My Longstanding Beef with Instructional Leaders

If you have followed the Radical for any length of time, you know that I can ruffle feathers with the best of them.  I’ve scrapped with everyone from graphic novel fans and librarians to lovers of bad technology over the years — and while those conversations are almost always uncomfortable, they inevitably lead to new learning for everyone involved.


The first professional tussle that I ever started happened about 7 years ago at a panel discussion on school leadership.

Surrounded by superintendents and super experienced building principals, I spent the better part of the discussion listening to my fellow panelists wax poetic about the importance of providing instructional leadership to their faculties.

When the mic finally came to me, I pushed back at the notion that principals are truly the instructional leaders of any school.  “How can you REALLY be the instructional leaders,” I argued, “when no one has ever seen you teach?!”

The room — which was full of nothing but school leaders — exploded.  Speaker after speaker uncorked on me, reminding me that THEY were principals and that research said that PRINCIPALS WERE THE INSTRUCTIONAL LEADERS OF THE SCHOOL.  One woman literally had spittle flying from her mouth as she shouted, “Who are YOU to tell ME that I’m not an instructional leader?!  What do YOU know about MY role in the schoolhouse?”

The entire scene felt like a cheap and dirty power grab to me.  Convinced that all authority rested in the hands of a building’s principal, these folks had decided that they were automatically the experts on everything in their buildings.  “I’m the instructional leader, dammit!” they thought.  “You HAVE to do what I say.”

But the truth is that despite working for some remarkable principals over the past 22 years, I’ve never turned to them for help with my instruction — and they never volunteered any instructional strategies that challenged my practice in a positive way.  Instead, I have always turned to my peers for that kind of professional challenge because I know that my peers are wrestling with instruction on a daily basis.  The expertise that I need to change my teaching rests in the hearts and minds of other practitioners — not my principals.

And my experience isn’t unique.  In fact, results from the 2006 and 2008 North Carolina Teacher Working Conditions survey — which are shockingly not available online anymore — showed that less than half of the teachers in our state see the principal as “the person who most often provides instructional leadership in our schools.”

Now don’t get me wrong:  I’m NOT questioning whether or not principals play an important role in leading their schools.

In fact, I am convinced that the best way to ensure that a school is successful by any metric is to spend a TON of cash identifying, hiring and compensating thoughtful, intelligent, reflective folks to the principalship.

That’s because good principals inspire their teachers, provide direction for faculties, introduce new challenge to the work being done in their building, shield their staffs from distractions that can derail forward progress, and handle everything from broken toilets to broken relationships between teachers and students each and every day

It’s an ALMOST impossible — and COMPLETELY thankless — job.  That’s why I’ve never even considered pursuing a degree in school administration.  It’s also why I am consistently thankful for people who are willing to tackle such an immense and important role.

But when principals grab titles like “instructional leader” or “lead learner,” they inadvertently cheapen the expertise of the classroom teachers and students in their schools and reinforce the hierarchies that make schools such dysfunctional places.

The truth is that principals who HAVE the respect of their teachers NEVER think of themselves by their titles. It’s not “I’m the instructional leader”, “I’m the principal” or “I’m the lead learner” for them. It’s “we’re doing something cool here together. How can we help each other to get better at what we are doing?”

My advice to principals who want to be influential, then, is simple: Check your title at the door and start actively modeling the kinds of reflective practices that define learners and learning; increasing your own knowledge base so that you can support and challenge everyone in your building; and proving that everyone — regardless of position — can improve.

Be a leader of instructors.  Be a leader of learners.  But don’t use false titles to suggest that your role in the teaching/learning transaction is somehow more important than the role played by the teachers and learners in your building.

Any of this make sense?  More importantly, any of this make you mad?  What push back do you have for me?

(If you want to read more, my good friends Tony Sinanis and Pernille Ripp have been thinking about principals, leadership and titles lately too.)


Related Radical Reads:

What do Teacher Leaders Need from Administrators?

Will $75,000 REALLY Change Your Principal’s Leadership Skills?

Three Lessons Principals Can Learn from Sherpas


18 thoughts on “My Longstanding Beef with Instructional Leaders

  1. Pingback: Monday Means Leadership: Instructional Leader | Knowledge Quest

  2. scottslater45

    The word “the” can be very powerful. It is perhaps use of this word people find most infuriating when it comes to “The instructional leader,” for it suggests there is just one and it discounts the leadership and contributions of many others. The reality is that there are many instructional leaders in a school and in my experience the principal has always been one of them.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      That’s great thinking, Scott — and I dig your take.

