Winter 2020

Questions, Not Answers: Principals’ Path to Instructional Leadership

In both our careers, we intuited early that the quality of teaching in each classroom signaled in many important ways the overall quality of the school, a claim for which there is substantive support in educational literature (Leithwood, Harris, & Hopkins, 2008). Furthermore, studies have linked the knowledge and skills of teachers with the provision of enhanced learning opportunities for students and increased student achievement (Campbell, Lieberman, & Yashkina, 2016; Chapman, Chesnutt, Friel, Hall, & Lowden, 2016; Cordingley, 2015; Goddard et al., 2015; Graczewski, Knudson, & Holtzman, 2009; Hargreaves & Fullan, 2012; Timperley, 2005). As one strategy to support this high-quality teaching and learning, school jurisdictions across North America (Adams, et al, 2019; Pont, 2014; Riveros, Verret & Wei, 2016) have taken a standards-based approach through which school leaders must demonstrate proficiency in instructional leadership in addition to numerous other time-honored aspects of school managerialism.

As one example, Alberta Education has included instructional leadership as one of nine competencies in the mandated Leadership Quality Standard (Alberta Education, 2018). According to ministerial definition, instructional leadership is characterized by “a leader who ensures that every student has access to quality teaching and optimum learning experiences” (p. 6); in many cases, this requires a shift in principals’ focus towards nurturing and building a culture of learning for students and teachers. This shift also requires school leaders to grapple with ways to integrate instructional leadership as a daily habit of their leadership practices.

The first section of this paper discusses research that examined the perceptions of three principals with respect to their understanding and implementation of instructional leadership. The findings provide a compelling illustration of challenges experienced by school leaders to integrate meaningful and sustainable instructional leadership into their practice. The paper will then discuss these findings as they apply to the notion of Generative Leadership (Adams, et al, 2019), a research-based framework to facilitate effective instructional leadership by school principals. 

What is Instructional Leadership?

Despite variations and nuances in the definition of instructional leadership, most descriptions focus on the work that school leaders perform to directly influence the pedagogical practices of teaching staff (Graczewski, Knudson, & Holtzman, 2009; Lockmiller, 2015; Timperley, 2005). Principals consistently acknowledge instructional leadership as the sum of strategies they employ to enhance teachers’ capacity to provide quality learning experiences for all students. Yet, re-imagining the logistics for this commitment presents principals with challenges at several levels. Most apparently, the challenge in finding the time to dedicate to instructional leadership is a primary concern for principals as the day-to-day tyranny of the immediate can dominate the daily routine. In addition to time management, Timperley (2005) claimed that the complexity of these multi-level challenges is often not recognized. Furthermore, she questioned whether the expectations that school administrators “take on the mantle of instructional leadership without the help of expertise is realistic” (p.19).

This gap in school leaders’ confidence in their competence—or efficacy—was highlighted in a survey of 250 Alberta administrators in which approximately 30% of principals and 40% of vice principals were not ready to enact competencies such as instructional leadership  (Mombourquette & Adams, 2016). More recently, the Alberta Teachers’ Association (2019) published findings indicating that the “psychological complexity of classrooms has taken center stage in school leaders’ challenges” (p. 9). These studies highlight school leaders’ desire to achieve the competencies and their concomitant low levels of confidence in enacting instructional leadership, thus revealing that not all school leaders inherently possess the knowledge and skills to be effective instructional leaders.

Furthermore, supporting teachers’ learning goals is complex and can be complicated by the additional challenge of working alongside a teacher in a trusting collegial relationship while simultaneously acting in the role of supervisor and potential evaluator. This dichotomy becomes particularly evident in the process of providing teachers with feedback on their professional practice. Specific and timely feedback on teaching performance is widely accepted as important for the continued growth and development of teachers (Donahue, 2014; Lochmiller 2015; Rigby et al., 2017); however, providing effective feedback that contributes to enhanced practice is a skill that is not fully understood or skillfull enacted. What, then, does instructional leadership mean to principals? How do they perceive that their role of instructional leadership influences the practices of teachers?


