My View

Five Steps Up the Instructional Leader Ladder
By LARRY L. NYLAND/School Administrator, August 2019

I had two college degrees as a fledgling map maker when my father took me sailing one day and explained, “Son, it’s time to get a job.” So I took a methods class and did my student teaching. In those days back in ’60s, that qualified you to work as a teacher.

When hired for my first school job, I asked for textbooks to review during the summer break. I was told they were locked up over the summer. The end of August would be soon enough for me to get copies.

As I moved up through the ranks of K-12 education, I learned that principals were expected foremost to keep the doors open and the buses running. Then along came the effective schools research with the idea that good teaching mattered in student outcomes. Good leadership mattered, as well.

So began our quest for school improvement through strong instructional leadership. Over my 48-year career in education, I have observed this professional relationship grow through five steps:

» No. 1: CLASSROOM WALKTHROUGHS. In the beginning, instructional leadership often was equated with walkthroughs. Many of us spent countless hours on 10- or 15-minute classroom visits to advance our own learning.

Looking back, I am amazed at how much I have learned about quality instruction (and how little I once knew early on as a teacher). I now recognize standards, rigor and classroom engagement and much more. The hope was that well-defined practice — and rigorous evaluation — would result in improved teaching and learning. The focus was on growing individual teachers.

» No. 2: FOCUSED PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT. Eventually we realized that all those walkthroughs should improve teacher learning. We learned to look for what teachers were doing well and where we saw need for improvement.

Focused training, we hoped, along with coaching and feedback would improve teaching and learning for the entire school. Good instructional leaders opened sessions, participated in the professional development and facilitated agreements about what would change in classrooms.

» No. 3: COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE. Steps 1 and 2 can be done from the standpoint of the knower, the leader, the boss. But knowing only takes us part way.

Making real gains, we found, required us to become learners and ask good questions. The hope was that professional learning communities would use data to diagnose student needs, teach differently and close gaps.

Recent work by education researcher John Hattie on what he calls “visible learning” highlights the efficacy of teacher teams and collaboration. When we become a community of learners pushing each other to improve, we see greater student progress.

» No. 4: PRINCIPAL LEARNING NETWORKS. These ask principals to learn by doing and to set stretch goals that require inquiry and new learning. Professional networks ask principals to invite colleagues into their building, explain their goals and strategies, and then see what’s happening in classrooms.

We admit that real life is messy, and things don’t go exactly as planned. Colleagues offer suggestions on potential next moves. Only when we are honest about facing the problems can we begin to learn how to find better solutions.

» No. 5: IMPROVEMENT SCIENCE. Looking at data exposes the brutal truth that implicit bias is holding back our students of color. Instructional leadership becomes the voice for the voiceless and commits to eliminate opportunity gaps.

Instructional leaders have the courage to name and own the problem and to identify root causes. They devise strategies. They check the data, and they keep making adjustments until gaps begin to close. This is the science of continuous improvement.

Leadership Impact
Growing instructional leaders helped the Seattle Public Schools, where I worked as superintendent for four years, improve. During my time there, we saw graduation gaps cut in half and suspensions reduced by 40 percent. A study by Stanford University’s Center for Educational Policy Analysis listed Seattle as tied for third among the largest 200 districts in student academic growth between grades 3 and 8.

Leading is learning. Just like students, I need to keep learning, keep growing. I need to grow the capacity of students, teachers, instructional leaders and myself to create the conditions for improved student learning.

LARRY NYLAND, a retired superintendent, is a coach and consultant on school district improvement.