First, for the five or six of you who read my blog or follow me on Twitter, I apologize for the lag between posts. What can I say ? A brother has been busy. I started a new job (more on that in another post…maybe), have small children to raise, and I work crazy hours now. Yes. I am making excuses for being a lazy bum. Thank you for noticing. All that aside, lately I’ve been thinking about what happens when instructional leaders aren’t content area experts.

First, I think it’s a given that its nearly impossible for anyone to be an expert in more than 2 academic disciplines. Save for the truly exceptional among us, most educators at any level, tend to be experts in one, or possibly two, content areas. Even the best elementary school teachers tend to lean more strongly toward one discipline (usually literacy) than the others. This being the case, how is it possible for this same teacher to move up through the ranks to the level of building or district level administrator and do a fair job of evaluating teachers’ ability to deliver quality instruction ?

My feeling is that they can’t. At least not alone.

I’ve been a part of a team of educators conducting instructional rounds where 2-3 educators (usually central office staff, instructional coaches, building level administrators, etc.) observe 15-30 minutes of classroom instruction. During these observations we pay attention to the standard being taught, specific learning objectives, the teachers’ pedagogical practices, classroom management, etc. We may ask students what they’re working on, interact with small groups of students, and even offer assistance to students in a manner that causes as few disruptions as possible (and yes, I see the irony of having up to 3 additional strangers in a classroom and pretending that our mere presence isn’t disruptive…). I am a former mathematics teacher, so whenever we’re observing a math class I tend to pay attention to whether or not what the teacher is saying and/or doing is correct, efficient, or could cause future issues for students who take what the teachers say as THE GOSPEL. On several occasions I have observed teachers say things like “you always subtract the smaller number from the larger number” or “the denominator is always the larger number.” I have even witnessed teachers simply teach an algorithm incorrectly without missing a beat. In cases like this, I’ll leave the teacher a note on a post-it, deliver feedback to them via email, or have a conversation with their instructional coach about the teachers’ needs with regard to content. During these rounds I have never had another person in my group point out the content specific errors, which begs the question, how many of these errors are going unnoticed by instructional leaders during classroom observations. I assume that number is a lot.

Also, how often does a former middle-secondary educator become a Principal or Assistant Principal of an elementary school? How often do good teachers get rated poorly with regard to things like Rigor or an Academically Challenging environment because K-2 teachers are presenting developmentally appropriate activities to very young children. Again, my guess is…a lot.

When we don’t know what we’re looking at, it’s tough to diagnose major errors. Good pedagogical practices are important, but without a firm grasp of content or grade-band, it’s tough to provide teachers with feedback that is relevant to their practice. This hurts teachers and students.

So, how do we fix this ? I think being intentional in hiring practices and administrative team formation is key. At a minimum, every administrative team should have at least 1 person with expert level knowledge of literacy instruction and 1 person with expert level knowledge of mathematics instruction as well as members on the team who are familiar with the grade-bands served in the building. Ideally, you’d want a team composed of individuals who are experts in each of the four core content areas (math, science, language arts, and the social sciences) so that they can keep an eye out for the best content-specific pedagogical practices. In an elementary school, you’d also want leaders from the K-2 band and the 3-5 or 4-8 band. In middle schools you’d want folks with a 4-12 background. In high school, you’d want someone with a 6-12 background.

In my time as an educational leader/instructional leader I’ve learned a lot. One of the major lessons I’ve learned is that if we want to create environments where student success is the goal, teachers have got to trust you. They’ve got to find you credible. If you don’t know your stuff, how can they do either ?

As usual, thanks for reading. Pardon the typos. I’ll try to post more often, but I’m not making any promises.

When instructional leaders don’t know content

2 thoughts on “When instructional leaders don’t know content

  • October 25, 2015 at 10:36 pm

    Hello Jovan and thank you for this timely post. Just two weeks ago this was a major topic of discussion amongst doctoral students when discussing evaluations/assessments. It brought up an earlier topic of HR hiring practices and of course individuals being placed by the “good ole boy” system who doesn’t t have prior knowledge. I know this all too well and our children continue to suffer. We have to become comfortable with allowing others with content knowledge to assist….not just sit back and allow an inexperienced person rank experts in a field they have no knowledge. Honest and fair hiring practices and consistency is important.

  • January 7, 2016 at 4:36 pm

    Interesting topic. In this age of evaluation, there are a score of evaluation tools and systems being built solely around pedagogy. Rarely will you see folks from Curriculum and Instruction or specific content areas in the room participating in that work. It speaks to a larger trend that is happening within the ed reform world.


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