3 Myths Every Instructional Leader Tells Themselves

Thursday, June 15, 2023

Being a teacher in today’s world is one of the most challenging jobs out there.  Students are exhausted, distracted, and listless.  The political and social climates make every new instructional topic feel either irrelevant or insignificant.  And don’t get us started on teacher pay.

The only other job that might actually be equally as challenging right now?  Being an instructional leader.  Whether you are leading a department or a new charter school or an entire district, we know that it often feels like you are in a no-win situation that is out of your control.

If you ever hope to move the needle for your students, you know changes need to happen and new things need to be tried.  But getting teachers to change?  Now that often feels truly impossible unless you want to incur their wrath.  And in a world where finding great new teachers is equally as challenging, most of us opt to not rock the boat.  We look for small adjustments here or there in hopes that, in time, things will improve.

Unfortunately, that’s not how leadership works.  And it is certainly not what leads to real change.

At TARA, we work with instructional leaders at every level and it is remarkable how many of them know exactly what changes need to be made at their school or district:

  • “Teachers need to find more ways to engage students”
  • “We need to progress monitor more consistently”
  • “Instructional coaches need to spend more time giving feedback”
  • “I need to be able to see what my teachers and teams are trying so we can analyze the data together”

And yet, when presented with new practices, processes or platforms to help do all of those things, folks in instructional leadership roles often stop themselves out of fear or anxiety of what negative consequences might come about.

Here are the top 3 myths every instructional leader tells themselves in order to avoid change - and the irrational underlying assumptions beneath them that prevent you and your instructional teams from achieving your potential.

Myth 1: “My teachers are not ready for change”

Underlying assumption: The status quo will get better on its own.

Reality: You don’t feel ready to lead that change and face teacher pushback.  But the reality is the same - the status quo is not working for you or your students and parents or your teachers.

Most teachers today get stuck in ‘survival mode,’ especially if they are earlier in their career.  They feel as if they are drowning under the amount of decisions and obligations they have and you are just trying to find a way to get them to tread water.

The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t actually train your teacher how to swim - while also assuming that treading water is just a necessary step along the way.  The reality is that treading water just means the teachers are tiring themselves out without getting anywhere - which means their students are too.

Einstein once said that “life is like riding a bicycle - to keep your balance, you must keep moving.”  The same is true of teaching.  Teachers need to be pushed to keep moving forward in order to grow.  The job of an instructional leader is to give them clear expectations and structured processes that allow them to serve their students and grow at the same time.

Without active instructional leaders, it becomes too easy for teachers to get bogged down in the every day trials and tribulations that come in the classroom and forget the big picture. What's more, most teachers are very open to development, when supported in the right way - you just need to learn what that way is.

Did you know? 56% of teachers prefer to receive feedback through dialogue (Teacher Support Languages)

Myth 2: “My teachers don’t need one more thing to do”

Underlying belief: My teachers don’t have time for anything new.  If I give my teachers another process or tool, they will just see it as another obligation, not use it, and resent me for it.

Reality: Your teachers are spending too much time on the wrong things.  

In a recent report by Edweek, teachers were asked the following question:

“What steps could your district or school take to support your mental well-being? Check all that apply”

57% of teachers said “Fewer administrative burdens associated with paperwork and meetings” - the 4th highest response(!).

These are things like another random reporting template they need to fill out and turn into another random drive folder before going to another all-staff meeting with no clear agenda and that runs over by 45 minutes.

Did you know? 72% of teachers report that they don't have enough time to teach everything they're expected to teach (NCLD)

The key here is that these processes - ones that seem to benefit only leadership and not teachers or their students - are ones they consider to be “administrative.”  Teachers have no issues with instructional burdens because that is what they signed up for!

Ruthlessly prioritizing instructional processes and time is what is most important - and any new procedure or tool that helps to do that is worth its weight in gold.  That is why it is so critical to have all of your instructional processes under one roof - planning, coaching, collaboration, data - in one place that has tools for each member of the instructional team.  And, most importantly, YOU need to have visibility into every part of the process so you can do what you were hired to do - LEAD.

Myth 3: “I need to make sure my teachers are comfortable because we can’t afford vacancies”

Underlying belief: The comfort-level of your teachers is directly related to teacher retention.

Reality: Like any professional, teachers want to get better at their craft while also feeling valued for their hard work and commitment (also supported by Edweek’s survey).  

We know what you’re thinking - Easier said than done, especially with teachers!

That’s true - but just because achieving that balance is difficult, doesn’t mean it is impossible and, regardless, it certainly doesn’t change the reality.

But as recent research from Cornell & the University of Chicago shows, for any individual to actually achieve growth, they need to experience some level of discomfort.

As an instructional leader, you cannot be afraid to challenge your teachers with high standards.  Your job is to push them to be their best while creating an inspiring and supportive environment that they will thrive in.  

Did you know? 75% of teachers report not receiving any any feedback on how to improve during their last evaluation (TNTP)

The truth is that leaders who defer to teacher comfort and the status quo are not leading at all.  And while you may successfully avoid ruffling their feathers, that is not the same as earning their respect.

No teacher got into education with the goal of being mediocre and feeling demoralized every day.  They - like you - got into education to transform the lives of students through passionate exploration of their subject matter and the skill sets associated with it.  The closer you can get them to realizing that reality, the more they will respect you for it - and respect engenders loyalty.

Conclusion - Improvement Requires Change & Change Requires Leadership

Serving as an instructional leader at any level - department chair, instructional coach, special education direct, district superintendent - is not for the faint of heart.  But most of us view it as a balancing act - how do I deal with staff personalities and compliance obligations while also inspiring people to pursue my vision of what we can achieve with our students and families?

But the reality is that highly effective instructional leaders “deal” with those things by setting a clear vision and expectations with the requisite processes and tools to support and hold accountable every staff person in making it happen.  And that takes action.  Decisiveness.  Communication.  Anything less is the status quo - and we know the status quo isn’t working.

Are you ready to step up in your role as an instructional leader?  We are here to help!  

Check out our free Instructional Coaching Report for some practical data and tactics to start using with your teams.

What's your efficiency score? Find out here

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