Seven Sources of Guidance for Instructional Leadership

Chart your course for the coming year with these reflective prompts.

This article is part of a series focusing on the learning continuum, brought to you with support from The Wallace Foundation.

By Justin Baeder
December, 2016, Volume 40, Issue 4

The end of the calendar year—when we have a break from the daily tsunami of work that each school day brings—is the perfect time to reflect on your career as an educator and your goals for the future. Eleven years ago this December, I decided to become a school leader, but I couldn’t have made that decision alone.

As you reflect on your current situation and your goals for the future, here are seven sources of information and insight to consider. Seek their counsel and reflect on their input, and you’ll be ready to chart your course for the coming year and beyond.

1. Your Mentors and Leaders
Who has influenced you? Who has cheered you on and helped you grow? What advice have these trusted mentors given you? As you reflect on your career goals, pay special attention to what your mentors have told you are your areas of strength. They’re seldom wrong.

Your direct supervisor, as well as other leaders at a similar level, can help you discern what’s going well and when you might be ready for a new challenge. You’ll find their advice—as well as their tangible support and endorsement—indispensable in making a career move.

2. Virtual Mentors
Whose advice do you follow—even if they don’t know you follow them? What authors are you guided and inspired by? Professional reading—and listening to podcasts—can be a great way to learn beyond the walls of your school or district. Bringing in fresh, innovative ideas is often the best way to advance as a leader and bring about positive change in your organization.

3. Teachers Who Inspire You
We’ve all worked with teachers who remind us what’s possible, and what this work is all about. Over and over, I’ve found that some of the clearest guidance often comes from those closest to the work—the teachers who are interacting with students every day. Whether you’re planning a major change or just looking for ways to improve as a leader, the teachers you work with are rich wells of wisdom.

4. Peers and Confidants
Some of my best professional relationships as a new principal were with the other administrators hired around the same time. Facing a similar learning curve, we helped each other navigate the complexities of the job, and even more, to make key career and personal decisions at pivotal moments.

5. Cautionary Tales
As unpleasant as it may be to think about, we’ve all seen or heard of other professionals going down in flames in various ways. We all learn from our own mistakes, but we can save ourselves a great deal of trouble by learning from other people’s mistakes.

I’ve made a habit of carefully reading any news stories I encounter about K-12 leaders who become embroiled in controversy—especially if it originates in a fairly minor or mundane issue. By examining their missteps, I’ve come to realize that how we handle the controversies we’ll inevitably face is often as important as the decisions that spark them in the first place.

6. How You Can Best Help Students
Ultimately, what kind of impact do you want to have on students? Many who embark on the path of instructional leadership feel a sense of guilt or loss at leaving the classroom or pursuing a leadership position farther from the core of teaching and learning.

If you’re considering a move that would increase the distance between your work and the students you ultimately serve—such as a shift to the central office—be sure to reconnect with your beliefs about how you can best impact student learning. I decided that my best contribution to student learning was building systems to support teaching and learning—a touchstone that has kept me focused for more than a decade.

7. Friends and Family
Time away from work, surrounded by the people you care most about, is often the perfect opportunity to make major career decisions. If you’re facing a fork in your professional path, seek the counsel of the people closest to you. Share the input you’ve gathered from the professional-world sources above with the friends and family you trust the most.

Talk through the implications of a possible change with everyone who would be affected, and get their feedback on both the change and its timing. Even if you can’t make a move right now, talking through your options for the future will help ensure that everyone is on board when the time is right.

Lay the Foundation for Change
Once you’ve made a decision, don’t delay taking action. After deciding to pursue a career in administration in December 2005, I had just a few weeks to compile my application materials for graduate school, so I used every remaining moment of the holiday break to get ready. If you decide to make a change, start making it now, before school resumes.

Look back, reach out, and look forward while you have time away from school. Even if the holidays will keep you busy, make the most of the change in perspective this season offers.

Justin Baeder is host of Principal Center Radio and the creator of the 21-Day Instructional Leadership Challenge.

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