instructional leadership

What Does Instructional Leadership Look Like?

By Benjamin Heckscher, History Department Head Lycée International de Saint-Germain-en-Laye American Section

A friend of mine used to say, half-jokingly, that the reason we’re teachers is that we don’t work well with others. Of course, in one sense, all we do is work with others; you’re in a year-long dialogue with all those groups staring back at you.

In another sense, however, we like to have our little fiefdoms in class, our little communities that we build and maintain and control. It’s very personal, and what we communicate in terms of both values and content reflects our outlook, our life experience, and our personality.

And if we’re honest, passing on what we know of the world is part of the reason we’re teachers. In that sense, for instructional leadership, it can be very difficult to manage your teachers. How granular should the program be; how much oversight should you exercise; and how much material should you provide?

How granular should instructional leadership be?

It’s important to give teachers what the French call “liberté pédagogique;” the ability to mold the material and present it in a way that resonates with them. Personal experience is relevant to understanding the world, and enthusiasm from the teacher translates to the rest of the class.

Even if the kids think we’re inexcusably dorky, an excited teacher will communicate a better attitude than one forced to parrot material and lessons he or she doesn’t fully own or endorse.

And besides, a bit of personality and irreverence towards the material makes an academic subject more approachable and human.

I’ve talked before about owning your material, of independently and intentionally choosing the materials for your class and in a way that makes sense to you. Essentially, within limits, the teacher should have as much independence and agency as possible.

I’ve also talked before about how, in a history course at least, there is a near-infinite number of facts that can be presented, and a very broad spectrum of interpretations that can be brought to bear. In this context, that means there’s no “correct” interpretation; concretely, the only things we specifically have to do is prepare kids for the tests we don’t write. In the public system, unfortunately, there tends to be a lot of standardized testing. In the private system, we have more freedom, which means again that we can produce our own material.

How much oversight should instructional leadership exercise?

But, of course, there do need to be guidelines for the content. Unlike teachers, the department head or curriculum administrator is responsible for the arc of the program over several years, and the story at the annual level has to fit. So, the arc (or story, or title) of the course is up to the department head.

At the “session” level (between vacations), I find it necessary to have a determined story, or title, as well. Kids and parents will compare what is happening in each class, and while certain specifics like materials, case studies, or the number and format of assignments can vary by teacher, there is the expectation that the general content be the same.

I get a lot of questions from parents about what everyone is “supposed to be doing” in a given period, but they’re rarely looking for an answer on an hour-by-hour or assignment-by-assignment basis.

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There are, of course, cases when particular teachers come under fire, and that leads to the second element here, which is the amount of supervision or control you should have. Ultimately, the buck stops with you, so you have to be able to explain your teacher’s logic and sequencing, and how it fits into the larger narrative that everyone follows.

Teachers need to own their material to engage the kids, however, so the job is less to tell people what to do, and more to let them show you how their way makes sense in the context of the course.

I’ve found I can do this in relatively short (45min-1hr) one-on-one meetings twice per session. The idea is analogous to what progressive schools mean when they talk about “scaffolding:” provide the structure and let the students find their own way within it. Likewise, teachers find their own way within the established structure, and the administrator needs to guide, hear, and trust them… and be in a position to defend them.

How much material should instructional leadership provide?

The final question is how much material to provide. The answer is all of it… though you need not actually mandate any of it. An incoming teacher needs support in the first year, and it’s neither fair nor desirable to expect a teacher to make up an entire program as the year goes along, within the confines of the philosophy and overall arc of a program they don’t yet fully grasp.

In other words, there needs to be an example lesson for as much as possible. The logic is the same if you introduce a new unit, project or skill: the first time around, there needs to be a baseline example to go on, which you need to provide. However, if/when teachers come up with their version of that skill lesson or project, all the better.

I put in a sample lesson for everything, but teachers can add their own versions as they develop them. Rather than a single hour of class, the “lesson planner” becomes a grab-bag of ideas that people have had over the years to communicate that material.

In the best of circumstances, any new skills or common assignments are developed during as-rare-as-possible curriculum meetings led by instructional leadership. They go with things like grading rubrics that are worth a proper debate. Too often, department meetings aren’t actually about the subject, but more about logistics (field trips, due dates); they are better used to come to department-wide decisions about ideas, projects, case studies etc.

We have 2-3 large-scale meetings per year. It shares ownership of the program, which is the only way to get buy-in… At the end of the day, you often can’t make these people do anything!

Ultimately, the job of instructional leadership consists of a guiding philosophy, a lot of facilitation and open-mindedness, not a lot of real power, and a lot of work that nobody’s ever necessarily going to use. But hopefully, your team will feel empowered, supported, and valued, and they’ll pass this culture on to their students.

Optimize instruction with coherent planning that scales content from yearlong curriculum to daily lessons.

Benjamin Heckscher
Contributing Author:

Ben Heckscher began teaching during his college years at NYU. After college, he spent five years at the primary level at the Calhoun School in New York, then got a Masters Degree in History and moved to Paris. For the past eight years, he has been teaching in the American Section of the Lycée International de Saint Germain-en-Laye, where he now heads the History Department. He is currently finishing a PhD in European Union history at the London School of Economics, and will soon be moving with his wife and children to Estonia!

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