When School Leadership Actions Contradict the Work We Expect to See in Classrooms

Peter Dewitt
10 Minute Read
October 20, 2021

Lately, I have been consistently engaged in three bodies of work. They are instructional leadership, leadership and instructional coaching, and developing collective efficacy among instructional-leadership teams.

The work often involves how people learning in each of those areas will help others, such as a school leader engaging in instructional leadership having a positive impact on the teachers, staff, and students they serve. What is really at the core of each body of work, though, is how those engaged in it become better in their own positions and practices, not just how they help others.

Instructional leadership is definitely a challenging area for any person trying to engage in the practice. Too often, instructional leadership has been seen as the role of a building leader, but the reality is that teacher leaders, PLC leads, department chairs, and instructional coaches all have to learn how to be more impactful instructional leaders, or they will lack the credibility to help others.

The same goes for instructional and leadership coaches. If those in the position of coaching cannot define and develop their own practices, they will lack the credibility to help others become more impactful. It’s one of the reasons why I developed a yearlong, on-demand framework through Thinkific, where not only do participants have access to downloadable content centered around a cycle of inquiry, they also engage in mastery sessions with me every three weeks so we can talk through challenges and learn from one another.

Lastly, the work around collective leader efficacy is focused on how a team comes together and grows to build a shared conviction, not only as a team but also to develop the ability to have an impact on learning within their schools. The issue with all three of these areas of focus is that the work is hard to do because we are often paying for the sins of the past.

In exploring Applied Behavior Analysis, I found an interesting quotation by Farmer et al., which says, “Applied behavior analysis is the application of the laws that govern the interaction between an individual and their environment. These laws emphasize that behaviors are shaped by their consequences and can be evoked by events that precede them. This functional-contextual lens emphasizes the functional relationship between (a) historical and immediate context and (b) future behavior.”

Unfortunately, the actions of a district can sometimes contradict the very work they want to accomplish.

Model What You Want Principals to Do
What this all means is that, at a district level, we can talk about how instructional leadership, coaching, and developing collective leader efficacy is important, but people won’t believe us if their experience with us says otherwise.

For example, districts spend money on helping their leaders become more impactful instructional leaders, but, too often, they contradict the work by not modeling in their own district meetings what they want to see their principals do. Additionally, they contradict the work by enforcing more and more management activities on those principals who want to be instructional leaders, or the district holds curriculum meetings that are supposed to focus on curriculum but ultimately focus on compliance or other issues. This creates chaos because the principals or teacher leaders who are supposed to guide the work back at their buildings never get the opportunity to understand how that work is supposed to happen, because they don’t discuss it at the curriculum meetings.

The same goes for developing collective leader efficacy among a school leadership team. People will not engage in the work on their leadership team if their experience tells them that their building leaders will never really support them during the process by listening to their ideas or engaging in the actions they agree upon at those meetings.

It certainly happens to coaches as well. It’s hard for instructional coaches or leadership coaches to engage in coaching when they are pulled away from working with teachers due to engaging in “other duties that are assigned.”

In fact, recently I had a guy tweet me using a promotion I sent out about my coaching framework. He said that if districts really want to help when it comes to instructional leadership or coaching, they should provide the resources necessary to do so, because his district says they want to coach others, but they cut the support halfway through, and most of the people trying to coach don’t have the experience to back it up in the first place. I realized that my promotion of the course was the catalyst for his tweet but not for his anger.

If schools want to engage in any work, and not just the bodies of work I represent, then they have to look at whether their actions are supporting the work or contradicting it.

Where Do We Begin?

One area that I have begun exploring and focusing on more and more is that of de-implementation because I believe it will help with these contradictions as well as help alleviate some of the workload that teachers and leaders are under. This, of course, could also enablee teachers and leaders to engage in work that will help them truly become more impactful.

De-implementation is the process of “abandoning existing low value practices (Van Bodegom).” Farmer suggests that deimplementation can only begin by looking at practices:

  • that have not been shown to be effective and efficacious,
  • that are less effective or efficacious than another available practice,
  • that cause harm, or
  • that are no longer necessary.

Wang suggests that deimplementation comes down to four areas. Those areas are:

  • Partial reduction
  • Complete reversal
  • Substitution with related replacement
  • Substitution with unrelated replacement of existing practice.

De-implementation is a process that can happen at the same time implementation of a practice takes place, because it means that when we have conversations about doing the work, we must have conversations about the barriers that prevent us from doing the work at the same time.

In the End

If we want teachers and leaders to engage in the process of instructional leadership, developing a shared conviction as a team, or engaging in impactful instructional and leadership coaching, then we have to make sure that their districts clear the way for this work to happen and not put up barriers when the work is in progress.

There is an opportunity cost to all of our actions. If we spend time engaging in practices that are harmful or a waste of time, then we lose out on the opportunity to engage in practices that could really work. What makes all of this difficult is that we all have to look within our own practices to make sure we are not contradicting the ones we are trying to do.

Farmer RL, Zaheer I, Duhon GJ, Ghazal S. Reducing Low-Value Practices a Functional-Contextual Consideration to Aid in De-Implementation Efforts. Canadian Journal of School Psychology. 2021;36(2):153-165.

Wang V, Maciejewski ML, Helfrich CD, Weiner BJ. Working smarter not harder: Coupling implementation to de-implementation. 2018 Jun;6(2):104-107. doi: 10.1016/j.hjdsi.2017.12.004. Epub 2017 Dec 24.

van Bodegom-Vos L, Davidoff F, Marang-van de Mheen PJ. Implementation and de-implementation: two sides of the same coin? BMJ Qual Saf. 2017 Jun;26(6):495-501.

Peter DeWitt ," When School Leadership Actions Contradict the Work We Expect to See in Classrooms",as originally posted, 10-21-2021,https://www.edweek.org/leadership/opinion-when-our-school-leadership-actions-contradict-the-work-we-expect-to-see-in-classrooms/2021/10

Photo by Markus Leo on Unsplash

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