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5 Tips for Curriculum Leadership

District-level curriculum roles are often pulled in hundreds of directions. But the role is crucial for supporting the leaders and teachers who impact students. We’ve compiled 5 tips to keep in mind as you navigate endless to-do lists and never ending demands.  

Tip 1: Get On The Balcony. 

It is easy to get sucked into the hustle and bustle of everyday school life especially for those who like the feeling of in-the-moment help or are used to school-level leadership. But it’s important for district leadership to get a big-picture view and gather district-wide evidence too. Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky (2009) urge leaders to “get on the balcony” instead of always staying on the dance floor. The “balcony,” as the metaphor goes, allows leaders to see the whole dance floor instead of mistaking the closest dancers as proxy for the entire dance floor.

Tip 2: Evaluate Your Underlying Change Management Beliefs.

District-level leaders are responsible for managing change across a system. Before jumping into a change management plan, it’s important to consider your underlying beliefs and those of your colleagues before you determine the level of management that is required. Think especially about accountability, empowerment and autonomy, and capacity-building. District-level beliefs will shape how you roll out changes and help you avoid angry clashes with district leaders. 

Tip 3: Make PD Count. 

Professional development is a tried-and-true way to build capacity at every level of a system and support district-wide change. But all PD isn’t equal. The most effective PD includes practice, feedback, and coaching (Joyce and Showers, 2002). A big-name, engaging presenter might get a big round of applause but make sure you evaluate if it’s actually building skills and making change. District leaders must stay focused on overall strategy instead of buying the trend of the day or going for a quick round of applause. 

Tip 4: Build Up Leaders. 

Strong building-level leaders make a big difference in implementing district change and improving instructional quality. But principals need and want capacity building especially to strengthen instructional leadership skills (Goldring, et. al, 2018). Plus, well-trained principals stay in their jobs longer (Levin & Bradley,  2019). Instead of constantly passing down mandates, district leaders should eagerly look for ways to build up school-level leadership. 

Tip 5: Take Curriculum Seriously. 

Want to move the needle on student achievement? Changing to a research-based, “high-quality, content-rich curriculum” is much more effective than measures like reducing class size (Chiefs for Change, 2017). Curriculum decisions are crucially important. Instead of dissolving into arguments about developmental appropriateness or text choice, find a way to unite people on a common purpose and make decisions that will benefit the most kids. 

The district curriculum leader has a tough job but ultimately serves as the voice for academic performance in the district. 


Chiefs for Change. (2017). Hiding in Plain Sight: Leveraging Curriculum to Improve Student Learning. Hiding in Plain Sight: Leveraging Curriculum to Improve Student Learning

Goldring, E. B., Grissom, J., Rubin, M., Rogers, L., Neel, M., & Clark, M., (2018). “A New Role Emerges for Principal Supervisors: Evidence from Six Districts in the Principal Supervisor Initiative.” New York: Wallace Foundation. 

Heifetz, R. A., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M. (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership: tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.

Joyce, B.R. & Showers, B. (2002). Student achievement through staff development (3rd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 

Levin, S., & Bradley, K. (2019). Understanding and addressing principal turnover: A review of the research. Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals.

McAdams, D. R. (2006). What School Boards Can Do, Reform Governance for Urban Schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

NAESP (2018). “The Pre-K-8 school leader in 2018: A 10-year study.” National Association of Elementary School Principals.


DIY Instructional Leadership Team

In many Oklahoma districts, a single principal can lead a 40-member staff in charge of nearly 600 students. With such a demanding job, principals need a team who’s committed to building instructional skills and getting things done even when the principal is pulled away. 

Typically, instructional leadership teams include teacher leaders, instructional coaches, additional administrators, and reading specialists. While conventional wisdom usually pulls one representative per grade level, consider selecting leadership for performance, coachability, and influence instead. After all, some grades may easily contribute two strong contributors while others may yield none. The big idea is to build a reliable, get-it-done kind of team so selecting leadership based on grade-level alone risks the efficacy and reputation of the team.

What does an instructional leadership team do?

Denver Public Schools and Leading Educators provide strong models for what instructional leadership teams do. The overall goal is to support change in response to data including roles like these:

  • Gather and analyze data related to school-wide trends, school culture, student achievement data, and strategic priorities
  • Develop and monitor strategic plans 
  • Set vision for and maintain school culture
  • Create curriculum and assessment strategy
  • Calibrate on tools and protocols (TLE, observation/feedback protocols, data protocols)
  • Plan and progress monitor professional learning

How to establish a strong instructional leadership team

Building a strong instructional leadership team moves responsibility away from the principal towards distributive leadership. But it takes some work to get there. First, principals need to select and train leaders. Decide what traits matter and what skills you can train.

