Balanced Leadership: Principal as Instructional Coach
Leadership Insights

Principal as Instructional Coach: Balance Leadership by Knowing Your History

By Terry Wilhelm April 22, 2014

Richard and Rebecca DuFour, nationally recognized authorities on Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), speak often of “loose-tight” leadership. Effective principals balance their leadership on the loose-tight continuum depending on the situation.

But how do principals decide whether to provide leeway on a particular issue or in a given situation? These decisions are often complex; here are some criteria to consider.

Loose-tight leadership and historical precedent

First, what is the history of the situation? In one elementary school, a new principal announced that lesson plans for the coming week were due on her desk by the end of the day each Friday. She planned to be “tight” on this requirement, just as her principal had been when she was a teacher in another district.

She encountered a tidal wave of negative teacher response. The principal quickly learned that in her new district, the accepted interpretation of the teacher contract was that teachers did not have to write formal lesson plans.

Teachers were expected to plan but were not to be required to use a particular format or submit lesson plans in writing aside from their biannual formal observation. This principal had to develop other ways to ensure that teachers were intentionally planning their instruction.

In another district, an elementary principal had been tight on the requirement that lesson plans were written and available for review by the administrative team by Monday morning each week. Although the principal sometimes checked lesson plans, it was the assistant principals’ job to walk through classrooms, peruse the lesson plans, and note whether the instruction taking place actually matched the plan and daily student targets — objectives are written in kid-friendly language — were clearly written on the board for each subject area. Immediate feedback, mostly positive, in the form of a quick note to the teacher was a part of this routine.

How tacit understandings affect instructional feedback

When a new principal was hired, it quickly became known that checking lesson plans was not a priority for her. Given her looseness on this particular requirement, the APs began to find that a few teachers no longer completed written lesson plans, although part of their administrative duties still included the Monday check.

When teachers did not have plans available, APs would remind them that lesson plans were expected, but it was easy for a few teachers to become somewhat passive-aggressive in resisting the requirement. The principal was tight on other requirements, but because there was a tacit understanding that consequences for not having lesson plans was unlikely, the APs began to be less systematic about the Monday walkthroughs.

Ironically, a number of teachers began to express that they missed administrative walkthroughs and feedback. This was a missed opportunity for regular support of teachers’ continuous instructional improvement.

Principals make many decisions on the fly, but when there is time to think through where to be loose and where to be tight, take steps to learn the history of the situation. It will help minimize both missed opportunities and unnecessary upset on the part of staff members, improving communication and helping staff members advance.

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