This inquiry sought to understand the ways in which  principals understand and incorporate tenants of  instructional leadership into their own practice to actualize the nine competencies in the Leadership Quality Standard (LQS) (Alberta Education, 2018). The research explored how instructional leadership is conceptualized and practiced by three current principals in Central Alberta. Using a basic qualitative research design and purposeful sampling, three participants were chosen from both genders with between five and ten years of experience as principals in various school configurations. Participants were individually interviewed for 45-50 minutes in a semi-structured format that was guided by the following open-ended questions: a) Describe your understanding of instructional leadership and what the term means to you. b) As the principal in your school, what does instructional leadership look like? c) How will the Alberta leadership competencies influence how you demonstrate instructional leadership in your school? d) In what ways does implementing instructional leadership impact your relationships with staff? and e) As an instructional leader, is there a difference between your intentions and your lived experience?

Interviews were transcribed and then analyzed using a constant comparative method (Merriam & Tisdell, 2016). Five themes emerged as key elements in principals’ understandings of instructional leadership practices that reflected their: (a) theoretical approach to instructional leadership, (b) relationships with staff, (c) teacher supervision practices, (d) coaching opportunities, and (e) values for teacher collaboration.


The interview data revealed that all participants conceptualized the key element of instructional leadership as a process of supporting the growth and professional capacity of teachers. Moreover, five themes emerged vis-a-vis participants’ perspectives of the instructional leadership practices: (a) theoretical approaches to instructional leadership, (b) relationships with staff, (c) teacher supervision, (d) coaching opportunities, and (e) teacher collaboration.

Instructional Leadership: What does it Mean to Principals?

Participant responses to this question consistently acknowledged instructional leadership as the sum of several strategies employed to enhance teachers’ capacity to provide quality learning experiences for students. Throughout the interviews, participants conveyed an authentic concern for “how teachers are instructing and what practices they are using.” Claire1 Described instructional leadership as her obligation “to help teachers, challenge them, and support their growth.” Similarly, Kristen believed that it was her responsibility to ensure that teachers have the “capacity to instruct and use best practices in the classroom.” The three participants unanimously supported the new LQS for how it provides a focus on instructional leadership for school-based administrators. Brendan asserted that the LQS outlines a “list of standards that we can meet, that we can use a guide” to direct instructional leadership.

Theoretical Approaches to Instructional Leadership

Analysis of interview data revealed that participants adopted varying approaches or styles to instructional leadership. For example, Brendan believed in a servant approach, stating that “we are there for our teachers to facilitate professional learning and to take some of the things out of their way so they can do the real important job” of teaching. Claire described a coaching approach, emphasizing her efforts to “get into teachers’ classrooms” and to “get her foot in the door” to work directly with teachers in a coaching capacity. Kristen’s style was based on role modelling. To emphasize the importance of her demonstrating the application of theory to practice, she stated that, “I have this great idea, but am I applying it myself?” For Kristen, implementing “purposeful changes” in her classroom demonstrated her own commitment to professional learning that served as a model for her staff .

 Knowledge of curriculum and prior teaching experience emerged as key factors influencing participants’ approach to instructional leadership. Claire shared, “I am confident in my own knowledge of what are some high leverage tools and practices,” to guide her teachers. Kristen stressed the value of providing “an outside eye” to the teaching practices she observes and her responsibility to share new and effective instructional strategies. All participants conveyed a sense of responsibility for their own level of knowledge and understanding of various curricula. Claire believed that “in the world of being a principal, I don’t think you can know everything,” but she noted that her growing understanding of pedagogy and increased familiarity with a wide breadth of curricular principles had increased her capacity to be a resource for her staff.

Relationships with Teachers

Participants unanimously stressed that building relationships was “the first step” to becoming effective instructional leaders. For example, Brendan claimed that if relationships were not healthy, the principal’s “credibility as an instructional leader would be in jeopardy.”  Trust, transparency, reliability, and vulnerability emerged as key components in supporting relationships between principals and staff members. Claire made a direct connection between trust and reliability: “I think that trust thing, you really have to be careful, you have to think about that frequently. The things I am committed to, am I following through? Can they rely on me?” Kristen echoed this sentiment by pointing out the importance of “following through” on commitments and building trust with staff through “honest and open conversations.” Participants expressed their value for transparency with their staff through strategies such as openly sharing their “vision” and explaining to their staff “where they are going.” Participants also emphasized the need to be transparent when making significant decisions and to clearly delineate the reasons for their decisions as ways to sustain a culture of trust.

