George Lucas Educational Foundation

Principal as Instructional Leader: Basic Yet Important Cautions for New Principals

Principal as Instructional Leader: Basic Yet Important Cautions for New Principals

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Give Teachers What They Need

Instructional leadership is not theory vs. practice. Rather, think of it as theory with practice. A conscientious principal recognizes the needs of their teachers. Some teachers need to understand the “why” before the “how”, and some just need a place to start, i.e. the “how”. A good instructional leader provides both, because both are important to growing teachers’ best practice capacity. For example, if a teacher abandons the archaic practice of the weekly spelling list simply because their new principal asked them to, the teacher’s best practice capacity hasn’t grown. However, if the principal takes the time to grow the faculty’s understanding of “why” spelling lists are not best instructional practice, teachers’ capacity for creating meaningful lessons across the curriculum is expanded. When a teacher understands why learning spelling in context, across several platforms, across various content leads to real learning, that teaching skill is transferable to other learning standards.

Therefore, the caution for new principals is two-fold. First, taking too much time to build the understanding of theory before implementing best practice sacrifices precious learning time for students. Second, jumping in and directing teachers to abandon a lesser practice, such as a weekly spelling list, can have isolated instructional impact.

Lastly, don’t forget that adage; if you take something out of a teachers’ instructional toolkit, replace it. Model the best practice you are asking your teachers to implement. Keeping with our spelling example, model how to teach spelling patterns across multiple texts by having teachers read short articles and locate the spelling patterned from the model lesson. Pull up the daily news online and have teachers use laser pointers to find examples of the spelling rule in context. As you walk classrooms, video examples of teachers attempting to use the highlighted best practice in their lessons and share with faculty. Take pictures of students work samples with captions reading, “Ms. Teachers’ class practices identifying phonics patterns during guided reading”, or “Mr. Instructor has students locate this week’s phonics patter in word problems during math class”.

By positively highlighting teachers’ attempts to replace a lesser instructional practice with best instructional practice, the culture of the staff begins to change and resistance is defused.

Give Parents What They Need

A second caution for new principals as you lead your campus into best instructional practice. Many lesser practices have been around for decades, and often our parents struggle with letting go of them as much as some teachers struggle. Imagine as a parent you have had three children in Ms. Teacher’s second grade class, and for some reason this year you did not receive the spelling list your first two children received. This can be unsettling for parents, especially if they are not prepared ahead of time.

New principals do yourself a big favor, communicate with your parents as you introduce instructional change. Assume nothing. Work with your grade level chairs to create a back to school and a monthly newsletter that explains what will be taught and how it will be assessed; link research articles to lend credibility to the change if needed. Use this platform to give parents heads up about why things may be a little different this year. Inform your PTA about your instructional focus. This will give you a mouthpiece in the community and a buffer as needed.

Lastly, prepare your teachers to respond to parent concerns in a supportive, non-defensive manner. Teachers should not have to feel as though they are caught in the middle or defending a principal’s new initiative. Rather, if a teacher can articulate to a parent the “why” behind the practice and present the best practice as their own, most parents will embrace the change. It’s important to prepare your teachers ahead of time for these difficult discussions with parents. The more prepared teachers feel, the more comfortable they will be when parents express concerns over changes.

This post was created by a member of Edutopia's community. If you have your own #eduawesome tips, strategies, and ideas for improving education, share them with us.

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Dr. Kendra Strange's picture
Dr. Kendra Strange
Principal | Achievement Consultant | Curriculum Specialist

After reading this post, a friend reminded me of a tip that really helps with reluctant parents when working to improve campus achievement. Many parents don't fancy the term tutorial or remediation, but when we use the word enrichment we can often gain support more quickly.
Dr. Kendra Strange

Lynn Taylor's picture

I appreciate your point about prepping parents when long standing instructional practices change. As an elementary principal attempting to roll out balanced literacy at a campus, I recall parents clinging to the spelling list as if it was life itself. Good insights - thanks for sharing .

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Making a major change can be tricky. Are your teachers fully on board with the new approach? (Balanced literacy is great by the way!) If so, then I would use several ways to inform parents. I suggest a short note home or section in a school newsletter, well before the end of THIS year. It could highlight a couple of basic changes for the upcoming school year like word work or reading/writing workshop. It should be short and sweet but with a catchy headline. If you have a email or text system you could also use that to send the same message. Remember, nothing ever gets effectively communicated to ALL parents using one method. ;) Then include this message in the beginning of year newsletter with maybe some different highlighted changes. Teachers could provide specific examples of changes in their classroom newsletter as well. My school used our open house night to have students demonstrate the changes with parents watching. At open house I had my students come in and do a (whispering) word sort while I explained how it works and the reasons behind it. This proved very effective. Then in November we had a separate parent night to reinforce the changes or introduce ways parents can support their child while reading at home. We made it a high interest night where the students shared something with parents to increase attendance (food works too- just tell the kids there will be food and they will come!) Then we spent time that night educating parents how to work effectively with literacy at home. It can be done in individual classrooms, grade levels, or even grade ranges depending on the size of your school. Dr. Strange is right, the parents who have siblings may struggle the most with the changes if the reasons are not communicated clearly and effectively.

Dr. Kendra Strange's picture
Dr. Kendra Strange
Principal | Achievement Consultant | Curriculum Specialist

John- great point about sending something home at the end of THIS school regarding literacy best practice for the following year. Thanks for all the insight. Sounds like you have MUCH experience in this area. Best wishes.

Randel Terrell's picture

Great point about notifying parents ahead of time when introducing changes to long standing instructional "tradition".

Pablo Coppola's picture

Preparing parents about long practiced instruction changes is essential. There are many forms on communication but a written note can be proven effective and personal.

Dr. Kendra Strange's picture
Dr. Kendra Strange
Principal | Achievement Consultant | Curriculum Specialist

Thank you for your comments about the need to prepare parents for changes to long standing instructional practice- great suggestion about a personal, written note. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Kendra Strange

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