More on My Beef with the Term “Instructional Leader.”

Dear Principals of Professional Learning Communities,

Can I push your thinking for a minute?

I’d like to suggest that learning teams — NOT school principals — should be the primary source of instructional leadership in PLCs.  I’d also like to suggest that using titles like “the instructional leader” to describe the role of the principal in a PLC is incongruous with the core principles of professional learning communities.

Here’s why:  In the best professional learning communities, teams of teachers relentlessly question their practice together in service of student learning.  They design and develop ways to measure the impact of their instructional decisions and then take action based on what they have learned.  Their primary goal is to amplify the best teaching strategies on their hallway in the interest of seeing every student succeed.

On high-functioning teams, questions are asked, new ideas are tried, evidence is gathered, and changes are made over and over again in ongoing cycles of collective inquiry.  Teachers begin to trust each other and to tap into the professional know-how of their peers whenever they are struggling with a genuine problem of practice.  They take a “these are our kids” approach to their work — constantly sharing and reflecting and revising together.

That intellectual symbiosis — the genuine sense that every teacher can benefit from the individual expertise of their collaborative partners — is the pinnacle of PLC work.  Teams who reach that level of collaborative development go beyond merely surviving the school year.  They THRIVE, energized and empowered by the realization that they can tackle anything together.  

Leadership around instruction on high-functioning learning teams happens organically every time that individual teachers step forward to help their colleagues solve a particularly knotty problem.  What’s more, high-functioning teams learn to lean on the right leaders at the right time and to use the power of relationships to influence the practices of their peers in deep and meaningful ways.

Now don’t get me wrong:  I am NOT trying to diminish the role that principals play in the success of schoolhouses.  In fact, I would go as far as to argue that nothing matters MORE to the success of the school than the actions taken by principals.

On top of the never-ending list of managerial tasks that fall on your shoulders — things like garnering support in the broader community, monitoring upgrades to the physical plant, and making sure that the busses run on time — you help to articulate a core mission and vision for your building.  You provide direction by ensuring that every action aligns with that core mission and vision.  You build capacity in teachers — both as individuals and as teams — to tackle the kind of collaborative study of practice that matters.  You serve as an intellectual sounding board when teachers and teams stagnate.  You hold people accountable for doing more and being better than they ever thought possible.

ALL of that work is powerful and important and the key to the development of high-functioning PLCs, but I REALLY DO worry about the consequences of calling it “instructional leadership.”  

Why should teachers believe in the power of collaboration around practice if leadership around instruction — the fundamental task of classroom teachers and learning teams  — is officially given to the principal?  Similarly, why would we believe in the expertise of our colleagues when formal titles suggest that leadership around instruction is the responsibility of the principal instead of practitioners?

In fact, I’d go as far as to argue that the best PLC principals don’t even want to be “THE instructional leader” of their schools.  

Instead, they want to create the conditions that enable teachers and learning teams to provide instructional leadership to one another — and by constantly sending the message that expertise around practice belongs to practitioners instead of principals, they leave their learning teams and teachers empowered to accept responsibility for finding ways to meet the needs of every learner.

Does this make any sense?

I guess what I am trying to say is that if you want teacher teams to truly believe in their power — and their professional obligation — to influence practice, remind them that THEY are the instructional experts.

Whaddya’ think?


Related Radical Reads:

My Longstanding Beef with Instructional Leaders

What Do Teacher Leaders Need from Administrators?

Three Lessons School Leaders can Learn from Sherpas


13 thoughts on “More on My Beef with the Term “Instructional Leader.”

  1. Matt Wight

    Great discussion. I just happened onto a recent Michael Fullan tome that discusses the role of the principal in great detail. “The Principal” takes issue with the term and the notion that being an instructional leader is an effective model for administrators (and schools)- check it out.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Matt,

      Thanks for the recommendation. Just picked up the book.

      I guess what I wonder is why principals (and those who lead them or represent them) push so hard for the term, then. Not kidding when I say that I’ve been FRIED time and again by principals and principal organizations when I suggest that “instructional leader” is the wrong term for what the principal brings to the organization.

      Since writing this post, I’ve had conversations with tons of principals that I admire and tons of experts on school leadership. Not a single one — literally, NOT ONE — thought that the principal should be the instructional leader of the school or thought that my arguments were flawed.

      I guess I see the term instructional leader in the same way that I see Interactive Whiteboards. Maybe both served a purpose at some point. IWBs got teachers who wouldn’t think to use technology to start considering the role that tech could play in the classroom and “instructional leadership” got principals to realize that their jobs mean WAY more than making sure that busses run on time.

