5 Steps To Guide Instruction

by Linda K. Wagner

Book_SaavySuperintendent150pxThere is nothing more important to the role of school and district leaders than to positively impact student instruction and achievement. That’s one of the conclusions drawn from interviews I did with over 50 superintendents -- including AASA Superintendents of the Year and runners-up for the award -- for my new book The Savvy Superintendent: Leading Instruction to the Top of the Class.

The most effective school and district leaders do their best work in the classroom, not inside their offices. Here are five tips that can improve your instructional leadership skills:

1. Be Visible

Regardless of your level of leadership within the organization, give precedence to spending time in classrooms throughout your system. You can’t lead instruction from behind your desk. Your most important work is in the classroom. Make it a priority to schedule school visits before you plan the rest of your week’s appointments.

Superintendents and school leaders alike face political pressures and seemingly urgent business that can distract them from the important work of focusing on student achievement. However, if you don’t make spending time in schools your main concern you’ll likely discover that you are spending far too little time spent focused on instruction.

2. Understand That Leaders Operate by “Remote Control”

School and district leaders impact the educational experience by “remote control.” That is, they achieve a goal or objective indirectly by guiding the work of others. Building positive relationships and communicating with those who most directly impact students is critical to your success in fostering student achievement.

Make a point to visit classrooms with the person who most directly assists the teacher in being as effective as possible. Superintendents should be accompanied by the principal, and principals might walk through a school with an instructional coach or with an assistant principal. Don’t be reluctant to ask questions in order to learn firsthand about what is working, what appears not to be working, and how the system can best support effective change. Observe everything from lighting and safety to instructional practices, and consider how you and your team can enhance every child’s learning experience.

3. Be Courageous

Courageous leadership is needed to change long-standing practices that do not lead to student success. There are two types of leaders: those who have the courage to stand up and make a difference for students, and those who really shouldn’t be leading. To be an effective instructional leader, one must have the courage to seek out the weak spots. That may mean occasionally having difficult or uncomfortable conversations about problems. Have the courage to see them through, and remain focused on creating remedies that lead to better instruction for your students.

4. Look “Back Up” the System

In order to improve instruction, we must first understand the experience of the students and teachers. The only practical way to gain perspective is by stepping into the shoes of a teacher or of a child and by taking a look “back up the system.” Standing in the classroom, an effective leader can see where the school system either contributes to academic success or instead where it stands in the way. When good leaders look up the system and find systemic impediments to student success, they must have the courage to point out the roadblocks and the tenacity to remove them.

5. Make Closing the Achievement Gap a Priority

Absent intentional efforts to change the system, gaps in student achievement relative to linguistic background and economic status are unlikely to narrow. Effective leaders make it a priority to work with others to find solutions. Examining and addressing areas in which some groups are underperforming takes courage, especially when a leader’s findings shine a negative light on accepted practices or long-held traditions. These leaders take steps to ensure that the best teachers in the system teach the students who need them the most, and have the resources available to them to do their most effective teaching.

Linda Wagner is superintendent of Monrovia Unified School District in Southern California. Her book The Savvy Superintendent: Leading Instruction to the Top of the Class. is a compendium of analysis and leadership advice on how to positively impact instruction. The book is based on her interviews with over 50 superintendents from throughout the nation. AASA members save 25% on the book using promotion code 6S10AASA until June 30, 2010.