Distributive leadership is a critical part of a school’s success but it takes consistent work. By establishing clear responsibilities, training the team, and supporting their work, a principal can shift their focus from leading the entire school to developing the capacity of a few.

Coaching Confidentiality vs. Principal Collaboration: Where Is The Line?

Although instructional coaching evolved from research on teacher supervision and instructional leadership (Knight, 2009; Neumerski, 2013), most instructional coaches do not have the formal authority to evaluate teachers. In contrast to principals who also coach teachers, instructional coaches are usually positioned in a non-evaluatory, supportive role. 

Despite shared teacher and school improvement goals, the difference in evaluatory roles can make it easy to clash over the question of how much to share and with whom. 

Coaching guru Elena Aguilar (2013) suggests that coaching must be confidential to maintain a positive and trusting relationship between the coach and teacher. From a teacher’s perspective, it makes sense. With the promise of confidentiality, teachers can share openly and vulnerably with their coach in ways that they might not want to share with a boss or evaluating supervisor. 

Unfortunately, coaching confidentiality can lead to mistrust between instructional coach and principal. After all, a principal who is expecting continuous classroom growth may get frustrated to be left out of the loop and unaware of specific classroom issues. It can also lead to frustration for the teacher if instructional coaches and principals are sending conflicting or mis-aligned messages.  

To balance the need for trusting coaching relationships and school leader collaboration, we recommend sharing high-level analysis about classroom performance, action steps, and look fors. For example, a coach might share that a teacher is focused on giving consistent consequences and flag that the principal should look for a clear direction followed by narration before a consequence. With that information, the principal can communicate clearly and positively reinforce progress and recognize accomplishments, as Todd Whitaker (2015) recommends. 

With this delicate balance, the instructional coach can still maintain a degree of teacher confidentiality too. The instructional coach needn’t share the teacher’s concerns about making class fun if she’s always giving consequences or that the teacher is stressed about the lesson plan requirements. 

Regardless of where you fall in the confidentiality spectrum, teachers deserve to know what will be communicated and to whom. We suggest re-visiting the question of confidentiality early and often to make sure everyone knows the expectations. 


Aguilar, E. (2013). The art of coaching: effective strategies for school transformation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Knight, J. (2009). Coaching: Approaches and perspectives. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Corwin Press.

Neumerski, C. (2013). Rethinking Instructional Leadership, a Review: What Do We Know About Principal, Teacher, and Coach Instructional Leadership, and Where Should We Go from Here? Educational Administration Quarterly, 49(2), 310-347.

Whitaker, T. (2015). What great principals do differently: eighteen things that matter most. New York, NY: Routledge.

Instructional Leadership Kick-Off

Liv, a rural Oklahoma principal who attended one of our recent workshops, desperately wanted to improve the quality of instruction across her elementary school. The problem? She wasn’t sure where to start. After all, her schedule seemed full and the task was daunting. 

Like Liv, principals and school leaders across the country are eager to improve instructional leadership skills. 

The primary focus of instructional leadership is to improve the quality of instruction happening in classrooms–a tall task for school leaders with limited time and extensive scheduling demands. Leaders need an intensive focus on the inputs (curriculum + instructional strategies), outputs (data), and a thoughtful analysis of where to focus time and energy in order to have the greatest impact on student learning (Whitaker, 2015). 

We hope this blog series contributes to the larger conversation about the different leadership roles that contribute to quality instruction in schools.

We’ll start by spotlighting best practices for the instructional coach-principal relationship. Then, we’ll explore the major roles of district-level curriculum leadership and the school-based instructional leadership team including teacher leadership. Finally, we’ll round out the series with some insights into deciding who to coach and why. 

Whitaker, T. (2015). What great principals do differently: eighteen things that matter most. New York, NY: Routledge.

Making Time: The Case for School Leader Coaching

It’s no secret that school administrators have jam-packed schedules and daunting to-do lists. With so much to do, it’s easy to shy away from leadership development due to time constraints. 

TLI’s Director of Leader Programs Nina Fitzerman-Blue urges leaders to make a different choice. 

“This is how we make time. Leadership coaching is how we learn to efficiently and effectively use the very small amount of time you have.”

Nina, who coaches School Leader Cohort Fellows each week, points out that leader coaching shouldn’t feel like just another task to check off the to-do list. After all, with each coaching session, leaders work on doing their jobs more effectively.

