What does it really mean to be an instructional leader?
Ever since I was in graduate school, studying to become a principal, this was the lingo of the great leader—be an instructional leader. At first I thought this meant I had to be the best teacher in the building, and when I walked into classrooms, I might show a teacher a few moves. But every time I went into a classroom that was “someone else’s classroom” (who, by the way, I was also in charge of evaluating), getting up and interrupting the teacher’s lesson with my own brilliant ideas never seemed like the right move. Over the next eight years, I often wondered whether I was being an instructional leader. If this is the gold standard of being a principal, of course that is what I was aiming for, but how was I to know if I had gotten there?
In this research journey, where I have been trying to map successful literacy workshop practices onto a math workshop, I have been considering the element of choice a great deal. From a very young age, children are taught how to select “just-right books.” The emphasis is on choice. Choice matters because it increases engagement. Choice matters because it encourages ownership. Choice matters because when our children leave us, we need them to continue choosing to read whether we are there or not. We teach them to choose books so that they will continue to choose books for their entire lives.
As a principal, I take pride in the literacy workshops in our school—places where students are consistently invested in their learning and their work. When I step into a fourth grade classroom, it has that quiet hum of productive engagement. When I pull up a chair next to Clare, she tells me that she wants her narrative to have feeling in it, just like in The Other Side, by Jaqueline Woodson. The book is open on the table next to her draft covered in arrows, stars, and cross-outs. In a first grade classroom, I stand back and watch as Carlo finishes the book he is reading. He gets up and heads over to the classroom library, and after browsing a few different bins selects a book and plops right down in the bean bag in the library corner to embark on his next reading adventure. Children here see the literacy work they do in school connect seamlessly with the rich reading and writing they do outside of school–work that they do not as an assignment, but because they enjoy it.