More on My Beef with the Term “Instructional Leader.”

Dear Principals of Professional Learning Communities,

Can I push your thinking for a minute?

I’d like to suggest that learning teams — NOT school principals — should be the primary source of instructional leadership in PLCs.  I’d also like to suggest that using titles like “the instructional leader” to describe the role of the principal in a PLC is incongruous with the core principles of professional learning communities.

Here’s why:  In the best professional learning communities, teams of teachers relentlessly question their practice together in service of student learning.  They design and develop ways to measure the impact of their instructional decisions and then take action based on what they have learned.  Their primary goal is to amplify the best teaching strategies on their hallway in the interest of seeing every student succeed.

On high-functioning teams, questions are asked, new ideas are tried, evidence is gathered, and changes are made over and over again in ongoing cycles of collective inquiry.  Teachers begin to trust each other and to tap into the professional know-how of their peers whenever they are struggling with a genuine problem of practice.  They take a “these are our kids” approach to their work — constantly sharing and reflecting and revising together.

That intellectual symbiosis — the genuine sense that every teacher can benefit from the individual expertise of their collaborative partners — is the pinnacle of PLC work.  Teams who reach that level of collaborative development go beyond merely surviving the school year.  They THRIVE, energized and empowered by the realization that they can tackle anything together.

Leadership around instruction on high-functioning learning teams happens organically every time that individual teachers step forward to help their colleagues solve a particularly knotty problem.  What’s more, high-functioning teams learn to lean on the right leaders at the right time and to use the power of relationships to influence the practices of their peers in deep and meaningful ways.

Now don’t get me wrong:  I am NOT trying to diminish the role that principals play in the success of schoolhouses.  In fact, I would go as far as to argue that nothing matters MORE to the success of the school than the actions taken by principals.

On top of the never-ending list of managerial tasks that fall on your shoulders — things like garnering support in the broader community, monitoring upgrades to the physical plant, and making sure that the busses run on time — you help to articulate a core mission and vision for your building.  You provide direction by ensuring that every action aligns with that core mission and vision.  You build capacity in teachers — both as individuals and as teams — to tackle the kind of collaborative study of practice that matters.  You serve as an intellectual sounding board when teachers and teams stagnate.  You hold people accountable for doing more and being better than they ever thought possible.

ALL of that work is powerful and important and the key to the development of high-functioning PLCs, but I REALLY DO worry about the consequences of calling it “instructional leadership.”  

Why should teachers believe in the power of collaboration around practice if leadership around instruction — the fundamental task of classroom teachers and learning teams  — is officially given to the principal?  Similarly, why would we believe in the expertise of our colleagues when formal titles suggest that leadership around instruction is the responsibility of the principal instead of practitioners?

In fact, I’d go as far as to argue that the best PLC principals don’t even want to be “THE instructional leader” of their schools.  

Instead, they want to create the conditions that enable teachers and learning teams to provide instructional leadership to one another — and by constantly sending the message that expertise around practice belongs to practitioners instead of principals, they leave their learning teams and teachers empowered to accept responsibility for finding ways to meet the needs of every learner.

Does this make any sense?

I guess what I am trying to say is that if you want teacher teams to truly believe in their power — and their professional obligation — to influence practice, remind them that THEY are the instructional experts.

Whaddya’ think?


Related Radical Reads:

My Longstanding Beef with Instructional Leaders

What Do Teacher Leaders Need from Administrators?

Three Lessons School Leaders can Learn from Sherpas

  • Benjamin L. Stewart

    instructional leadership
    There is nothing wrong with the term “instructional leadership” (I actually like it). The problem is assuming the term is an official title that is limited to administrators. The term is actually meant to to represent anyone that has the knowledge, skill sets, and will to contribute to better student outcomes; it is not limited to a title, position, or rank that ensues power over another. Instructional leadership is about having authority (not power) and using that authority to solve (or better understand) a problem.

  • George Couros

    There Can Be More Than One

    Hey Bill…here is a little challenge to this idea.  In our world, there really can be more than one "leader" in several aspects of organizations.  I understand why the term "instructional leader" is used so often, and it is not the annointing of a "principal" or "superintendent" as the one true leader or instruction in the school, but to place an emphasis on the idea that administrators need to have knowledge on powerful teaching and learning practices.  I think that is necessary for an administator to be successful.  So what if we thought of the principal as "an instructional leader" as opposed to "the instructional leader"?  What difference does that make?

  • Tim Sparacino

    Instructional Leadership

    Maybe the focus shouldn't be on the word "THE" instructional leader, maybe we should think of it as "an" instructional leader?

  • Michael Mitchell

    Hi Bill,

    Hi Bill,


    While I don't disagree with a lot of what you are saying, many Principals and other administrators spent years in the classroom teaching and wanted to assume a larger leadership role precisely to help improve learning and instruction.  Many of us are instructional leaders and have the experience to show for it. Likewise, many teachers are also instructional leaders and have the experience to show for it.  IMHO there are too many titles out there right now in education and many seem designed not for the greater purpose of we but more me.  Another example of this is the term lead learner or lead innovator. I would love to see this change but that's kind of where we are at and I am glad your are challenging it.

  • Parry Graham

    Instructional leadership


    I agree with your central point — that teachers, teacher groups, and teacher leaders should all be seen as instructional leaders, and that the term should not "live" with the principal — but your piece seems to suggest that we, the school principals, are the ones pushing the idea that principals are "the" instructional leaders in buildings. The evaluation rubric for principals in North Carolina has "instructional leadership" as the second standard, and the evaluation rubric for principals in Massachusetts (my state) has "instructional leadership" as the first standard. Much of the language in those standards talks about creating capacity and opportunity (as opposed to teaching teachers how to teach), but for better or for worse, the term "instructional leader" is one that is attached to principals at the policy level. And, based on my own anecdotal experience, a lot of teachers expect their principals to be "instructional leaders", however broadly defined.


  • Matt

    Instructional Leadership

    Hey Bill,

    Great discussion. I just happened onto a recent Michael Fullan tome that discusses the role of the principal in great detail. "The Principal" takes issue with the term and the notion that being an instructional leader is an effective model for administrators (and schools)- check it out.


  • David Jakes


    I think the bigger issue I have with all of this is the focus on "instructional," and the notion of instructional leader.  Why not learning leader?  Or focus on learning, rather than instruction?  Instruction is a teacher-focused construct compared to learning, which is centered, and rightly so, on the student.  Such an emphasis on instruction focuses on teacher rather than student, and is of limited interest to me.  Focusing on learning is much more interesting, and is inclusive of instruction, and includes things like:  did the student show up to school with a breakfast in their stomach, are they being bullied in the hallway, etc, etc. which all factor into learning.  In the end, all that come into contact with students in schools, everyone, should be a leader in some way, and that should be the only "container" that educational professionals should be placed into.

    • Dan McGuire

      Instructional ?

      If we change what we call the principal, what are we going to call teachers?  Calling the principal the instructional leader is all about diminishing the authority of the teacher.