Leader coaching happens in your school building, focusing on what you want and need most.  Often, leaders collaborate with their coach to get those tough-to-finish tasks off their plate. Stuck on how to introduce the latest data to staff? Leaders work with their coach to analyze data and design a plan for a data dive with teachers. Spinning your wheels about how to coach new teachers? Walk through the process with your coach, getting face-to-face support and feedback. 

Listen in as a few of the 2019 School Leader Cohort Fellows why they’re glad they invested leadership coaching.

“Take the time for leader development. It will pay off in the end.” -Nicole

School Leader Cohort: What Is Leader Coaching Like?

School leadership can be isolating work. TLI’s Director of Leadership Programs Nina Fitzerman-Blue is working to change that. Each week, she offers focused, personalized coaching for school leaders in TLI’s School Leader Cohort. Under Nina’s direction, our fellows receive year-long support to develop instructional leadership skills, ranging from teacher coaching to adult culture to managing performance. 

While each leader coaching session is customized, coaching often includes instructional walkthroughs, observation and feedback practice, data analysis and planning, personal organization, professional development, and crucial conversations. 

Here’s a peek into what some of this year’s cohort members think about their coaching:

Even the sharpest leader benefits from a thought partner, pointed feedback, and another pair of eyes. Here’s how one leader describes our weekly coaching meetings: “Having weekly meetings with Nina has allowed me to take a more proactive approach to leadership. As part of the School Leader Cohort, I’ve sharpened my instructional eye, learned to give effective feedback, and ultimately raised the instructional rigor in my school.”

Are you ready to push your leadership to the next level? Applications for the 2020-2021 School Leader Cohort are open now! Grab a quick information sheet here and start your application here.  

“Leadership coaching is like partnering with my biggest cheerleader for one hour a week. I always have an action plan and the support I need to make change.”

Still have questions or want more information? Leave a comment, send us a message, or follow us on social media.

Greasing The Skids

In this 6-week change management series, TLI staff examine the big ideas and often-overlooked strategies for successfully leading school change.  Catch the series introduction or earlier blogs here.

Successful building-level shifts require more than a strong leader. A new curriculum is worthless without the teachers to skillfully integrate it into class. A new technology initiative won’t make it past the storage closet without the people to weave it into courses. 

Too often, the human side of change is treated as an afterthought or given a one-size-fits-all approach. After all, it’s hard to help staff navigate the emotion, time pressures, and skill building that change often brings. It’s hard to thoughtfully engage with skeptical faculty and listen carefully to painful criticism. 

Regardless of difficulty, planning for how you’ll guide faculty and staff through a big change is a crucial component of successful change. In this blog, we offer a concrete, time-tested strategy to keep people at the center of your change process. 

Grease the Skids, a strategy employed by many successful principals with whom we work, is designed to make change run more smoothly. This strategy takes its name from the pallets that easily slide across a factory floor with a little lubrication. We hope it helps eases the burden of change in your school, too.

To Grease the Skids of major change, school leaders start by identifying highly-influential people who aren’t on board with a new initiative. The key is to identify the teachers or school staff members who can quickly influence the people that are on the fence or on the bus (see our earlier post to identify those two groups).  

Pilot the Plan

The most popular version of Greasing the Skids is to pilot a new program or initiative with select teachers. Instead of rolling out one-to-one laptops to an entire school, test the idea of a laptop cart with one teacher or a highly-influential grade-level team. The small scale allows leaders to check in regularly, encourage growth, and adjust the plan as needed. It also builds relationships with influential staff members so leaders can eventually rely on these staff members to influence others.

After testing a change with a small group, ask pilot teachers to prepare a testimonial, share data, or offer illustrations on how the change worked. The teachers who used the laptop cart can quickly offer guidance to the full staff on how to build their own tech skills or give examples of how much the laptops helped with the writing process. Not only did you work out the kinks with a small group, but you’ve probably expedited the staff’s buy-in by leveraging influential teachers.   

Test the Message

Greasing the Skids can also be a way to test your message with an influential staff member before speaking to the entire faculty. Instead of announcing a new guided reading effort to everyone at once, seek out a few influential teachers for an advance check-in. Explain the rationale and ask for feedback about your approach. Are you taking on the work in the right way? What’s exciting or concerning for the teacher?

By testing the message, school leaders hear important criticism about the change itself and the messaging. If a teacher offers skepticism about the new guided reading initiative being just another under-resourced, under-funded change, the leader can immediately brainstorm how to make sure teachers are well-supported this time. Suddenly, the new teacher is an ally in solving a problem and helping the leader avoid dangerous potholes. 

