(Originally posted on Eduleadership.)

By Justin Baeder

What does it mean to be an instructional leader?

Too many definitions contrast instructional leadership with “mere” management, as if the management work that administrators do isn’t related to teaching and learning. I believe that it’s all connected, and that an effective instructional leader is also an effective building manager who ensures that everyone has what they need to succeed in teaching and learning.

Instructional leadership is more than being a school leader who focuses on teaching and learning—though that’s certainly crucial. We’ve all known administrators who focused too sharply on instruction, and lacked the leadership perspective necessary for leading a healthy school culture. Effective leaders are balanced in their focus, but there’s more to consider.

As administrators, we’re not the only leaders in our schools—far from it.

Formal staff leaders, like teachers who serve on committees, are leaders, but so are teachers who strive to make things better, and who take initiative even if it’s not noticed.

Students, too, can be instructional leaders, setting goals, working toward standards, and contributing to a culture of excellence.

We need to define instructional leadership broadly enough to include all of its manifestations in our schools.

Even so, what do high-performance instructional leaders actually do?

Three Key Practices

High-performance instructional leaders—whether they’re formal leaders like administrators, informal teacher leaders, or students—engage in three key practices.

Think about what each of these practices might look like for administrators, teachers, other staff, and students:

  • Listening with the Language of Learning
  • Making Decisions in Dialogue
  • Building Systems for High Performance

Let’s take a closer look at each of these practices.

Listening with the Language of Learning

As administrators, we’re trained to tell—to give feedback, to set expectations, to delegate tasks, to communicate a vision—but we’re not conditioned to listen.

As anyone who’s ever been in a relationship can affirm, listening matters. It serves as a sign of caring, and as the saying goes:

Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.
—Attributed to Teddy Roosevelt

But listening also matters in a very practical sense, because it provides information. Leaders who insulate themselves from critical information quickly start to make bad decisions.

And yet it’s not enough to listen to whatever anyone has to say, because we’ll hear a great deal that could take us off-course.

High-performance instructional leaders listen with a particular set of ears, attuned to a specific, shared framework.

One such framework is your teacher evaluation and growth model, whether it’s based on Charlotte Danielson’s work, a state framework, or a model developed locally.

A shared instructional framework identifies effective practice and distinguishes it from ineffective practice, as clearly and specifically as possible.

When you have a shared vocabulary for professional practice, you can listen for and respond to that vocabulary in a way that advances practice.

This is very different from using jargon as a way of implying consensus. Phrases like “what’s best for kids” and “research-based practice” are often used to end discussions and silence disagreement, without offering any substance or doing anything to build instructional leadership capacity.

For students, listening with the language of learning involves knowing and working toward standards, whether those are state standards, content-area standards specific to a course, or other agreed-upon aims. When students know what they’re working toward, they’re able to take greater ownership of the learning process, and more able to contribute to the organization’s instructional leadership capacity.

Making Decisions In Dialogue

Leaders are called upon to make decisions all day, every day. And yet, the leader who makes decisions autocratically will soon burn through their staff’s goodwill and trust.

There is no single best type of decision-making that should be used in all circumstances. Some situations require speed and decisiveness—how to handle a safety crisis, for example—while others demand careful discussion, deliberation, and consensus-building.

Still other decisions fall somewhere in between on the spectrum from autocratic to inclusive. If there’s no single best approach, what should leaders do?

High-performance instructional leaders operate with an extraordinary degree of transparency about decision-making. They develop, with staff, a matrix delineating the method by which different types of decisions will be made, and specifying whether and how everyone will be involved, consulted, or informed.

Wise leaders also recognize that some situations that appear to call for a decision are in fact polarities, in which there exist healthy, dynamic tensions that need to be managed carefully. This, too, calls for dialogue and transparency in order to create clarity.

Then, once the situation has been grasped, managed, and communicated, high-performance instructional leaders keep solved problems solved by creating systems that ensure effectiveness, efficiency, and consistency.

Building Systems for High Performance

Sustained high performance involves three factors:

  • Strategy determines our effectiveness
  • Tools increase our efficiency
  • Habits create consistency and build the muscle we need for high performance

I call this the High Performance Triangle:

While implementing sound strategy consistently is an obvious goal, we often ignore the question of efficiency. If we’re willing to work hard, why bother thinking about efficiency?

At its core, inefficiency is waste—wasted resources, and wasted opportunities.

If teachers are scoring formative assessments by hand instead of taking advantage of their BYOD program to allow technology to help, they’re missing crucial opportunities to obtain timely feedback about their teaching.

If a principal is taking handwritten notes on a legal pad, and not keeping organized, digital documentation of classroom visits, the observation and evaluation process will achieve less than it otherwise could.

But when sound strategies are articulated clearly, implemented efficiently with the right tools, and installed as personal or organizational habits, the capacity for high-performance instructional leadership emerges.

It’s a story that has played out in countless schools around the world. It’s a story that can unfold in your school or district.

If you’re interested in bringing this message to your instructional leaders through an onsite or virtual presentation, please contact me to discuss how we might work together.

To learn more about high performance instructional leadership, sign up for the free 21-Day Instructional Leadership Challenge.


Justin Baeder is Director of The Principal Center and host of Principal Center Radio. He helps school administrators increase their impact on student learning through the High-Performance Instructional Leadership Network. Follow Justin on Twitter at @eduleadership