Set Aside Some Time to Read about the Power of Instructional Leadership

Do you notice that you get even further behind when spring arrives and everything blooms? I sure do. Spring cleaning took place on my desk recently, and one of the first things I did was read the March issue of Educational Leadership.

(I get the print version by mail but there’s a digital version too. And with a $49 annual digital membership, you can access all the ASCD periodicals.)

I always begin by opening to the table of contents and look at the titles of the articles and the authors who wrote them. This month, opening the issue became a “jaw-dropping experience.”

(Click to see Table of Contents)

This issue focuses on instructional leadership and editor Anthony Rebora did a masterful job pulling together the thoughts and ideas of an impressive group of educators ranging from Mike Schmoker to Pete Hall, Douglas Fisher, and others. (See Rebora’s guiding questions for some of these articles here.)

My quick glance at the contents helped me understand that I needed to carve out time for serious reading and learning. Here’s some of what I found and learned!

The Hard Part of Instructional Leadership

Pete Hall tackles what many principals would call their most difficult job: dealing with underperforming teachers in his article, “The Instructional Leader’s Most Difficult Job.”

Hall notes that “the ways that school leaders respond to performance concerns can vary widely—and may not always be effective.” To make his case, he offers five prototypes of a principals’ reaction to a teacher’s lack of performance. In four of the five cases, the principal’s reaction falls short of what Hall would recommend.

In four of the inadequate approaches, Hall describes why the approach is insufficient and different approach the principal could have taken. In one example where the principal sends in an instructional coach to “fix the teacher,” Hall notes that such action could not only destroy the relationship between the coach and the teacher, but would send a message that coaching is only for those teachers who are under-performing.

Hall’s effective approach, which he believes is probably the most challenging, involves a principal being transparent and building trust with the teacher he/she is coaching. In this case, the principal, noting a performance problem, works directly with the teacher by providing descriptive feedback, being clear about what needed to be addressed, and providing resources and access to coaching as needed.

Hall outlines a five-step process to addressing teacher performance issues;

  1. Set a clear understanding of what high-level performance is.
  2. Give frequent, descriptive, and focused feedback.
  3. When there’s a concern, name it.
  4. Offer consistent support.
  5. Trust the process.

Hall’s fifth and final step encourages leaders to understand that professional growth “takes time” and leaders should give teachers “ample opportunities to access supports, utilize coaching, practice strategies, and build their skills.” But he also notes that if, over time, the teacher doesn’t improve, it then becomes personnel issue.

In Literacy, More is Less

Calling on Michael Fullan’s quote that “The skinny is finding the smallest number of high-leverage actions that unleash stunningly powerful consequences” (2009), Mike Schmoker’s article “Embracing the Power of Less” suggests that effective instructional leaders narrow their focus to one or two powerful initiatives at a time.

To make his point, Schmoker mentions a plethora of studies and books, including Morton Hansen’s Great at Work (2018). This book studied 5,000 leaders over a five-year period and identified seven top factors for success. The top factor was “focus.” In the book, to make a strong and vivid point, Hansen coined the phrase “Do less, then obsess.” Schmoker pointed out Hansen’s view that leaders who obsess with “a tiny set of goals will be less stressed out, more balanced, and more satisfied with their job.”

A passionate advocate of literacy, Schmoker suggests three steps to help a leader focus:

  1. Create a coherent curriculum
  2. Promote authentic literacy
  3. Deliver soundly structured instruction

“If you, as a leader, find something more effective or more urgently needed than these three priorities,” Smoker says, “adopt it. Then obsess: Give that priority the time, energy, and attention that most initiatives are now starved for.”

Disciplinary Literacy


Perhaps the most impactful article in this issue, for me, is the one on “Discipline Literacy” by Douglas Fisher and Jacy Ippolito (this one’s locked but read on for related resources). This article stresses the importance of secondary principals playing a “critical role in supporting professional learning about discipline literacy and integrating it into instruction.”

Discipline literacy operates from the premise that “content-area teachers are best positioned to apprentice their students into discipline-specific ways of reading, writing, and communicating.” Writing like a scientist is then different from writing like an author or a mathematician.

To help instructional leaders learn more about discipline literacy, the authors offer two resources. The first was created by Annenberg Learner and is a free resource that offers online modules about discipline literacy. See

The other resource comes in the form of two articles: The first is written by Tim and Cynthia Shanahan and titled “What is Disciplinary Literacy and Why Does it Matter?”. And, the second resource is “Discipline Literacy: Just the FAQ’s.” A brief summary of the article, also authored by the Shanahans, can be accessed here. [If you are an ASCD member, you can read the entire Fisher/Ippolito article.]

Other Important Tidbits

An article by Diane Sweeney and Ann Mausbach highlights the importance of the principal-instructional coach partnership to ensure clarity and coherence. An unlocked article about mentoring and coaching new principals, “Lean on Me,” notes the importance of starting slow and having the mentor help the new principal create an instructional framework that makes sense for that school. And, finally, Shane Safir’s “Becoming a Warm Demander,” also unlocked, suggests that equity-centered coaching involves instructional leaders who are “warm demanders,” who hold high expectations, build trust, and teach self-discipline.

Worth Your Time

Taking an hour or two to peruse this issue will be well worth your time. I guarantee that you’ll come away with some new ideas and resources. I’d love to learn which article most resonated with you and why. I hope you’ll enter your insights and comments at the bottom of this blog.