One superintendent we work with teaches his principals to test the message with at least two people before each major announcement or meeting. 

Whether you’re launching a change or training faculty on new skills, try to Grease the Skids before you take a change to your whole school.

Assess The Scope: Tools for School-based Change Management

In this 6-week change management series, TLI staff share key leadership moves for managing successful school-based change. Catch the series introduction here or read earlier posts.

For school leaders, changemaking often brings discomfort and anxiety. Fortunately, research offers some clear guidance on successfully managing change: Start by assessing the scope and complexity. 

School leaders should start by determining if a change is technical or adaptive, terms first defined by Harvard University professor Ron Heifetz (1994) and later developed extensively with Marty Linsky.  

Technical Changes

Technical, or 1st order changes, are problems that “can be solved with knowledge and procedures already in hand” (Daloz Parks, 2005). If a school’s current procedures can be tweaked or the existing skills can fix a problem, it’s considered a technical change. 

Consider an issue with the 5th grade hallway clogging up after recess so classes are routinely losing work time. For a school that already has clear hallway procedures and a normed vision on hallway behavior, the change may be as simple as staggering the end of recess time or changing where a class stands for the bathroom. The change is technical; it can be solved with existing procedures. Staff probably don’t need to build new skills or develop new mindsets to solve it. 

In Leadership on the Line, Heifetz and Linksy (2002) categorize technicals changes as the following: 

  • Extends or refines a past practice
  • Maintains the school or department’s way of working
  • Aligns with personal values or beliefs
  • Easily implemented using current knowledge and skills

Adaptive Changes

Adaptive changes, also called second order changes, often require significant changes to current realities, mindsets, or behavior patterns. Because adaptive changes usually mean significant changes to how people think or act, these changes are often surrounded with feelings of  discomfort, threat, or anxiety.

Leading schools through adaptive changes requires a thoughtful approach to the solutions and to the people involved in the change. John Roberto points out that leaders must help people “enter into that zone of risk” that breeds new habits, mindsets, reflection, and knowledge (2011). As people clumsily form new habits or wrestle with threatened beliefs, “organizational disequilibrium” (Heifetz & Linsky, 2002) ensues.   

Consider a school that must increase authentic, complex text use in elementary classrooms in order to meet Oklahoma Academic Standards. If teachers are currently relying on simple worksheets, the switch to authentic texts may be difficult. Teachers may need to build new planning skills, change daily habits, and build mindsets around how students should practice reading comprehension skills. The change is adaptive.

In Leadership on the Line, Heifetz and Linksy (2002) define adaptive changes as ones that

  • End past practices and require new practices
  • Demand new organizational ways of working
  • Challenge previously held values, mindsets, or assumptions
  • Require new knowledge or skills 

Context Matters

It’s not always possible to assess the scope of a change at a glance. Consider the earlier example of clogged 5th grade hallways. For the school with clear hallway procedures and shared behavioral norms, the solution is technical. But if a school has no shared hallway procedure or teachers are struggling to enforce behavior expectations in the hall, what was a technical change in one school may be an adaptive change in another.  

When leaders have determined if an adaptive or technical change is needed, then they can consider how to manage the change and how many changes can be managed at once. Pausing to assess the scope of the change helps school leaders plan the right timing, support, and invest people in the change. 

Daloz Parks, S. (2005). Leadership can be taught: A bold approach for a complex world. Cambridge: Harvard Business School. 

Heifetz, R. (1994). Leadership Without Easy Answers. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Heifetz,R. & Linsky, M. (2002). Leadership on the Line. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Heifetz, R. & Linsky, M. (2002). A survival guide for leaders. Harvard Business Review.

Roberto, J. (2011). Becoming an adaptive leader: Based on the work of Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linksy. Lifelong Faith.

3 Reasons School Leaders Fail At Change Management

This is the first in a 6-week change management series in which TLI staff share key leadership moves for managing successful school-based change. Catch the series introduction here.

When former Hamilton Elementary principal Tera Carr entered her new school, she felt the urge to make huge changes during her first year on the job. With rock-bottom test scores, constant discipline issues, and growing community concern, sometimes it felt like her new school post was more firefighter than school leader. 

Recently, Carr reminisced with the TLI School Leader Cohort about the process of moving from a novice leader to strong instructional leader. Although she wanted to tackle all the problems at once, she knew she couldn’t. Instead, Carr careful outlined yearly priorities and worked relentlessly towards those narrow goals, building staff skill, knowledge, and mindsets along the way. 