      When we throw the word “THE” in front of most any title, it makes things snaky — and in the case of instructional leaders, who adds the term “the” is an even bigger deal. When principals claim the word “the” for themselves, it looks like a power grab. When superintendents add the word “the” to their principals, it looks like an attempt to convey authority and to reinforce hierarchies that need to die.

      But when we use the term for multiple people in the building, we honor all of the different ways that instructional leadership is shown in our schools — and that matters more than most people realize.

      Thanks for pushing my thinking,

      1. Tad

        Love this piece on all of this. I don’t remember where I heard this, but I’ve tried to consciously never refer to “my school”, it’s “our school. It’s not “my teachers”, but “our staff”. I’ve even had some say to me (they are on the staff), “your teachers”. I’m like NO!…we’re all in this together – good or bad!

  3. Pingback: My Longstanding Beef with Instructional Leaders | The Tempered Radical | Learning Curve

  4. Robert

    Hey Bill – Absolutely love the post and it got me thinking TONS … however, in my role as a middle school administrator, how does one balance the mandated from fed to state to district teacher evaluation model that forces us into that “instructional leader” make-believe role? I am 100 percent on board with helping to put teachers in places to learn from one another, but then I see the reality of the expectation placed on us to be that instructional leader … struggling on finding this balance and doing what I know is right …

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Robert,

      Sorry that I didn’t see this sooner — I was on the road all week.

      And I get that there are things beyond your control that govern your role — including “make believe” roles defined by policymakers with even less awareness about how things work in schools.

      My only recommendation to you is to be open with your teachers. Let them know that you are going to provide suggestions and support when you can. Tell them that the strength that you bring to the table is an awareness of what happens in dozens of classrooms across your school. Your goal is to cross-pollinate good ideas and bring teachers together so that they can learn from each other.

      As long as you aren’t touting the “instructional leader” label, your teachers will understand. We are only bugged by bosses who think that being the principal automatically means you are an expert on teaching. Those two things don’t automatically go together — particularly after you’ve been out of the classroom for a decade.

      Does that make sense?

  5. christianklaue

    That is why I am still a teaching principal; how can teachers believe what I say if they haven’t seen me teach (or heard directly from my students on how I teach). If I am active in the classroom on a daily basis, I don’t need to know the details of every standard for every grade. The fact that I know the students as students and deal with curriculum, classroom management, instructional strategies, and classroom technology on a daily basis gives me that extra bit of credibility with the teachers. I would never want to give up the classroom completely. First, I enjoy teaching too much. Second, it gives me a little more credibility with the staff. Third, it keeps me aware of the issues my staff are facing and provides insight on how to be more proactive in making their lives easier.

  6. Tad

    Bill, as usual your thoughts force me to be reflective about my role as a principal! Thanks for always supporting me and my path to becoming a principal. I agree with everything you said in regard to this idea of a principal being an “instructional leader”. I suppose my question is this – how do you define “leader”? I think everyone has a fairly common definition for “leader”, but it’s when you combine it with “instruction” where things get messy. When my boss tells me I need to be the instructional leader of my school I have to be sure I can articulate my definition of this term. So, in a nutshell here is how I would define the term “instructional leader”.

    An instructional leader is NOT:

    -a knower of every standard for every subject and every grade.
    -an intimidating, authoritative czar who tells teachers how they should teach.
    -a micro manager who tries to fit instructional practices into nice little boxes where we think they belong.
    -and finally…a person who touts themselves as an instructional leader. If you feel that you have to lay claim to that “title” than you probably are as far from it as possible.

    An instructional leader IS:

    -a person who understands that you support teachers by providing them with the resources they need to provide effective instruction (ie. Teacher wants to do a novel study, but the school only has 20 copies. As a person who can support the teacher my role is to ensure that she is equipped with a copy for every student because how effective can a novel study be if students are required to share books).

    -a person who recognizes that a a new teacher is struggling to balance the demands of the daily grind (ie. providing the teacher with a substitute so she can visit an effective veteran teacher AND providing time for follow-up between the two of them to shared and discuss).

    -a person who keeps teachers accountable for their work, when it is needed. It drives our best teachers crazy when it’s blatantly obvious that their peers aren’t holding up their end of the deal. These are crucial conversations at times, but administrators must be willing to have them

    PERHAPS MOST IMPORTANTLY – a person who can be comfortable with the process of looking at a teacher and saying, “I got this one wrong. I messed up. I am sorry.”