      But it’s time for both to be erased from our langauge around education.

      Anyway…thanks for stopping by and adding to the conversation.

  2. mrcowell

    A great post which hits on what I believe is one of educations most difficult dilemmas. To paraphrase it in the language you couched it – If my “boss” is not the best person to be an “instructional coach” in an institution whose primary purpose is education, then why are they the “boss” at all?

    Why are the paid more and viewed as being higher up the ladder? Does the person in charge of managing a hospital deemed as “outranking” the doctors and surgeons?

    I believe we need to remodel education on the lines of other professions. Have teams of senior teachers leading the educational side, and top notch management doing the admin – but in no way “above” the teacher teams

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Mr. Cowell,

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

      One of the saddest parts of the whole conversation is the us v. themness of it all. The simple truth is the contributions made by a good principal are essential to the success of a school — just like the contributions made by good teachers.

      Where I get a bit riled is when the prefix THE is put in front of instructional leader. That strips away authority from teachers over the task that they are primarily responsible for in a given day.

      Your final suggestion is spot on. I wonder if we will ever get there.

  3. Matt Wight

    Interesting that years ago, I remember a workshop with Phil Schlechty where he said that administrators should be “leaders of instructors as opposed to instructional leaders”. I have always thought of myself in that light.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Matt,

      You mentioned that “leader of instructors” term to me years ago and I totally dig it. It encapsulates what I want from my principal. I want you to support me. I want you to nudge me. I want you to challenge me. I want you to create conditions for me.

      But I don’t want you to think of yourself as THE instructional leader because it steals ownership over instruction from me. That’s tough.

      Rock right on,

  4. Tom Whitford

    Bill, while I do see your point, I have to say I’m starting to get whiplash on what my role as principal is supposed to be. Am I a leader? If so, what of? Of who? As soon as I think I know what I can describe my role as it tends to draw negative attention from someone else in the profession. What I definitely try not to do is inhibit anyone else from growing, learning and making this job be more fun and creating positive relationships between students, staff, and the community.

    To try to describe the job is almost fruitless because the role keeps changing. We do what is needed……whatever that might be. I guess at this point I should just ask what my title should be. I just get an inner shutter when I hear the title of principal because it comes with ancient negative connotations and represents an era where the role was very different. Of course, part of the problem is many building principals still operate with that mindset and it makes creating true PLC cultures very difficult. Ok……enough ranting for me. Thanks for making me reflect a little this morning.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Love this thinking, Tom. And I get your frustration with whiplash completely.

      As for what all y’all should be called, I’m open to a lot of things. You are facilitators and condition creators. You are direction setters and distributors. You are vision setters and values keepers. You are leaders of instructors and leaders of learners.

      Heck, I’d even go with Chief Education Officers. You really do play the most important and all encompassing role in the school. Maybe that’s why principal fits.

      But if you want to create a culture of empowerment for your teachers, you can’t call yourself the instructional leader. Doing so suggests that we don’t play the primary leadership role in the one area that we know best.

      That’s tough to swallow.

      Any of this make sense?

      1. twhitford

        It completely makes sense Bill, and I agree with your thinking. I never invented the term but when I heard the explanation behind it I knew I liked it better than the negative connotations that went along with the title of principal. I would have to disagree that admin play the most important role. Teachers have the most important role and they make the largest impact on learning. Principals are there to make their job easier. Clear obstacles, provide resources and support, so that teachers can focus on kids and learning.

  5. Brett Gruetzmacher (@BGruetzmacher)


    I love the post and I couldn’t agree more with you. The more leaders that any school the better it will be for the students and staff. The difficult and important work of instructional leadership cannot and should not rest of the shoulders of a principal or an admin team. It will take some convincing of admin and the teachers that this is the “way” it needs to be. #WeRallLeaders

    Thanks and take care.


    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      What’s weird to me, Brett, is just how adamant some principals are about being THE instructional leader.

      I’d even be fine if principals described themselves as AN instructional leader or as ONE OF the instructional leaders in the school. I believe that principals CAN provide guidance in instruction to some teachers some of the time. Heck, I got some great advice from my principal in my last observation. Together, we brainstormed a neat revision to a practice I use all the time in class.

      But to suggest that there is ONE instructional leader — and that the principal is best suited for the role — is just plain flawed thinking, particularly in schools that claim to be PLCs.

      Anyway — thanks or thinking along with me.

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