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Instructional Leadership - Challenges and Opportunities

-by Garry McKinnon, Superintendent

In my first blog on instructional leadership, I described the ultimate goal of positively impacting the quality of teaching and the learning experiences of the students. I also observed that to be effective as an instructional leader one needs to have a clear idea of what it looks like. I suggested that in addition to making reference to the Alberta Teaching Quality Standard knowledge, skills and attributes of effective teaching, it is highly desirable for the members of the school community (teachers, students, parents and school administrators) to engage in a process of articulating descriptors of exemplary teaching.
These descriptors of exemplary learning and teaching could serve as a framework for teacher recruitment, professional development, supervision and evaluation. I must note as I begin this next blog on instructional leadership that it will not be possible in the limited space available through the blog to address all of the challenges and opportunities and to say all that needs to be said about instructional leadership.

When I reflected on my free-fall writing experience of describing instructional leadership, I was impacted by the realization that instructional leadership can take many different forms. I even described the student as an instructional leader, which is an interesting concept relating to instructional leadership that I have not thought about in the past. I have always believed it is important to hear and be responsive to the student voice. As a university instructor it was mandatory at the end of a course to have the students complete a survey relating to the quality of instruction. I found the feedback to be so valuable that I made provision for inviting informal feedback from my students on an ongoing basis rather than waiting for the end of the course when it was too late to make any adjustments. I have also found as a classroom teacher and school administrator that feedback from students through surveys and informal dialogue is tremendously valuable. Generally, the feedback made me feel good about what I was doing, but there were always some comments that enhanced my understanding of the student perspective and made it possible for me to make some enhancements in my teaching strategies and adjustments to the approach I was taking in facilitating learning. The Calgary Science School has a survey that has been developed for teachers to use with their students. The survey uses the 16 descriptors of exemplary learning as a framework for inviting the students to provide objective feedback and written comments. The information can be used by the teacher to celebrate the positive recognition of what is working well, as well as to identify areas for improvement which can be addressed through short-term "adjustments" or can become incorporated into the teacher's growth plan. When teachers give students ownership for their learning and opportunities to determine how they will learn they are empowering their students to positively impact teaching and learning as instructional leaders.

There are certainly many other approaches to instructional leadership such as co-learning through team teaching and peer coaching through learning coaches. As I have noted in earlier blogs, school leadership comes in many different forms and it is certainly not restricted to the school principal. This is also the case for instructional leadership. I do believe however, as I highlighted in my first blog on instructional leadership, providing effective instructional leadership is the most important aspect of the work of those in formal school administrative roles. The school principal serves as a key role model and mentor in building positive, trusting relationships with teachers and establishing instructional leadership in its many different forms as a priority for the school. The principal (assistant principals) can demonstrate the efficacy of inviting feedback from teachers, students and parents as a valuable component of the process of developing a professional leadership growth plan. In the Calgary Science School the administrators have been making ongoing reference to the Alberta School Leadership Framework and the seven school leadership competencies in the ongoing professional development sessions and in identifying areas of strength, areas for growth and action strategies in their growth plans. They demonstrate openness in the process by having members of the teaching staff complete a survey (based on the Alberta School Leadership Framework) annually, as well as inviting feedback through fireside chats and ongoing informal dialogue with teaching staff members.

There is another challenging aspect to the multifaceted, complex role of the principal as instructional leader related to building on the process of developing a shared vision as a school community, dealing with divergent perspectives and implementing a plan for change and school improvement. Through the Alberta Education Inspiring Education and Inspiring Action process the need to bring about significant change or what has even been referred to as a transformation in education has been articulated. The need for more effectively addressing the needs of modern-day students is articulated through the Alberta Education Framework for Student Learning: Competencies for Engaged Thinkers and Ethical Citizens with an Entrepreneurial Spirit document. There is a natural resistance to change because it implies that what is currently taking place, even though teachers are working very hard, is not good enough. The challenge for the principal as instructional leader is to identify, recognize and celebrate all that is being done to address student needs and learner competencies and at the same time to nurture a culture committed to developing these learner competencies and to embrace risk-taking and innovation. As well, the school leader must model and foster the qualities that have been identified as learner competencies for our modern-day students. With these thoughts in mind, I offer the following action strategies for instructional leadership for your consideration:
  1. Establish promoting instructional leadership and its many forms as a priority 
  2. Work together with students, parents and teachers in describing exemplary learning and teaching 
  3. Provide leadership through a disposition of inquiry, asking questions, exploring ideas, articulating a shared meaning and developing a deep understanding 
  4. Promote engaged learning and thinking through engaged teaching and leadership 
  5. Create a culture of creativity, risk-taking and innovation and promote critical thinking problem-solving and decision-making among all members of the school community 
  6. Foster open communication and a commitment to understanding the thoughts, ideas and emotions of others 
  7. Embrace collaboration in the classroom, within the school and beyond 
  8. Maintain a focus on lifelong learning for all members of the school community 
I offer these thoughts on instructional leadership, while recognizing there is so much more to be explored. We will be continuing this journey of developing a deeper understanding of instructional leadership through our school leader professional development activities and our research projects. We invite you to join us in the dialogue and as we continue the journey of exploration. In my next blog I will share some ideas relating to the fifth dimension of school leadership - developing and facilitating leadership in others.

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