Wednesday / May 22

The End of The Instructional Leader

The instructional leader is a relic – an outdated caricature that never really existed.

Note the emphasis on “the” and “leader.”

Instructional leadership is alive and well – not to mention more necessary than at any point in history.

Ask any great leader—I asked a number of them for my forthcoming book, Leading Together: Teachers and Administrators Improving Student Outcomesand they will tell you that it is more about the leadership work than the leader. The work determines the leader. But they also know people matter because there is no leadership without influence and no influence without others.

If you are leading alone, you are not leading—you are wandering.

We understand this intuitively, so why do policymakers keep talking about “the instructional leader” as if there is a singular force courageously leading the educational charge? Why do we equate administrator with leader and teacher with “Just-a-Teacher” as if that is almost a title?

Sample exchange:

“What do you do?”

“I am Just-a-Teacher.”

The “Just-a-Teacher” seems to be saying that being a teacher is something less than other roles in education. This needs to stop.

We need school leaders – administrators, teachers, and students – who have the expertise needed to do the necessary leadership work.

Much has been written about distributed and shared leadership. This is good. I would like to offer one more term so that I can define it without the baggage of others’ connotations.

Collective leadership.

Collective leadership encompasses the practices through which teachers and administrators influence colleagues, policymakers, and others to improve teaching and learning.

Collective leadership is about more than task delegation to make administrative work more manageable. It is about more than an administrator magnanimously sharing power.

The type of leadership we need requires the collective expertise of entire school building. Great administrators have knowledge of finance, instruction, school law, management, policy, and organizations that is essential for school improvement. Teachers have expertise that is at the heart of the technical core of the educational enterprise – the art and science of teaching and learning.

If our goal is to improve teaching and learning, how could teachers and students not be involved in leadership?

Here are three ideas for how we could improve student outcomes through collective leadership:


In order to grow together and find solutions rooted in the classroom, administrators and teachers should co-teach. What if classroom visits by administrators were more than walkthroughs or formal evaluations? What if administrators co-taught on a somewhat regular basis with teachers? Even if this were only a few times a semester, this would be a start. All of the great administrators I know say they miss teaching. Here is a chance to get back to their first love and develop leadership and build credibility side-by-side with other teachers.


One high school principal told me that his philosophy of leadership was to “do his absolute level-best to say ‘yes’ to as many good ideas from teachers and students as possible.” The ideas were theirs. Teachers and students along with the administrative team wrote the School Improvement Plan every year. The principal’s greatest challenge was bringing coherence to all of the ideas that effervesced from classrooms – not a small task. This kind of co-leadership is essential to collective leadership.


Is it working for kids?

What difference does this make?

How could we do better?

These are the kinds of unblinking questions we have to ask as we interrogate our practices. If we are going to co-teach, co-lead, and let innovative ideas arise from the classroom, we have to be diligent about collecting and evaluating evidence. This can include, but is certainly not limited to, test scores. Some of the most powerful conversations we can have as education leaders in a building are about the kinds of evidence that we want to collect to determine whether or not we are achieving our desired outcomes. We need collective expertise to know how to best determine whether or not we are meeting our goals.

Let’s keep the instructional leader in the sepia-soaked past.

Our students deserve collective leadership.

How do you see collective leadership transforming education?

Written by

Jonathan Eckert was a public school teacher outside of Chicago and Nashville for 12 years. He earned his doctorate in education at Vanderbilt University and served as a U.S. Department of Education Teaching Ambassador Fellow in both the Bush and Obama administrations. Currently, he is an associate professor of education at Wheaton College where he prepares teachers and returns regularly to teach in the district where his career began. In addition to leading professional development across the country, he has published numerous peer-reviewed and practitioner articles on teaching effectiveness and education policy. Jon is the author of  Leading Together and The Novice Advantage: Fearless Practice for Every Teacher.

Latest comments

  • Jon: I agree with so much of what you have written. At the same time, although the principal cannot be the example and end-all of everything, so much research does support a building principal making a strong impact on student learning when he/she is the instructional leader (a “master” teacher who knows pedagogy well and can participate as a “master” teacher in a shared leadership approach leading, learning, and working cooperatively). John Hattie’s research on Effective Learning recognizes the critical importance of a capable instructional leader, not just a capable administrator. Yes, let’s lead together, but let’s also hire principals who know instruction well and have proven themselves in the classroom to have a positive effect on student learning. Thank you for your article!

    • Mary,

      Thanks for the insight. John Hattie’s work is so helpful and, yes, we need great principals. In the book that comes out in November, I have more time to flesh out the way instruction leadership plays out in some remarkable schools. Great instructional leaders know that the work is not about them and they do all of the things mentioned in the blog and in your comment in addition to bringing coherence to school efforts. I am really just pushing for “leadership” that focuses on the work that has to be done as opposed to a single individual or personality. Additionally, I want to bring the collective expertise of teachers and administrators together to lead. To your point, for this to happen, we need humble servant leaders who create environments where leadership work flourishes. I hope our paths cross in the Chicagoland area!

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