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Should Targeted Coaching Support Focus on Instructional Leadership?

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Coaching is usually a partnership that focuses on a coach and the coachee. In many coaching models the coachee is encouraged to be the one creating the goal that they ultimately work on together with their coach. Of course, as a former instructional coaching trainer, I saw many school districts that chose the coachee based on the fact that they were a struggling teacher, and met many coaches who were told to choose the goal for the person being coached. 

Over the last couple of years, I have run many Collaborative Leadership workshops on a weekly basis, which resulted in being on the road about 47 weeks a year. In that time I have met hundreds of leaders and have been invited back to take a deeper dive into two key areas. Much of my work is repeat work which has allowed me to, not only take deeper dives than one or two days allow, but it also gave me the opportunity to get to know leaders on a much more personal level. 

The conversations are different the second time around. 

Out of the 6 influences, the 2 areas that people want to go deeper are instructional leadership and collective efficacy. The reasoning behind the need to go deeper ranges from the need for more strategies that can be used in the school building to finding that both are much more difficult to do and the participants need more than just one or two days to focus on them. One key element always at play when we take a deeper dive is the role of evidence. I will explain this a bit more later. 

What Is Instructional Leadership? 
Research suggests that instructional leadership includes practices aimed at fostering teachers' professional learning and growth, as well as facilitating work around teacher and building goals, school climate, and implementing curriculum in classrooms and grade levels which will ultimately have an impact on student engagement (Robinson et al., 2008: 638-639; Southworth, 2002: 76-86. Salo et al. 2014. 491). Additionally, research also shows that leadership practices have a strong impact on student learning in direct and indirect ways (Kruger et al., 2007). 

Here's the issue though; many leaders do not feel they have the time or don't know where to start when it comes to instructional leadership. It's like one of those magic eyes that were all the rage a decade ago. We need to stare at it long enough before the true picture comes out, and we often need the help of someone else to help get us there. Why? All leaders have students with serious mental health issues, adults in the school who do not get along, or are inundated with paperwork focusing on accountability measures. 

What I have found while doing research around instructional leadership is that, not only is it among the most researched type of leadership, but much of the research is prior to issues like increased accountability, mental health issues among students and adults, and the consistent strong push for social-emotional learning in schools. 

We need to find a balance and find simple proven ways to begin as an instructional leader. And I believe that coaching can be very helpful to provide that balance. Coaching can provide beneficial targeted support to help leaders go from only managing their buildings, to being instructional leaders within them. 

Many of the leaders I have worked with over the years have a deep need to be instructional leaders because they either came from a teaching background or they really want to get to know students and teachers better in order to build relationships, and they have a desire to understand what is being taught and learned in the building they lead. 

A few months ago I would have told you that instructional leadership comes down to four components, but over time and because of conversations with researchers and experts, I expanded to two additional components. I know that less is more, but in this case the two additional components help deepen the impact where instructional leadership is concerned. 

Those 6 components of instructional leadership are:
Implementation - Instructional leaders need a proper understanding of program logic and implementation science. Without it their new ideas are highly at risk of failing. 

Content Knowledge- Besides a healthy understanding of skills vs. knowledge, leaders can take the time to understand knowledge dimensions and neuroplasticity. Time spent on those areas is much better than just memorizing which standards need to be taught in which class. 

Student Engagement- Student-teacher relationships, the complexities of cooperative learning, and many other areas of student engagement help leaders understand what to focus on in faculty meetings and classrooms. 

Teaching Strategies- There are so many great teaching strategies that have been researched. How often do we talk about these as a staff or even during our formal/informal teacher conversations? 

Collective Efficacy- In the beginning of this blog I told you there are two areas leaders want to focus on. One is instructional leadership and the other is collective efficacy. I believe collective efficacy can be housed under the instructional leadership umbrella because it provides a venue for all of us to focus on learning as a staff. 

Evaluation of Impact- How do we know our actions are working? What evidence do we collect as teachers and leaders to understand our impact? We need to take more time to focus on evidence. 

I know that 6 components sound like a lot but take some time to think about them. Decide for yourself whether one components lends itself to another. I believe they are all necessary, and after some time and effort can help deepen instructional leadership practices. And if you really think about it, each of the 6 components could be beneficial for teachers, teacher leaders, instructional coaches as well as building leaders.

How Coaching Fits In
I've had the opportunity to coach middle and high school leaders over the last few years. I have learned as much as they have (hopefully?) learned from my coaching. Many times we do walkthroughs together or talk about what focus on learning we should take at faculty and staff meetings. The leaders are trying to find a balance between some pretty extreme issues happening with students (i.e. drug overdose, gang, teenage angst, social media, vaping, etc.) at the same time they try to implement more instructional leadership strategies to help maintain a focus on learning. 

Over the years I have seen coaching take on too much of an informal role, and it's one of the reasons why I wrote Coach It Further. I believe that leadership coaching needs to be more targeted toward instructional leadership because that is where everyone will get more of a bang for their buck, and I also believe that leaders want that kind of help. 

What would even be better than a leader working with an outside coach is when that coaching philosophy turns inward and teacher leaders, instructional coaches and leadership teams can be open and honest with each other, and coach each other while focusing on a goal to help improve conditions in their school. That is where collective efficacy truly comes into play.  

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books includingCoach It Further: Using the Art of Coaching to Improve School Leadership (Corwin Press. 2018). Connect with him on Twitter

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock. 

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt's Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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