As Professor John Fischetti of the University of Newcastle explains, there are multiple drivers of instructional leadership in schools. Successful instructional leadership can be a balancing act, influenced by a wide variety of factors.
School leaders have a figurative colour pallet in front of them as they paint the picture of and for their schools. They can use the imaginary colour wheel to determine with their executives, their faculties and their communities what approaches they would like to use to enable student success. Is the school primarily one to promote academic excellence? Is it a school that cares deeply about student wellbeing? Does this school promote diversity and social justice? Does this school have students engaged in passionate study inside and outside of the four walls of the classrooms? The standards developed by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL), and virtually all the leadership standards around the world, consider school leaders to be instructional leaders first and foremost. Instructional leadership is fundamentally job one of a principal after the health and safety of students and staff. However, some of the sub-indicators of the leadership criteria might actually be a bit naive in that they do not actually detail how difficult it is for time-poor school leaders on a day-to-day basis to actually be in classrooms for regular lengthy visits. Walkthroughs have become a cheap substitute to full ‘block’ observations. The standards and many processes almost make it all seem ‘too easy’.
Too often in the past we may have emphasised teaching over learning, with leaders monitoring teaching quality through observations over learning quality through evidence of students meeting outcomes. Everyone’s job in a school is to promote an inspirational learning environment built on high expectations, wellbeing, respect, dignity and love (of children and lifelong learning). The starting point for this kind of leadership is sharing a clear vision around an equity mindset – giving every child what they need when they need it. So, the first goal of an empowering, transformational instructional leader is fostering ‘vision’ towards great learning with an equity mantra and mindset. The equity lens is needed to ensure we are meeting the needs of every child, differentiating for each child’s special learning needs and to get learning and teaching right for each child. Establishing that equity vision is crucial for instructional leaders or each strategy will just look like a bunch of to-do items to improve a data wall or school plan, rather than shaping the direction of the school.
The job of the instructional leader is to put in place the people and processes to enable engaging, personalised school designs that will allow for success for all. In many schools there are pockets of great things happening, and individual great teachers who are doing great things to inspire great learning, but this may not necessarily add up to a whole-school design of success for all.
One common cliché for leaders is the act of keeping multiple agendas all in the air simultaneously, like a juggler continually rotating between the objects they are manipulating in the air all at once. So, what levers do school leaders have at their disposals – the drivers of transformational change. The NSW Department of Education particularly promotes three aspects of ‘future focused’ learning: space, technology and pedagogy.
Most leaders are using specific pedagogical approaches to drive the change process. Pedagogy is the way or the ways we teach (the principled and purposeful learning design and approaches/methods/assessments). So, the major colour in our wheel is the colour of pedagogy in a school. Some teachers have a philosophical view of pedagogy grounded in the literature, others employ an experiential or time honoured view of the kinds of work and activities students do in their classes. Pedagogy drives a school’s vision forward but in some schools the focus of pedagogy is haphazard class-to-class, teacher-to-teacher, and not intentionally connected to the school’s vision.
Some principals have chosen emerging technology to drive their change agendas. Emerging and immersive technology can be the catapult to integrate some of the new and old tools that allow us to increase student engagement and, thereby, learning. The advent of artificial intelligence and virtual reality tools, including mixed reality learning environments, allow us to replace didactic (stand and deliver) teaching in the next 10 years. Many initiatives funded by outside agencies or foundations, such as enabling a tablet or laptop for every child, involves boosting technology integration in schools as the lead driver of change.
The physical space is another of the drivers of instructional leadership. Many schools have recently or will soon be refurbished or rebuilt as contemporary learning spaces. These new kinds of learning spaces create opportunities for children to be not only seated in better kinds of chairs but for the whole classroom and learning experience to be structured in much more dynamic and engaging ways. In these new learning environments, gone are the days of the teacher at the front of the classroom with chairs in neat rows. The teacher is more of the guide, facilitator, coach or orchestra leader using flexible space to meet the needs of the learning outcome of the day, not as before where the classroom structure dictates the pedagogy.
The use of pedagogy, technology and space in tandem is a powerful component of instructional leadership. However, those three alone do not fully represent the colour pallet. Just as vital is the notion of support. This includes academic, social and emotional support for learners in the journey. This driver can be providing wellbeing components, extra tutoring, and special interventions to personalise learning for children. It can mean providing pastoral care to assist students in negotiating through issues they might be dealing with at home or to support them in negotiating growing up in a massively complex society. The average Australian teenager is online nine hours a day, three of those on social media websites. The level of anxiety, stress and depression emanating from our online and screen additions is the new normal for school leaders.
Another driver is the crucial need to engage positively with parents/carers and the community. Getting the support of parents and the community is vital to gain buy-in to the process of change, to support new school designs and to understand transformational change. We do have a lot of parents who want schools to look just like they did for them and we’re talking about a very different kind of school for a very different kind a purpose.
Paramount to pedagogy, technology, space, support and engagement is the imperative professional learning of leaders, staff and the whole community. This new kind of professional development drives forward the knowledge, skills and dispositions for understanding what kind of learning we are trying to achieve and what kind of learning environment we are fostering to promote that learning. Without personalised, relevant and contextualised professional learning, pedagogy, technology, space, support and engagement may be a mishmash of incoherence and will be a non-contributor to change.
A final driver is the selection of new staff and the leadership development of current colleagues. All new staff should be incorporated into the school vision and feel they are a vital part of the change process. Their skillsets and passions will be vital elements of the future of the school. Ongoing staff members are leaders, and their classroom and school leadership journey is paramount. Many classroom teachers do not see themselves as leaders and yet they are the most on-the-ground leaders in the school, the true instructional leaders. Their ongoing development is absolutely crucial in order to personalise learning, overcome siloed teaching and move to learning for all.
We are on the precipice of a very different approach to schooling, with new designs and new roles and functions of teachers to guide the learning journeys of all our children. We should design schools that are far more than just places young people go to watch their teachers work. In dynamic learning environments that are promoting learning and equity for all, school leaders are jugglers with multiple balls in the air. Trying to balance pedagogy, technology, space, support, engagement, professional learning and staffing simultaneously is a big ask. Keeping all the drivers in the air at the same time, while painting a unique design for his or her school is an amazing opportunity for a leader to shape the future. This move from ‘old school’ to ‘new school’ is an instructional leader’s dream. Moving from success for some to success for all allows everyone involved to have a huge stake in the future of a school, its community and society.