Additionally, participants identified vulnerability as important to building strong relationships. They suggested that principals should be “willing to stick their necks out and try to model and demonstrate” instructional strategies. Principals who also teach should have the “courage” to address colleagues and ask, “Hey, what am I missing here? What’s working in your class? How can I do that?” Participants noted that demonstrating this vulnerability leads to an increased mutual trust to the point where staff members “feel safe” to honestly share their ideas and concerns with the principal. Brendan concluded his interview by claiming that the work he does as an instructional leader “brings us right back to relationships; that is the single most important thing we have.”

Teacher Supervision

         Participants identified teacher supervision as a key element of their instructional leadership. Kristen summarized supervision as “overseeing the instruction of the teachers and what they are doing to instruct students.” They collectively agreed that “classroom observations were critical” and that supervision needed to occur on a continuous basis to develop a “good understanding of what staff are doing.” Claire connected her supervision practices to the goals that teachers had identified in their annual professional growth plans. She stated that supervision was “becoming much more of a conversation where they know the goal, they’re thinking about the goal throughout the year, and they’re working on their goals more frequently than they did in the past.” 

Despite participants’ support for the value of teacher supervision, they each reported significant challenges to maintaining a consistent supervision schedule. Brendan expressed frustration with the emergent day to day issues that commonly prevented or interrupted his classrooms visits: “I get into the classroom and forty seconds later there is an announcement or page” that directs him back to the office. Participants also reported that teacher supervision time was frequently interrupted with various administrative duties, such as the continual “burden” of emails that required their attention. These competing priorities prompted Claire to note that she was becoming more reflective of “what things are really important” in her workday:

There is a lot of things that we put as first priorities that really aren’t that urgent, like responding to emails. It’s something you need to do eventually but it’s not incredibly urgent, yet it gets this really high priority. Getting into teachers’ classrooms, I can’t do it outside of school.

Instructional Coaching

         Participants described three coaching strategies employed in their instructional leadership: (a) feedback on classroom practice; (b) intentional conversations to promote reflection on practice; and (c) integration of research-based strategies into teacher practice.

Participants suggested that the “timing of feedback” is critical to how teachers perceive the feedback. Claire intentionally sought opportunities to connect feedback to the teacher’s professional learning goals and stayed attentive throughout the year to leveraging occasions that “naturally show up to bring into those conversations.” Participants also expressed the challenge of not “offending teachers” with their “comments or suggestions” and offering meaningful feedback “that teachers will utilize.” Brendan noted, “as teachers, our backs get up a little bit when there is a suggestion offered because you feel judged.”

Participants noted the value of intentional conversations that provide a balance between showing support for teachers, yet challenging teachers to expand their thinking and reflect upon their instructional practices. Kristen suggested that these conversations do not have to be formally scheduled, but can naturally occur “after classroom observations, in the stock room, in the staff meeting, and in the one-to-one conversations after school.” Claire revealed her inquiry approach to her teacher conversations, stating “I don’t have to have the answers but I think I can ask strong questions to get people thinking about practice. I feel like my role is to question best practices and help teachers to think through it.” Kristen expressed the need for “having those fierce conversations” with teachers that promote reflection and encourage growth. She concluded, “I think we know we are always challenging each other. That’s what education is about—orthodoxy is the enemy.”

In general, participants recognized that educational research is commonly viewed by teachers as peripheral or “something out there”, lacking connection to the practical issues that teachers face in classrooms. In response to this apparent division between research and practice, participants identified the need to champion research-based strategies within their schools. Kristen argued that teachers should implement instructional strategies with the assurance “that there is research that backs them up or that there is a logic or a fundamental principle” that supports the practices. Claire illustrated her support of connecting research to the classroom through a weekly routine of sharing a few pages of a Marzano book with her first and second year teachers. 

Teacher Collaboration

Participant responses revealed unanimous support for methods of collaboration to positively influence teachers’ professional capacity.  Brendan highlighted formal structures, such as “embedded collaboration time” built into the master time table, as well as scheduled collaborative time during professional development days that allow teachers to “sit down and pick each other’s brains” as they plan together and discuss student progress. Participants made specific reference to the Collaborative Response Model (Hewson, Hewson, & Parsons, 2016), a structured method of teacher collaboration recently adopted by their school division, as an effective strategy to “support each other as a team” to respond to the learning needs of individual students.

