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12 Research-Backed Instructional Leadership Strategies

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School administrator providing instructional leadership to her colleagues at work.


  • School Leadership

Discipline, scheduling, conflict resolution and meetings in general.

A principal’s calendar is typically packed with obligations that can shift focus from what is debatably your core duty: instructional leadership.

It’s an obvious challenge, but committing time to instructional leadership is significantly easier with clear strategies you can quickly reference.

What’s instructional leadership?

At its core, instructional leadership aims to improve student learning and teacher effectiveness.

As an instructional leader, you can use a number of methods to accomplish these goals. But they typically involve:

  • Student engagement
  • Coaching for teachers
  • Classroom management
  • Professional development for teachers
  • Managing schedules and the curriculum
  • Fundraising, resourcing and budget allocation

Not all strategies are created equal, though. According to a meta-analysis of 30 studies in Viviane Robinson's influential 2011 book Student Centered Leadership, leadership practices differ in terms of impact:

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Throughout this guide, you’ll find strategies that align with the above leadership practices, with particular emphasis on the top three.

1. Sit in classrooms more often

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To inform the aforementioned leadership practices and specific strategies in this guide, you must visit classrooms more often.

Either announced or as a surprise, regularly watching your teachers teach will help you:

  • Offer corrective feedback
  • Work with them to create relevant goals
  • Hold targeted conversations and meetings
  • Provide professional development opportunities
  • Find common strengths and weaknesses amongst teachers and students

Furthermore, the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) strongly recommends sitting in classrooms more often as a way to improve relationships with teachers, by virtue of showing investment in student learning.

2. Give “SBI” feedback

Sitting in classrooms will help you think of corrective feedback, but structuring it can be hard.

If this is the case for you, try the Center for Creative Leadership’s “SBI” framework:

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Following the framework, your corrective feedback will look like this: While splitting your students up for learning stations on Monday, your instructions were short and didn’t have much visual description. As a result, the students couldn’t find their stations, taking up lots of time. This structure will enable you to deliver specific, actionable feedback. According to an oft-cited 2002 study, such feedback plays a strong role in improving the recipient’s desires for future feedback, coaching and general improvement.

3. Model how to apply feedback

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It’s common for teachers to struggle to apply feedback, but you can model best practices to overcome this issue. This isn’t necessarily your teachers’ faults, considering they get constant feedback -- both explicit and implicit -- from you, parents, students and the education world at large. It’s no wonder people generally struggle to process all feedback, determined an authoritative management study. In a professional development session or on a case-by-case basis, consider modeling how to:

  • Process feedback, recording the situation, behavior and impact for future reference and analysis
  • Brainstorm, or ask for, a solution that’s relatively easy to apply
  • Use the solution, reflecting on its effectiveness and considering if a different solution is necessary

With a better understanding of how to apply feedback, your teachers will likely be more receptive to it.

4. Coach based on “will” and “skill”

Just like students, not all teachers require the same kind of instruction. Your one-on-one discussions should be more productive with this in mind. Specifically, instructional leadership author Robyn Jackson writes that a teacher’s needs are largely based on where she falls in this spectrum:

  • High will/high skill
  • High will/low skill
  • Low will/high skill
  • Low will/low skill

Pinpointing a teacher’s will and skill levels is a first step in identifying appropriate resources for development and informing your approach to ongoing support.

5. Set SMART goals with your teachers

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SMART goals are a clear vehicle teachers can use to drive professional development, aligning with Robinson’s most effective leadership practice. These goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, RelevantandTimebound-- meaning you can apply them to any quantifiable area of teaching and teacher education. For example, a teacher could set a SMART goal such as “ReadStudent-Centered Leadership, making three take-away points to use in class. ”Specific and challenging goals, such as this one above, lead to higher performance than setting easy goals or not having goals, states an oft-cited literature review. You may find that after completing a few, teachers will take more ownership of their learning and development by setting their own.

6. Write reflections

Not just for students, writing reflections -- and asking teachers to do the same -- has many benefits for teacher effectiveness and instructional leadership. For example:

  • Keeping a journal about how your work helps others can boost productivity, according to a 2012 study about professional fundraising, which found a 29% increase in hourly effort amongst study participants
  • Writing is essentially the practice of organizing and conveying thoughts; the more practice, the more your communication skills will improve
  • Recording notes about how to achieve goals and dreams is positively correlated with happiness and strong mental health, according to oft-cited 2001 research

So, finding time to write -- and encouraging teachers to follow suit -- can quickly pay dividends.

7. Reflect and plan as a team

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Regularly sharing reflections and planning as a team can inform and empower your teachers. To conclude a defined period in the year -- such as summative assessments-- hold a meeting wherein teachers share reflections about highs and lows. Then, prompt them to share feedback about what they, and administration, could improve for the next defined period of the year. You can take 30 minutes afterwards to write an email to everyone in the meeting, summarizing feedback you received and stating your intention to use it. This kind of regular internal communication positively correlates with employee happiness and engagement, according to a 2015 pilot study from the Queensland University of Technology. Happy and informed teachers, effective instruction.

