look for opportunities to improve their practice and teach others. By acknowledging they are a work in progress, administrators promote an environment of continuous improvement. Administrators never forget the core business of school is learning - starting with themselves.


School leaders are required to juggle many responsibilities.

To avoid getting caught in the managerial whirlwind, administrators must use instructional leadership as their North Star.



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