    Okay…I’m done now, but thanks for getting me thinking and keeping me grounded. I’ve got a lot of growing to do, but I am trying to be the leader who ‘IS’.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Love your thinking here, Tad — in fact, would you be okay with me reposting it as a standalone bit on my blog? I think other people would dig seeing it.

      Here’s my pushback, though: EVERYTHING that you described under your definition of an “instructional leader” is EXACTLY what I’m looking for in a principal. So I think you know the core behaviors of accomplished leaders.

      But why would you call those behaviors “instructional leadership?”

      I see that as “leading instructors” or “being a leader of instructors.”

      The term “instructional leader” implies — particularly to weak leaders — that they DO get to be the czar of everything and the master of teaching and learning. It’s a confusing label at best — and it can be a detrimental one at the worst, particularly when it falls into the hands of a crappy principal.

      Does that make sense?

      1. Tad

        Bill – thanks for the feedback and thoughts. Feel free to use for a future blog entry. I think it’s a good topic that needs continued conversation.

        Very interesting. Two words, when the order is changed create vastly different ideas. I suppose my thought is that in order for me to be a leader of instructors (an effective one) that I must be able to demonstrate to my teachers that I have not lost sight of the job of teachers. One way this is done is by staying active and involved and modeling instructional practices.

        Some of my best days are when I am in a classroom and I get to step in for a little bit. One of my favorite spots is 5th grade math – since that’s where I came from. It was neat to show the students my “box it, solve it, rewrite it” method for order of operations. Even neater, seeing weeks later the teacher reminding students to use that method, “that Mr. Sherman taught you”. More recently, I have spent the last two weeks in the library completing our middle of the year assessment. I am so much more prepared to have conversations with our teachers about our students’ progress and lack there of now that I have completed 15 running records in 6 days. Furthermore, I feel that they are going to be more willing to hear and value what I have to share about our successes and concerns.

        All that said, it sounds like maybe this is not the norm. I see others who have posted similar ideas, but are we in the minority? If we are, what in the world are others doing???

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  9. darcymullin

    Bill, this post really resonated with me. I agree wholeheartedly. As principals we teach very little (if at all in many cases). When I look at my own circumstance, I do not teach enough (read: practice enough) to keep up with my colleagues. Much of what I have learned about teaching and learning over the last 9 years has been theoretical. Quite simply I don’t have the classroom time to tweak and hone to the extent of my colleagues. When it comes to instructional leadership I see my job as starting conversations, asking good questions and support the crap out of people who want to try new things and take risks in the classrooms. I don’t need to be the guiding light…often I need to get out of the way of the guiding lights and just support the work they are doing. Let’s be clear, I am far from perfect and I still have lots of learning to do, but I will continue to try do it alongside the people that I work with.

  10. Chris Jakicic

    Hi Bill, I was a principal for 17 years and I agree with everything you said. What I realized after the first several years is that the principal can’t possibly know enough about instruction to help EVERY teacher in the school–not enough content and not enough about instructional strategies, especially after leaving his/her own classroom. The principal CAN advance the vision for everyone, however. My job evolved to be someone who would constantly support and articulate the vision. In my more recent work as a consultant, it is not uncommon for a principal to come up to me after a workshop and say, “I said the same thing you did, but they believed you more.” We laugh together, and I tell them that when a consultant flies in, his/her expertise is assumed to be greater. After reading your blog, I realized that this is just an example of the same thing. Now, I think I’ll respond to that statement by reminding principals that they have to keep articulating the vision…say the same thing the consultant said because it demonstrates your agreement and support. Instead of trying to show teachers how to teach, find the best ways to support their work–whether it’s increased common planning time, opportunities for professional growth, resources or materials–you job is to support best instruction. That’s a true role for a principal who wants to be an instructional leader.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Chris wrote:

      Instead of trying to show teachers how to teach, find the best ways to support their work–whether it’s increased common planning time, opportunities for professional growth, resources or materials–you job is to support best instruction. That’s a true role for a principal who wants to be an instructional leader.


      Super jazzed to hear that this bit resonated with you, Chris.

      I think the saddest part of principals who define “instructional leader” as “the master of all things instruction” is that they are fundamentally wasting their already limited time, energy and effort simply because teachers aren’t looking to or relying on them for instructional help.

      So rather than spend time on something that teachers don’t value anyway, spend time on tasks that can facilitate and support and extend and challenge the work that the school is doing together.

      Anyway — hope we cross paths sooner rather than later,

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