Highly Effective Instructional Leaders Listen

For a former assistant principal, listening to teachers improved student achievement and staff relationships.

By Christy Bowman-White
February 2020, Volume 43, Issue 6

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After 10 years of teaching middle school language arts, I made the decision to leave the classroom and become a principal. I set a lofty goal—to become a highly effective instructional leader. I knew that to meet this goal, I would need to learn what instructional leadership was, identify research based best practices, and finally, incorporate these practices into my work.

Wake-up Call

In my first year as an assistant principal, I set my plan into action. I observed instruction, provided feedback, and followed procedures. I approached my work and growth as a step to be mastered and checked off the instructional leader list. Monitoring instruction? Check. Planning with data? Check. Improving Instruction? Not so fast.

When I learned that our state student achievement data showed no significant improvement from the year before, I realized that improving instruction was going to be more complicated than I thought. Providing feedback about what teachers did well or could improve was not going to be enough. Improving instruction was going to take a deeper partnership with teachers, focused on their thinking and decisions about instruction.

Situational Awareness

In my second year, I spent spring break deflated after asking my teachers how they felt our schoolwide literacy initiative to strengthen independent reading was going. By listening, I learned that there was an embarrassing gap between my perception and the reality. I believed our literacy initiative was thriving. In reality, all was not well. My vision and expectations were not clear. The data would show that the one area our students did not grow was the same area that we had focused on through professional development all year.

Situational awareness was lacking in my leadership. Rather than listening to my teachers to uncover the reality of how our initiative was going, I was guilty of assuming all was well.

Perception Equals Reality

In my third year, I spent a night awake replaying an emotional meeting with my teachers. By listening, I learned that there were questions about the authenticity of my positive feedback after visiting classrooms. I was proud of the notes I propped between the keys of their keyboards before leaving the room. I believed I was building relationships and making clear connections to how their actions had positively affected students. I was working hard to visit all of my teachers’ classrooms and provide feedback twice a month.

Regardless of my intentions, the reality was my feedback was not meeting its intended purpose. When I learned that my feedback was falling flat, I did something about it.

Listen and Learn

By my fourth year as an assistant principal, I had learned that highly effective instructional leaders listen—and learn. Here are some of my lessons learned.

  • Over the summer, I meet with new teachers to learn why they are passionate about education, what type of learner they are, and how they best process feedback.
  • In the fall, I learn my teachers’ goals for their professional growth and then keep our focus on these goals throughout the year.
  • Each month, I meet with my lead teachers to learn about the needs of their grade-level teams and to help guide our department’s professional development.
  • In the spring, I learn my teachers’ perspectives about our teams, our department, and our school. I use and communicate this information to initiate improvement efforts.
  • And I have learned that even when things seem to be fine, I need to find out from the source—the faculty and staff—how it’s going for them, what they need, what’s working, and what isn’t working.

Listening, particularly in the beginning, can be time-consuming, uncomfortable, confusing, or painful. But over time, leaning into the discomfort of listening develops resilience and a growing capacity to expect and accept discomfort as a natural and necessary part of growth.

Christy Bowman-White is principal of Maple Elementary School in Seattle, Washington.


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