Unfortunately, not all school leaders manage change as carefully and successfully as Carr. 

To kick off our change management blog series, we’ve rounded up three of the main stumbling blocks for managing school-based change.

Change Fail 1: Taking on Too Much

We hear from lots of leaders eager to implement a litany of changes to improve student outcomes and address community concerns. Other times, a long list of changes is a result of district-level mandates, initiatives, and “roll out plans” influenced by parent groups, district leadership, and the ever-changing legislative changes. But taking on too much change at once is a recipe for failure. 

Successful change management must include cut-throat prioritization to make time for crucial skill building, protect faculty from initiative overload, and avoid making new changes feel like “just one more thing.”

Change Fail 2: Not Planning for the Change

Tulsa’s hometown hero Will Rogers quipped that “vision, without a plan, is hallucination.” Successful changes require a plan that considers culture, people, fear, pain, resources, and deep analysis of the change itself.  

Consider the Oklahoma district that invested $200,000 in student-facing devices. Two years later, a quick walk through the school revealed unopened boxes of devices stuffed under counters and stacked in closets. Resources alone weren’t enough to float a technology initiative.   To avoid this pitfall, school leaders must establish a clear plan for how to accomplish a proposed change and deeply invest stakeholders at every level.  

Change Fail 3: Forgetting Competence-Building

Effective change management keeps an unrelenting focus on people. After all, the risks are high. Poorly managed change could alienate teachers and contribute to an unhealthy school culture, especially in Oklahoma’s already-precarious teacher context. Oklahoma State Department of Education points out that  a declining work environment is one of the main reasons teachers leave the profession (McFeron, 2018). A full 40% of teachers reported a lack of support by school-based administrators as a major factor for leaving. 

Instead of assuming that staff can adapt to a proposed change without support or parroting phrases about “trusting teachers” or “letting teachers figure it out,”  create a plan to offer teachers the support and feedback mechanisms they need. After all, good intentions and great ideas alone don’t give teachers and staff the support they need to successfully navigate change. 

Remember that change often requires new skills and habits. Forgetting about competence-building during a change leaves staff feeling unsupported and unsuccessful.     

Although we’ve observed plenty of changes gone the way of the unopened device boxes, school leaders like Carr remind us that even the biggest proposed changes can be managed successfully. Fortunately, research and experience offers a plethora of wisdom to manage school-based change at any site. Follow the blog series as we unfold specific leader moves and resources for managing change. 

References: McFeron, P. (2018). A Survey of 5,487 Holders of Oklahoma Teaching Certificates Not Teaching in Ok Public Schools Under the Age of 65 Online surveys conducted September 26 – October 16, 2017. Survey Report – CHS and Associates_0.pdf

School-based Change Management Kick-off

By Dr. Joanna Lein

Schools leaders are constantly thinking about change. Whether it’s new standards, resources, priorities, or curriculum, school changes require thoughtful roll-outs if you want the new change to be successful.

Change management is such a prominent part of the school leader job that Oklahoma’s most prevalent principal evaluation tool, McRel, uses “Managing Change” as one of its three main rubric areas (along with “Purposeful Community” and “Focus of Leadership).

Still, managing change is tricky. During a recent social media conversation, I watched as teachers and administration batted around examples of failed changes in their schools. The results varied from frustrated staff members to initiative overload, burnout, and even all-out mutiny. It wasn’t all disappointment though. Sprinkled throughout the conversation were stories of enduring change. 

One teacher excitedly recalled the year her principal pushed teachers to integrate an ambitious set of differentiation strategies. Step by step, the teachers learned about the idea, researched strategies, practiced implementation, observed their colleagues, and received principal feedback. “At every faculty meeting,” she wrote, “we drew a name of a teacher to observe, fill out a reflection, and turn it in. Eighth grade teachers and kindergarten teachers had to observe each other.” Not even the grumpiest of teachers was exempt. The most amazing part for the teacher writer? How quickly the principal invested an entire faculty to take ownership and be accountable for differentiation strategies in every lesson at every grade level. 

At TLI, we spend a lot of time helping leaders strategically plan for change. Now, we’re excited to bring a taste of that work to you! Over the next six weeks, we’re rolling out a series of blog posts to introduce you to the big pieces of school-base change management.

Whether you’re still a little gun shy from a botched change, eagerly planning for innovation next semester, or barely making it through a difficult change right now, join us for some weekly change management wisdom. 

Looking for a specific post? Check out change management posts on assessing the scope, greasing the skids, and top reasons change management fails.

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