The participants in this inquiry shared a common belief in the goal of developing reflective cultures of practice through collaboration that are characterized by more than teachers merely sharing resources. Claire distinguished collaboration from collegiality to express her vision: 

Collegial is not good enough. I want people to work together, collaborate closely. I want people to be able to challenge ideas and be alright with having their idea challenged and being okay with challenging someone’s idea in the proper way. All of us have some answers but we have to be pretty humble and figure this out together.

Kristen echoed this approach to collaboration, stressing the need for “open and honest dialogue” to foster a “common direction.” Participants agreed that effective collaboration creates some “messy moments” that must be navigated by professionals working together to realize their collective potential.

Discussion: A Shift Toward Generative Leadership

Rigby et al. (2017) and Lochmiller (2015) recognized the importance of school leaders developing specific skills in providing effective feedback, in particular when offering feedback on instruction in classrooms that were not in principals’ areas of content expertise. However, there is little research focusing on the extent to which principal feedback is a mechanism for instructional improvement (Rigby et al., 2017). The notion of generative leadership (Adams, et al, 2019) may offer a framework to facilitate rich and productive dialogue between school leaders and teachers they supervise. These conversations, referred to as generative dialogue (Adams, 2016), form the basis of a process of collaborative inquiry (Adams & Townsend, 2014) that is built on a foundation of mutual respect where each participant is treated as a trusted colleague. In this regard, the construct of Generative Leadership is germane to several findings in this study.

As noted by the principals interviewed in this research, the task of developing collegial relationships with a teacher can be complicated by the requirement of fulfilling their role as the teacher’s immediate supervisor. To some, this precarious balance may seem mutually exclusive. A generative leadership approach begins with the assumption that teachers are competent and that professional growth of practice is the sole purpose of the process. This establishes a foundation of professional collegiality without a perceived power imbalance; through this more equitable relationship, principals and teachers can engage in generative dialogue to craft meaningful and relevant professional learning goals. In this setting, principals are not expected to impart their wisdom or experience, but instead demonstrate authentic curiosity and interest through the use of probing and guiding questions to help each teacher develop a personalized inquiry question related to their instructional practices. The inquiry process inherently directs teachers to focus on classroom issues that matter the most, a critical element for effective professional learning (Akiba & Liang, 2016; Chong & Kong, 2012; Levine & Marcus, 2010). Teachers are challenged in meeting the daily demands of their classroom and curricular commitments; therefore, professional learning activities must be relevant to their practice to maintain their interest, engagement, and empowerment. The specific inquiry question becomes the focus for classroom visits and regularly scheduled meetings throughout the year that form the iterative cycles of supervision and feedback. In this relationship, both principal and teacher are learners, with the teacher actively investigating their inquiry and implementing new classroom strategies, and principals committing to regular classroom observations that provide teachers with meaningful feedback and connecting available resources to support the teacher’s learning goals. In this manner, generative leadership creates collaborative spaces that lead to critical reflexivity that challenges teachers’ pedagogy with the hopes of transforming practice (Feldman, 2014). In summary, then, enerative Leadership may provide school leaders with a comprehensive approach to build relationships, supervise teacher practice, and offer coaching opportunities—all within a spirit of collaborative professionalism.

Conclusion Today’s school leaders are compelled by educational research, changing policies, and their own professional experience to provide instructional leadership that will enhance teachers’ practices and optimize learning experiences for all students. In examining the practices of three current principals, five themes emerged that offer insight into the pragmatics of instructional leadership, including: 1) philosophical approach to instructional leadership, 2) relationships with staff, 3) teacher supervision, 4) coaching opportunities with teachers, and 5) teacher collaboration. A generative leadership framework may provide school leaders with an effective means of addressing these pragmatics by shifting away from the expectation that leaders need be experts in every level and course of curriculum; rather they must be willing to participate as curious learners. As one of the principals in this research stated, “It’s really taught me how to ask the right questions. I don’t have to have the answers but I think I can ask strong questions to get people thinking about practice”.

By Warren Aspenes & Pamela Adams

[1] All names used in the article are pseudonyms assigned by the researcher.

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