Saturday / March 2

The Best Instructional Leaders Are the Best Learners

Instructional Leaders

Leadership growth doesn’t get started until leaders do. To get anywhere, leaders have to do something! Leaders must move…take action…mobilize themselves, his or her time and energies in strategic, observable, measurable, and ultimately impactful ways.

Sounds easy enough on the surface. But, leaders get paralyzed by “over planning.” They freeze up getting “prepared” to grow. It seems as though they want to figure out the answer before they start working on the problem. Educators, on average, like to do their learning first then put it into action.

Instructional leadership growth however calls for a more freewheeling approach. Instructional leaders must operate on the basis of learning as he or she goes, not before they go. It’s a matter of learning “just-in-time” (so you can do something with the learning) rather than learning “just-in-case,” (just-in-case you ever need to use the learning).

“Getting ready” often gives a leader the feeling of progress, but it’s usually a postponement maneuver that retards personal growth. “Getting going” is what puts instructional leaders further down the road to impact. Michael Fullan (2010) champions the notion of getting going in his book Motion Leadership: The Skinny On Becoming Change Savvy. Fullan believes that for leaders to tackle ambitious goals they must weave together a combination of skill acquisition, a sense of camaraderie, and “an increasingly energizing force of motion in action feeding on itself.”

Perhaps the best illustration of “Getting going” is watching a child with a computing device (e.g., computer, IPad, smart phone, etc.). He or she has little patience for “learning” before getting started. They are eager to see what it can do, thirsty to know how it works and they go all out, dive right in to learn how to use it. They use an action-based strategy of learning just-in-time, which enables them to master the device a lot quicker than most adults who are also attempting to learn to use the device.

Instructional leaders’ active pursuit of his or her professional development goals provides them a continuous stream of feedback. Actually doing things—trying out different leadership approaches—gives leaders real-time data on what works and more importantly, what doesn’t work so they can make adjustments to his or her practice. Purposeful action is the secret. Constant movement keeps leaders supplied with fresh data. Forward motion feeds leaders new insights.

Leaders who give themselves permission to learn just-in-time understand the price they must pay: They must become more willing to make mistakes. More trials mean leaders can expect more errors. Going forward before leaders have everything figured out guarantees a higher failure rate. This means that instructional leaders have to be willing to quickly learn from his or her failures as well as their successes and to find ways to try out new leadership behaviors without hesitation.

The payoff comes in the rapid learning curve. Forward motion offers the fastest education instructional leaders can find. But forward motion doing what and in what direction is a dilemma for most leaders?

The Instructional Leadership Mantra Is Focus, Focus, Focus

You’ve certainly heard the real estate agents’ mantra, “It’s location, location, location!” What does this refrain mean? And, what possesses real estate agents to repeat it three times? Simply put, it means identical homes can increase or decrease in value due to its location. It’s repeated three times for emphasis so you will remember this important investment maxim. It’s the number one rule in real estate, and it’s often the most overlooked rule.

The number one rule in effective instructional leadership is focus, focus, focus! Like the previous mantra, it means that similar leadership practice can either be successful or unsuccessful in its impact based on the focus of the leader. Leaders with a sharp focus on a significant few practices will have greater impact than those who are less focused in their leadership practices. Instructional leaders must focus on a few big winner leadership practices. To help describe the concept of identifying and leveraging big winner leadership practices we will draw on a principle taken from the field of total quality management—the Pareto Principle. Let’s apply the Pareto Principle—what’s known as the “80/20 rule”—to your leadership practices.

The “80/20 rule” argument goes something like this: Roughly 80 percent of your leadership impact will come from only 20 percent of your leadership practices. Another way of saying this is that a significant few leadership practices will account for most of your leadership impact. The biggest part of your leadership practices—say approximately 80 percent—will be so much less impactful that they will produce only 20 percent of your effect on learning and student achievement. So, the question is, have you identified those significant few leadership practices that will account for your greatest impact on learning and student achievement?

You won’t get great results simply by staying busy or by being responsible. Or even by trying hard and turning out pretty solid work. It’s not effort or activity that counts, but the impact your leadership practices are having on learning and student achievement. You have to examine your productive hours, and identify what it is that seems to drive your leadership development the most. In particular, what you do, which practices do you engage in that contributes the most to learning and achievement?

These are the power leadership points, the big winner leadership practices. They deserve the lion’s share of your productive hours and energy, because they’ll bring you the most significant results. If you want maximum impact, don’t make the mistake of seeking “balance” in your workday or workweek routine. Rather, rely heavily on the big winner leadership practices to leverage your impact on learning and student achievement. What are these high-leverage leadership practices? According to the research of Robinson, Hohepa, & Lloyd (2009), “the more leaders focus their influence, their learning, and their relationships with teachers on the core business of teaching and learning, the greater their influence on student outcomes.” Essentially the authors determined that these five instructional leadership practices had the greatest impact on student achievement:

  1. Establishing a shared vision/mission, goals, and expectations
  2. Strategic resourcing
  3. Ensuring teacher and staff effectiveness
  4. Leading and participating in teacher/leader learning and development, and
  5. Providing an orderly, safe, and supportive environment

What percent of your day or week are spent directly engaged in these five instructional leadership practices? If you don’t know, do a time audit. Maintain a log of time for one week. Examples of categories you might include are: emails, planning, voice mail responses, reports, professional reading, observing classes, counseling direct reports, parent meetings, staff meetings, community meetings, leadership team meetings, personal time, family time, travel, community service, etc. After collecting at least one full week of daily records, construct a pie chart that reflects your actual time allocation for each category. Compare this to these five leadership practices. Evaluate what changes you need to make to more effectively allocate your time to your big winner leadership practices.

If you want more information on instructional leadership practices that matter the most go to

Written by

Julie Smith is an accomplished author and a former school administrator with more than 35 years of experience in school and district leadership. Follow Julie on Twitter @DrJulie0689.

Raymond Smith is an accomplished author and former high school principal, Director of High School Education, and adjunct professor with more than 34 years of experience in leadership development. Follow Ray on Twitter @DrRLSmith.

Julie and Ray are the authors of Evaluating Instructional Leadership.

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