Winter 2018

Using Standards of Practice to Drive School Growth: Stories from the Field

Competency Eight: Providing Instructional Leadership

In the last edition of the CAP Journal we shared insights about understanding and responding to the larger societal context core professional competency for principals which emerged during our research about highly effective school leaders in Alberta. In this edition, we continue to share our research findings on the evolution of the Alberta Education standards of practice for school leaders with the seventh of seven competencies, providing instructional leadership. Read on to discover why and how this essential competency, which when practiced by education leaders will lead to optimum learning and development for all students.

Adhering to the Guideline: What the Literature Says

“The principal ensures that all students have ongoing access to quality teaching and learning opportunities to meet the provincial goals of education” (Alberta Education, 2009, p. 5).

Perhaps the most popularized term of the seven core professional competencies for principals, instructional leadership has been written about in articles and books and emphasized in various educational acts (Education Act, 2012). Instructional leadership has many varied conceptualizations including; (a) principals focusing attention on teachers’ behaviours within the school culture (Leithwood, Jantzi, & Steinback, 1999); (b) principals’ categorization of areas such as defining school mission combined with the mode of impact (direct, mediated, or reciprocal) (Hallinger & Heck, 1997); (c) a blend of principals’ supervision, staff development, and curriculum development (Blase & Blase, 1998), and (d) principals’ skill in modelling, monitoring, and using professional dialogue (Southworth, 2002). Alberta Education (2009) describes effective instructional leadership as an understanding of and an ability to apply both “current pedagogy and curriculum” by the principal (p. 5).

In order to best meet the standards set by Alberta Education in the annual Accountability Pillar (comprised of data such as student achievement results, student, parent, and teacher survey reports, and graduation rates) principals must use direct and indirect influences. Seven strategies to improve school performance are identified by Brown & Green (2014), including: leadership, collaboration, professional development, school organization, data analysis, curriculum alignment, and student intervention. Identifying what students need to know, how to get them to know it, and when they have learned it are three additional strategies put forward by ten Bruggencate, Luyten, Scheerens, & Sleegers (2012). Despite the increase in evidence which supports reform around developing essential standards throughout curriculums and classrooms, resistance remains from many scholars and teacher organizations (Mason, Mason, Mendex, Nelsen, & Orwig, 2005; Miller, 2013).

Considerable evidence supports the notion that school improvement and student learning are directly linked to effective teachers (Lewis, 2008; Seashore-Louis et al., 2010). However, there is little evidence showing that the evaluation of teachers by principals leads to improved student learning (Murphy, Hallinger, & Heck, 2013). Instead, Murphy et al. (2013) speak to the intricacies of teacher supervision, wherein the principal provides feedback to teachers (Hattie, 2009) while simultaneously: develops teaching communities that share goals, work, and responsibilities for student success (Wahlstrom & Seashore-Louis, 2008); creates systems that allow teachers to routinely develop and refine their skills (Bryk, Sebring, Allensworth, Luppescu, & Easton, 2010); and offers ample support for teachers (Leithwood & Jantzi, 2005). But just how principals do these functions remains somewhat of an enigma.

How Are Principals Measuring Up?[1]

In our interviews with highly effective school principals we sought to come to know how principals organized their professional duties so as to impact teachers and, through teacher work, student learning.

Providing instructional leadership means the blending of the provisions ordinarily found in school district Teacher Supervision and Evaluation policies, the need for the principals to exercise powers incumbent in the various acts, and the ways and means instructional leadership leads to increased student learning. Our interviewed principals provided powerful testimony to the methods in which they provided instructional leadership. Many of them integrated multiple sources of best recommended standards, such as the blending of the Teaching Quality Standard Applicable to the Provision of Basic Education in Alberta with the day-to-day functions inherent in effective use of Teacher Professional Growth Plans. These principals frequently visited classrooms to monitor progress and to use team building supports to enhance teacher collaborative practice.

The general trend among our interviewed principals was the provision of instructional leadership in meaningful, deliberate, and enjoyable manners. Creative strategies such as utilizing team meetings to determine where teachers were at in their pedagogy were used when putting this competency to practice. Furthermore, all principals spoke to their involvement of other leaders within the school community to aid with teacher supervision and evaluation.

In cases where some teachers needed additional support to meet their student learning goals, principals implemented teacher collaboration. At times this meant changing the way staff meetings were held in order to highlight increased teacher collaboration and growth. One of our principals shared about the positive impact of allowing teachers the time during team meetings to demonstrate, through mini lessons, what was working in their classrooms. This strategy allowed teachers to share their pedagogical innovation without taking on formal leadership roles.

Our principals recognized and spoke to the varied needs of their teachers in regards to their supervision requirements and evaluations, using an equity versus equality approach to supervision. At times the principals used data to help them meet their instructional leadership mandates – some used the data as a starting point from which to enhance meaning to student and teacher accountability, others shared the data among all staff so that there was a shared awareness about the nature and impact of teacher professional development events.

Interview Conclusions

Our principals kept their fingers on the pulse of learning-related activities in their schools by frequent observations of classroom learning, questioning students and teachers about the learning process, and getting feedback from and responding to team meetings. Thus, studying behaviours is an important task of instructional leadership (Leithwood, Jantzi, & Steinbach, 1999). So too are defining school mission, managing the instructional program, and promoting school climate (Hallinger & Heck, 1997), and these are the levers by which principals exert their most direct influence.

Most of our principals also invested much time in reading current literature about teaching and learning processes, and encouraging teachers to incorporate these readings into embedded professional learning and discussion in teams and PLCs. Principals and vice-principals also ensured teachers were familiar with the Program of Studies and their teaching activities were fully informed by the outcomes of the provincial curriculum.

With an appreciably greater emphasis on instructional leadership and accountability over the last decade came the recognition that teachers in Alberta needed a serious upgrade in knowledge and skills regarding assessment for and of learning. When interwoven, learning-focused leadership, assessment of student learning, and school improvement provide a framework for an aligned and coherent approach to developing and implementing strategies that can have a positive influence on sustained improvement in a school (Aitken, 2009; Webber, Aitken, Lupert, & Scott, 2009). Our principals understood explicitly the elements to weave together. PLCs were important structures within all schools to advance knowledge and skills about teaching and learning.

Several of our principals shared the sentiments of Murphy et al. (2013) and the other cited authors on the topic of teacher supervision, and instead of treating teacher evaluation and supervision as an exercise focused on individual teachers, they began to invest more time and effort in assessing the quality and content of teacher team meetings, committees, and PLCs—for these were critical sites of embedded learning and the springboard to changing practices. Principals also put greater emphasis on ensuring teachers developed competencies in new and emerging pedagogical technologies. The more technologically adept, and sometimes reluctant, teachers were encouraged to share their expertise at staff meetings, and this often stimulated a flow of teachers into particular classrooms where technological innovation was on the agenda.

[1] The following portion of this paper is taken from our study published in a book called Enacting Alberta School Leaders’ Professional Practice Competencies: A Toolkit – see

Dr. Carmen Mombourquette is an Associate Professor of Education specializing in Educational Leadership at the University of Lethbridge. For many years he was an elementary, junior high school, and high school principal in Alberta and Ontario.

Nicole Pesta is pursuing her Masters of Education in Counselling Psychology at the University of Lethbridge. From 2011 to 2015 she managed three psychology firms specializing in Organizational, Vocational, and Team Psychology. Following her studies, Nicole aspires to become a Sex Therapist and Relationship Counsellor.
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