Tuesday, December 27, 2016

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

Give Teachers What They Need
As new principals take the helm of a campus they are equipped with much leadership theory and ideas of best practices. Principals are often faced with two paths one focuses on practice and the other theory. However, 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.

<a href="http://drkendrastrange.com">Dr. Kendra Strange</a>


  1. Thank you for sharing. I enjoyed the blog.

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting.
    Dr Kendra Strange Shaffer

  3. Great post. It makes so much sense to prepare parents for changes such as the weekly take home spelling list. We now know that teaching spelling in context is a preferable method, but I have had several parents request spelling lists or worksheets that my balanced literacy campus tries to avoid. Next year I am going to send a parent information letter with some research to introduce whole literacy and the rational behind our practices. Do you have any suggestions for a teacher when others on her grade level still want to utilize the more traditional methods such as a basal reader or spelling lists?

  4. Regarding your inquiry...That's a tricky one. If you are working on a grade level that is not embracing balanced literacy as a team, you will likely have to tread delicately. First, is your principal a balanced literacy supporter? If so, you will be supported from the admistrave side, which is important. If your principal hasn't made campus wide balanced literacy a priority then you might want to start out slowly by asking your grade level chair for support. Going to the veteran teacher for advice should get you support in team meetings. Then, be sure to communicate to your parents the rationale behind your approach to literacy. In my experience, parents like structured, predictable homework they can help their child with at home. So a guided reader every night and a list of activities a parent could do with the reader should do the trick. Remember, teachers are in this profession because they love children and want what's best for them. If you find yourself in disagreement with a colleague over an instructional practice, going back to that common ground will always give you a shared goal. Thanks for sharing your questions and thoughts.
    Kendra Strange