I’m a STEM coach, which puts me in a unique position as an instructional leader. I’m a member of the leadership team, but I’m not a principal or administrator. I’m an educator but not a current classroom teacher. As a result of my role, I am able to see what leaders and teachers each prioritize – and plug in to help leadership make time to learn from their teams. I am particularly proud of my focus on relationship building, and I’d love to share some strategies that I’ve found really move the needle for educators.
As instructional leaders, we often speak of the need to “meet teachers where they are.” But amid all the demands on our attention, we can sometimes neglect to invest sufficient time and energy in the communication required to really know where our teachers are. Similarly, as we strive to offer support, we need to make sure the support we’re offering matches the needs in our classrooms.
I want to share 5 communication strategies that can strengthen our approach to instructional leadership:
1. Hold regularly scheduled time to check in with each teacher.
During my career as a classroom teacher, I felt most valued when I was consulted for advice and input – even when I wasn’t a member of the teacher leadership team. By holding regular brief meetings with all of our teachers, even when there is no specific “issue” to address, we can make sure we invite fresh voices to inform and sharpen our instructional leadership and school-wide priorities. We also then have built-in opportunities to keep up with each teacher’s units and lessons.
2. When teachers approach us about students’ learning needs, respond by suggesting actions we can take to help.
We are teaching through the third year impacted by the pandemic – but when teachers have an instructional concern or think a student is experiencing learning gaps, we can’t respond by saying, “Well, it’s COVID times, right?” COVID might be an explanation for some challenges, but it’s not an excuse. If a teacher takes the step of coming to us with a concern about a student, we can partner with them by suggesting next steps we can take to help: Do we need to request data from a previous school to learn more about this student? Do we need to get the school psychiatrist involved? Does the student need time with a support specialist?
3. Keep teachers informed about district tech offerings and tools to support instruction.
I once had a coaching session with a grade-level team who were engaging their students in a video project. The teachers had chipped in to purchase a video creation program out of pocket, without realizing that the district had already licensed a video production website for their use. As instructional leaders, we can support teachers’ instruction by serving as a communications liaison between our teachers and the district. That means knowing what’s available for teachers to use, making sure they know it’s there and being ready to suggest available tools as we learn about teachers’ unit plans. It can also mean taking the initiative to routinely research and suggest tools and resources that teachers might use to support their instructional goals.
4. Streamline email updates – and send at predictable times.
Teachers’ time is finite, and if we want teachers to spend time on instruction, we need to keep emails and reminders cleanly formatted and quick to read and digest. This might mean a one-page PDF we send out each week with scannable updates. And, no matter what time of day – or night – we’re drafting our emails, we should always make sure to schedule them to send during contract hours. Some teachers do not check email in the evening or on weekends, and sending our email during work hours sends the message that we expect – and want! – teachers to take time for themselves.
5. Define our “visibility” and “presence” in terms of teaching and learning.
Presence and visibility don’t only mean appearing in the bus line, chatting with students and teachers during passing periods and monitoring lunch. Relationship building is central to our work, but those connection points can go beyond building rapport to surface instructional leadership opportunities. When I chat with teachers in the hallways about what they’re doing with students, I often get an invitation to come check it out. When I find out a student has a presentation coming up, I make a point to stop by. Those gestures don’t go unnoticed. Spending time this way sends the message to both teachers and students: Teaching and learning are my top priorities.
As leaders, we have high expectations for every student’s achievement. When those expectations aren’t yet matched with reality, we need to start by deepening our understanding of reality, which comes from meeting with students, going into classrooms and connecting with teachers – in other words, our communication. Then, we can offer genuine support, respond to authentic needs – and lead.