Building Your Instructional Leadership Team: 5 Qualities to Look For

Strong leadership is an indicator of school success, but it doesn’t need to be in a vacuum. Here are five qualities to look for when building your instructional leadership team.
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The past two years were like no other, ushering in new, unmistakably urgent challenges for schools. Challenges far too complex to be handled by one person alone. We know that strong school leadership is a hallmark of school success, but not in a vacuum. Now more than ever, education leaders are turning to the expertise of their teams to share the incredible responsibility of leadership. 

Sharing leadership creates a culture of collaboration. It facilitates widespread instructional excellence and can improve retention by engaging teacher leaders—all while taking the pressure off of any one person. Education researcher Ken Leithwood suggests  “the more those in formal leadership roles give [influence] away, the more they acquire.” These effects ultimately translate into a more equitable school where all students have opportunities to succeed. Read on for qualities to look for when building (or refining) your leadership team so that you’re set up for success when the new school year arrives. 

What is an Instructional Leadership Team?

Instructional Leadership Teams (ILTs) are potent vehicles for accelerating school change. They provide a systematic way of practicing distributed leadership, a shared approach to leadership where decision-making spreads from one person to a group. Tasked with addressing schoolwide instructional quality, ILTs typically include the school principal, assistant principal, grade-level team leaders, and content-area department heads. School counselors increasingly serve on ILTs to keep students’ social-emotional learning needs top-of-mind. 

Sharing leadership creates a culture of collaboration. It facilitates widespread instructional excellence and can improve retention by engaging teacher leaders—all while taking the pressure off of any one person.

Why are ILTs getting so much attention?

For starters, ILTs elevate more voices and fuel collective efficacy, benefiting everyone involved. Through ILTs, principals can empower and better support teachers in diagnosing instructional problems when they work alongside them. Who else would know the most pressing teaching and student learning issues than those in the classroom every day? When teachers have targeted and relevant support from a trusted school leader, they make significant instructional improvements and positively influence student achievement. When instructional practices and expectations are consistent across grade levels, students have a more holistic learning experience and can achieve mastery as they progress toward learning goals year after year.

When multiple stakeholders are invested in leading instruction, teacher-tested practices are shared at large to transform pockets of excellence into sustainable, schoolwide change. What’s more, teachers are more engaged when they’re involved in the problem-solving process. Often, teachers want opportunities to grow and strengthen their leadership skills, even if that doesn’t mean becoming a school principal. ILTs help you provide these growth opportunities to teacher leaders. When teachers have more opportunities to apply their expertise to solving schoolwide problems, job satisfaction (and retention) soars. 

Building your team

The first step to a successful ILT? Make sure you have the right people around the table. Here are some qualities to look for as you recruit equity-focused ILT members.

1. They have instructional expertise. Serving on an ILT requires a different skill set than teaching. And it can be challenging to learn leadership skills if there’s still room to grow in the instructional skills department. “As a principal, teachers came to me and said, ‘We wanted more say, to be more involved, but how do we do all of this?’,” reflects Laura Robell, New Leaders alum and system leader, in our Distributed Leadership Toolkit. “We are continuously grappling with how to balance the need for more leadership training with the reality that many of our teachers are also still working on strengthening their instruction.” 

2. They’re invested in the school’s vision. Great leaders align people around a shared vision. Candidates who look beyond their defined set of responsibilities to focus on better instruction and learning for all students are well-positioned to contribute to an ILT. Equity-focused leaders truly believe that all children can learn at exceedingly high levels. “For my leadership team, I look for someone who definitely has the efficacy down – who really, really thinks that… kids—all of our kids—can learn,” shares New Leaders alum and principal Tatiana Epanchin-Troyan in our report, Playmakers. Bias in schools has been shown to limit growth opportunities for teachers of color, so it’s important to be equitable. Diversity in your ILT gives a voice to the unique strengths students of color bring and the challenges they face.

When multiple stakeholders are invested in leading instruction, teacher-tested practices are shared at large to transform pockets of excellence into sustainable, schoolwide change. 

3. They have a growth mindset. In the same report, Epachin-Troyan suggests that school leaders look for reflective team members, "someone who gets that you're never a perfect teacher and that there are always [areas where you can] grow and learn."  Research by Carol Dweck found that a growth mindset among students encourages them to develop feelings of empowerment, allowing them to find ways to positively impact their own learning and that of the broader community. The same goes for ILT members. 

4. Their colleagues respect them. Solid relationships are an indicator of trust, and trust is imperative for leading adults. Staff members who serve on the ILT should be able to identify the bright spots and represent the struggles faced by all teachers in the building. Potential ILT members need to be trusted colleagues to know what those struggles and bright spots are. The ability to build solid, trusting relationships also indicates a staff member’s propensity to collaborate and relate to other members of the ILT team. For distributed leadership to be effective, trusting relationships must exist between administrators and teachers, as well as between teachers and other members of the school community

5. They want it. While everyone has the capacity to learn leadership, not everyone wants the responsibility. The best candidates seek to expand their impact to more students by using their experience to mentor and support fellow teachers. They are intrinsically motivated to take the initiative and pursue the path of leadership. When you recognize the qualities and experiences you want on your team, invite the individuals who possess them to exercise leadership as an ILT member. ILT membership should always be an option, never a mandate. When a staff member accepts the opportunity to lead, nurture and prepare them for their new leadership responsibilities. 

Even if your ILT team is already assembled, it’s important to continue to evaluate its membership. Is your team composed of diverse members who represent the needs of all students, or do you need to make a change? You may also be asked by staff members why they weren’t selected to serve on the ILT. Be ready to address this question by keeping the criteria for ILT membership explicit and transparent.

Putting it all together

Students won’t get the opportunities they deserve if valuable expertise is left untapped. There’s simply too much for one person to do. And when we take on too much, some things get missed. Our students deserve better. To make the work sustainable, school leaders need to share the load. Start today by optimizing the composition of your ILT and nurturing the collective qualities required for equity, excellence, and accelerated academic and social-emotional growth for all students.

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