Sherry St. Clair
Understanding the ‘Leadership’ of the Instructional Leader
What does the “leader” part of instructional leader entail?
This is a question I address often with school leaders, whether with coaches or school administrators. Many of us are in our instructional leadership roles because we have demonstrated strength and competence with highly rigorous, relevant, and engaging instruction. Yet, encouraging teachers to grow is not as simple as imparting knowledge. It requires first that you earn their trust so that they are willing to follow you down a vulnerable path of change. This takes being a leader.
Being a leader itself requires constant growth and development. I encourage all coaches and instructional leaders to read and listen to materials about effective leadership. (I’ve shared some of my favorites resources here).
As you lead your own leadership learning, focusing on the following areas of leadership pertinent to instructional coaching will ensure your learning is relevant, empowering, and will lead to both your success and that of your teachers.
Focus Area 1: Cultivating strong relationships
Without strong relationships with those you coach, you will struggle to lead them. Being coached is vulnerable. And people will only open up to coaches whom they trust and feel has their best interest at heart. This requires truly knowing those you lead through coaching.
In my first meeting with each new person I coach, I always explain that I am here to serve their growth. I make clear that I am not here to serve my agenda, or what I think is best in a general sense. I am here to help them understand their needs and goals, work in partnership to develop a growth plan, and then lead them down their own path of learning in the way that is best for them.
Many teachers have had experiences with well-meaning coaches who prioritize their needs over the teachers’. As a result, teachers can sometimes grow skeptical of a coach’s guidance.
Stating your commitment to their needs puts people at ease. It nudges them to open up to you and trust you. Throughout coaching, continue to nurture the relationship by asking the teacher how he or she is doing and if they have any immediate concerns of needs in every session.
Focus Area 2: Knowing what to coach, when to coach, and how to coach
This is about learning how to recognize what your teacher needs, when will be the most effective time to introduce it, and what will be the most effective approach to coaching it.
What to coach: Here, I am referring to the coach’s content toolkit, not the teacher’s content. Determining what to coach is a function of two considerations: 1) what skills and content knowledge do students need, and how do they need to learn to apply them today to be prepared for careers tomorrow?; 2) which are the areas that the individual teacher will benefit from coaching, and what are the related goals?
The concepts in the first consideration fill the coach’s toolkit and include: career-relevant skills (I like the World Economic Forum’s often updated list); high-effect size instructional strategies; effective blended learning tools; SEL strategies; and strategies to increase rigor, relevance, and learner engagement.
As far as the second consideration, I suggest observing new teachers to identify their areas of strength and opportunities for growth. When determining together the first area you will coach and the first goals you and a teacher will set together, always look for a relatively easy win to start. I advise coaches against starting with big ambitious goals. The idea is to create positive momentum from accessible goals and early wins that you can build on to—over time and at a pace the teacher can manage—reach for bigger and bigger goals.
When to coach: The strongest leaders learn how to assess when a person is ready for change and how much of it they can manage at once. I devote a chapter to this in my book because it is so important not to ask too much of people too soon. It can demoralize them and destroy the trust you’ve worked so hard to establish.
Central to coaching something when a person is ready for it is to start from a positive entry point, i.e., a strength the teacher has demonstrated. In fact, looking for a positive entry point into coaching new content is a way to assess a person’s readiness for it. If you can see no way to start from strength, then the teacher is likely not ready for the content at that time, as it would feel like too much change at once.
To start from the positive, look for a past success that the teacher has had that is somehow relatable to the new content at hand and draw the parallel explicitly. Imagine a teacher has had success in incorporating a SEL strategy into learning, and you want to introduce career-relevant skills into the teacher’s classroom. You could start with a career skill that overlaps with SEL, such as “coordinating with others” or “service orientation,” citing the previous success with SEL.
How to coach: How to lead a person down the next step of learning is a function of where this person is in their capacity to lead their own learning. If a person is a more novice learner when it comes to particular content, it is wise to take smaller, intentional, and focused steps. The idea is to avoid overwhelming them with too much, too fast. This can cause them to grow discouraged and, worse, doubtful they can master the content at hand. For more advanced learners, it might be appropriate to do less hand-holding, instead offer more high-level guidance, and give them the room to decide how they want to learn.
Knowing how to coach a person at a particular moment is just as much art as it is science; it takes practice. In addition to some concrete tools I lay out in my book, part of learning this is keeping the lines of communication open with teachers. If you don’t know much they can handle right now, ask them. Doing so will further nurture trust and reinforce that coaching is not a process of “from teacher, to student” but a co-creation and a partnership.
Focus Area 3: Core leadership skills
There are certain skills that are central to strong leadership no matter the field. They include:
Listening skills: The starting point of great listening skills is asking questions, or going on a “listening tour,” as I call it. We cannot deliver the best and most relevant coaching to our teachers without first learning about the environment in which they teach and learning from them how they prefer to be led and what their goals are. We do this by asking questions and then listening to learn, not to respond. Keep in mind that all key stakeholder groups have insights that will be helpful to informing your leadership and coaching.
Communication skills: The greatest leaders are skilled communicators. They communicate often and know how to communicate clearly. They know to adapt messages for the audience. They always remain professional and respectful. They freely offer up praise where it is deserved and are simultaneously direct and compassionate when delivering constructive feedback. And they use multiple communication channels to reiterate expectations and offer ongoing support as teachers work to meet them.
Growth mindset: Leaders are believers in a growth mindset—for themselves, everyone they coach, and all students. This means they are committed to their own ongoing learning, which expands from leadership learning, all the way down to staying on top of the latest teaching tools, instructional content changes, and technologies. They coach all teachers to believe in their own unlimited potential, as well as that of all of their students. A growth mindset means that setbacks are expected and always reframed as opportunities for new learning.
Vision casting skills: Vision casting is the practice of articulating highly detailed goals that help a person visualize what it will look and feel like for them to have achieved it. As an example, if a teacher needs to improve with project-based learning, a coach can vision-casted goal by saying, “Based on how well your are managing small group projects in your classroom, I can see where you could give the students more choice in choosing their project. This would help you get one step closer to guiding students to learn through the components o PBL.” I will make a point to emphasize the utilized SEL skills. Students will work collaboratively and effectively, will have a clear understanding of the expectations and also sufficient flexibility to rely on their creativity, and will self-monitor their progress.”
Seeing the big picture: The best leaders recognize that an individual can learn only so much in an organization that remains stuck and is not itself growing. The best leaders create a plan to create a learning organization, which is an organization that has systems in place to promote team learning and support the growth of all the individuals in it. The ultimate goal of a learning organization is to remove impediments to ongoing learning and introduce systems and processes to create a culture of learning and growth.
As I say often, instructional coaches are so much more than our title would suggest. We truly are leaders of individual and school-wide growth. We unlock our greatest potential when we recognize how much leading the work of coaching demands. And we achieve the greatest success—for ourselves, those we coach, and their students—when we own our responsibility as leaders and consistently work to develop our leadership style and skills.
Sherry St. Clair, president of Reflective Learning LLC, is the author of Coaching Redefined: A Guide to Leading Meaningful Instructional Growth. She coaches instructional leaders globally, with the aim of helping administrators, coaches, and teachers create the optimal learning environment for students. Additionally, she serves as a Senior Fellow for the International Center for Leadership in Education.