What is "Instructional Leadership?"

Updated: Oct 2

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

Unfortunately, the term is often more a slogan 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 being an instructional leader, a study by the Wallace Foundation revealed administrators spend a measly 13 percent of their time engaged in instructional leadership.

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.

According to Assessing Instructional Leadership, “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 found that instructional leadership was the one leadership practice that made a “significant difference to student learning.”

Without digging into too much research, administrators would be wise to allocate time to instructional leadership while delegating administrative tasks to other staff members.


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 fully aware of our expectations when they apply. 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, they are given a set of job expectations and responsibilities. Rather than give them the run-of-the-mill leadership standards, we revisit our expectations around instructional leadership. 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 manage school from the office, administrators must serve as lead learners for the staff and students they lead. Furthermore, administrators must serve as the instructional leaders of their district.

How do administrators demonstrate these characteristics?

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

Administrators actively build the confidence of others. They realize when students feel valued, they will develop the confidence to take risks with their learning. Likewise, when teachers feel trusted, they will have the 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 members of the school community to have a voice. Administrators are intentional about seeking out productive interactions with all stakeholders, and seek valuable insight and feedback needed to make decisions that best meet the needs of students.

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 must never forget the core business of their schools is learning - starting with themselves.

Finally, administrators realize communication is the beating heart of school culture. They understand high levels of communication will create a significant positive impact on the entire school community. When they communicate in a genuine way, administrators earn trust that contributes to a positive environment. Administrators understand every single communication has a direct impact on the culture in their buildings."


Administrators wear many hats that represent the ever-increasing and complex dimensions of their job. Today, the role is more challenging than ever as school leaders are pulled in many directions throughout the course of the day.

Don't allow yourself to get caught in the managerial whirlwind. Rather, use instructional leadership as your North Star.

Copyright © 2019 by Dr. Jared Smith LLC.  Specializing in Leadership, Education, and Personal Growth.