Want to grow as an instructional leader? Start with ONE focus area

As principals, we get pulled in so many directions, but at the core, the reason we’re hired is to improve teaching and learning in our schools.

Even so, I’ve learned that principals sometimes shy away from giving instructional feedback because they are afraid to be wrong. They’re afraid of coaching and crashing. They might say, “I never taught AP calculus. So how can I be a good coach and give good feedback?” Or, “I never taught a kid how to read, so what value can I add?” 

The first thing I tell any new leader is this: “Free yourself from the idea that you have to be the expert in everything. You never will be.” I am not an expert in K-12 curriculum. I am not an expert in teaching calculus. But the second piece is – and I believe this strongly –  we have to work toward becoming experts in exceptional pedagogy. If we know and understand exceptional pedagogy, that knowledge translates to our instructional coaching, whether we are working with a kindergarten teacher or an 11th-grade history teacher.

Here are the recommendations I give all leaders – especially new leaders – about developing instructional leadership expertise. 

  1. Pick a year-long focus area for building your instructional expertise. 

When I’m working with a new leader, I emphasize that you might eventually have a list of several look-fors in your instructional coaching, but that you should start with just one. Choose one instructional area that is tied to your big goals for your school.

You might select specific signs of student engagement. Or you might decide to look for appropriate scaffolding and differentiation. Once you choose your focus – say, scaffolding – you can become more detailed. You might start developing a list of practices that support scaffolding. 

Allow your focus area to guide your choices about teacher PD time and the books and articles you pick for your own learning. Become a student of your own focus area. Every time you go into a classroom, you want to develop your expertise.

  1. Communicate with staff about your instructional focus.

Be very clear with your staff early in the year about your focus. Say, “These are the things that I’m looking for, so we’re going to learn about them together.” You should be able to make a clear case for why your focus area is part of the bigger plan for the school’s trajectory. Your instructional focus area can become a unifying theme that helps cultivate a learning community among your staff. 

We talk a lot about building a culture of learning for students, but we really need to build cultures of learning for adults, too, in ways that ignite their passion for growth. 

Sometimes, new principals can feel overwhelmed – like classroom visits are separate from coaching conversations and staff meeting PD. Narrowing your focus allows you to create a throughline that reveals how all these pieces are connected. The stronger the connections, the easier it becomes for you and your team to work together on priority growth areas. You create the sense of camaraderie:  “We all know what we’re working on here.” There are no surprises.

  1. Protect your focus area when new priorities arise.

Once you have your focus area, part of your work is to protect it. When new and exciting ideas come up, or when someone at the district is saying, “Hey, we have this new tool, you should try this,” you have to pause first. Ask yourself: Does this fit with my school’s focus this year? If it doesn’t, say no, or “not yet.” Protecting the core of your work is so important, and while there may be mandates that are beyond your control as a principal, you do have a lot of power when it comes to allocating time and protecting your priorities. By starting small, you’re going to be able to continue developing your pedagogical expertise – and make a meaningful difference in teaching and learning.