8. Expand your PLN

A stagnant personal learning network (PLN)inherently restricts your ability to lead teacher development.To consistently cultivate your PLN, try to:

  • Go to a meetup that BrewCue or a similar organization hosts
  • Attend workshops and conferences to learn and connect with other principals
  • Search for groups across social media, such as the Principals and Teachers Network on LinkedIn
  • Join or browse social media conversations, such as the weekly #EdChat on Twitter that takes place at 7 pm EST each Tuesday

In doing so, you can establish your own -- or join a defined -- network of principals. Belonging to such a network positively correlates with confidence to improve culture and classroom practices, says a year-long study from the University of California.

9. Encourage culturally-responsive teaching

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Especially important for buildings with diverse student bodies, culturally-responsive teaching can play a critical role in engaging and empowering learners. The pedagogy aims to link content -- from delivery to assessment -- with students’ ancestral and contemporary cultures. Consider instructing your teachers about:

  • Bringing in diverse guest speakers, which effectively motivates students of the same background, according to a 2015 study by the Economics of Education Review
  • Offering opportunities for peer teaching, which helps students improve knowledge recollection and general social development, states a popular academic book about the subject
  • Using word problems to personalize and contextualize math equations, which boosted test scores of 7th grade students by more than 44%, according to a 2015 study by the Canadian Center of Science and Education

You can find more explanations of such strategies, and share them with teachers, in this culturally-responsive teaching guide.

10. Implement peer coaching

Instructional leadership may be one of your core duties, but teachers can -- and should -- play a role in supporting your efforts. Peer coaching is one way teachers can play a role. And it’s hands-off for you. Essentially, it involves two similarly-skilled teachers helping one another solve problems and complete tasks, learning throughout the process. Supported by an authoritative academic work about the subject, elements of effective peer coaching include:

  • Conducting initial meetings with the peers, establishing trust, goals and a meeting schedule between the two
  • Having a way for each peer to collect and submit data about one another, such as insights and results they’ve noticed
  • Allowing each peer to review the above data, applying it to future teaching efforts

It’s easy to see how a peer coaching system that follows this framework can quickly improve teacher effectiveness.

11. Promote growth mindset

Teachers can increase the level and frequency of student achievement by instilling a growth mindset, says Carol Dweck-- the Stanford University developmental psychologist who popularized the philosophy.

In a nutshell, the pedagogy focuses on helping students understand the values of effort and trying new learning methods. The goal of doing so is to cultivate their talents and abilities. Instilling a growth mindset in your classrooms is challenging, but you can start by instructing teachers about these strategies:

  • Using diverse approaches -- Exposing students to distinct instructional methods and strategies will help build a repertoire of skills to handle diverse challenges, says Dweck. Typical differentiated instruction strategies are key, as they allow students to develop and sharpen this repertoire.
  • Encouraging elaboration -- During discussions, asking students to elaborate on their thoughts reveals what they do and don’t understand, encouraging them to process content at deeper levels. This demonstrates a core aspect of growth mindset: Subject matter expertise isn’t inherent, but developed.
  • Saying “yet” -- The word “yet” can change disparaging sentences into positive ones, promoting growth, says Dweck. For example, “I can’t do long division yet.” “I don’t have the skills to answer this question yet.” When teachers hear negative sentences, they should encourage students to tack on “yet.”

You can find more details and strategies to share with your teachers in this guide to instilling growth mindset.

12. Stay positive

Staying positive is one of the most straightforward -- yet difficult -- aspects of leadership. Establishing a wide sense of optimism is “significantly related to feelings of (employee) empowerment” and general happiness, states an oft-cited 2007 study. As leaders can directly affect an organization, you have the power to instill this sense of optimism -- hope, confidence and the like -- in your teachers. The study’s authors point to the following approaches, which you can model throughout your daily duties:

  • Goal setting
  • Resiliency in the face of hardship
  • Confidence to take on challenges

These approaches certainly relate to actively promoting growth mindset. But you must remember: It starts with you and spreads.

Final thoughts about instructional leadership

These instructional leadership strategies are largely based on working more closely with teachers than you already do. That likely seems daunting, especially with your workload in other areas. So, start small. Consider dedicating about 10% of a single day, per week, to executing one or two strategies. Then, as this proves effective, devote time to more of the strategies. You’ll likely find yourself growing into a more effective, enthusiastic instructional leader. Prodigy is a game-based learning platform that’s used by more than 100 million teachers, parents and students around the world.

Learn more about how your school can use Prodigy to engage students with math learning today.