Becoming a Strong Instructional Leader: Saying No to Business as Usual
reviewed by Karen McCarthy - October 25, 2013
Title: Becoming a Strong Instructional Leader: Saying No to Business as Usual
Author(s): Alan Charles Jones
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807753386, Pages: 224, Year: 2012
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If ever the role of a principal was easy to navigate, that time is over. This is a job filled with politics, personalities, mandates, moral imperatives, constant surprises, and to-do lists stretching a mile long. The role is not for the timid. Its demands are undisputed. While among the most important and challenging positions in education, in this time of intense school accountability the principalship is often filled with stress and challenges for both the new and the seasoned. Principals are expected to be visionaries, managers of people, operations experts, community organizers, politicians, andmost importantlymaster teachers. In Becoming a Strong Instructional Leader: Saying No to Business as Usual, Alan Jones provides context and a framework to help school leaders navigate the complicated demands of their role so they may become the instructional leaders that students and schools deserve. As a former teacher and principal (of 17 years) in the Chicago area, and currently an associate professor of educational administration at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, Jones certainly has the experience and perspective to contribute to a discussion about school leadership. He states in his preface that despite numerous accolades (high evaluations, Teacher of the Year, a Blue Ribbon Award for a school he led), he never felt good about [his] teaching or about [his] leadership (p. xv). Jones explains that he felt consumed by what schools could be rather than what they were. Becoming a Strong Instructional Leader: Saying No to Business as Usual is the result of his career-long process of thinking about why schools fail to engage students (p. xv) and his answer to what school leaders could do about it.
This book is an argument. As implied in the title, Jones believes that a strong instructional leader must behave differently from his or her more typical peersthat if they go about business as usual they will simply preserve the status quo. Jones make the case that most principals are not instructional leaders but rather managers of schools. He draws a clear line between management and leadership, explaining that leaders today spend more time running buildings, complying with mandates, and enacting the reforms of the day rather than doing the meaningful work of helping teachers to understand what effective teaching looks like and so they may enact it in their classrooms. Whether deliberate or inadvertent, Jones enters this dialogue as a bit of a rebel. Many other reformers argue for breaks from business as usual, but rather then writing another book about data-driven school reform, or standards-based accountably, Joness argument focuses on what most others omitthe fundamental need for instructional leaders to form a clear, strong instructional worldview and to use that worldview as a compass when navigating coherent approaches to curriculum and instruction (p. xvii). His thesis stands in opposition to reform trends that present de-contextualized instructional strategies and systems. Many popular books on instructional leadership focus on managing ones time in order to spend more of it observing and providing feedback to teachers. Jones takes a different approach. To be a strong instructional leaderto truly support high quality teaching and learningJones argues that first a leader must know what he or she stands forwhat he or she believes to be the valued ends of schooling. Once this is clear, then the leader must serve as a sort of translator, as a link between theory and practice for their teachers and as a filter for the reforms and initiatives that enter their school.
Becoming a Strong Instructional Leader: Saying No to Business as Usual is broken into thirteen chapters. The first half lays out a context and a critique of schools today. Here Jones paints a picture of students who are doing school rather than experiencing school as engaged learners, and of leaders who serve as managers focusing on what Jones calls the diversions of school (i.e., national and state mandates) rather than on teaching and learning. Throughout, Jones provides scripts and scenarios to help the school leader shift from managing a school to the role of instructional leader.
In many sections, his anger is palpable. Jones presents a system of compliance and of getting through the day; he frequently uses the term institutional to describe a factory-like system with learning absent from its core. Jones laments a system that does not engender or reward instructional leadership but instead values timely buses, clean hallways, balanced budgets, accurate schedules, safe buildings, and contented parents (p. 2). As a result school leaders focus on implementing a technique or program of the day (p. 4) rather than a creating a coherent instructional model grounded in best practices and clear goals. Jones advocates that principals must have a sound understanding of new theories and pedagogies and a clear awareness of the realities and tensions inherent in classroom practice. To do this work, Jones repeatedly emphasizes that leaders must know what they believe in order to assess and support, or reject, the initiatives that come into their schools.
Jones believes that the work of a strong instructional leader should be largely about developing common understandings and practices among the different realities inhabiting our schools and ultimately, pursing an agreed upon instructional worldview (p. 6). Anyone who has ever spent a day in a school knows that administrators are often pulled away from instructional concerns to put out metaphorical fires or tend to the more operational aspects of the work. Jones describes leaders who allow themselves to focus on managerial tasks as participating in a dance around the classroom in which the classroom is not only ignored but also largely avoided. This results in teachers becom[ing] frustrated with administrative policies that bear little relationship to what is happening in classrooms, and school administrators becom[ing] frustrated with teacher excuses for poor student achievement (p.17). He goes on to call out various styles of leadership. He describes leaders who abnegate their responsibilities with a you dont bother me and I wont bother you attitude; instructional technocrats who focus on data, state testing, scripted lessons, and state mandates; and situational leaders who compromise and bargain over issues (pp. 28-29). These leaders stand in contrast to strong instructional leaders who work with purpose, who recognize a valued end of schooling, and who consciously move the teachers in their building toward an understanding and shared view of this purpose, which then manifests in improved classroom practices and truly engaged students.
The second half of Joness book focuses on how an instructional leader could develop and execute his or her instructional worldview. Jones goes into great detail. He divides the process into journeys. The first is the private journey. Here a leader develops a clear instructional worldview, which Jones believes is foundational for guiding priorities, framing initiatives and communicating messages. Second is the public journeyhere the leader aims to marry theory and practice for teachershelping teachers reframe problems and solutions, so that they understand and are invested in the pedagogy behind their work. Jones states, Strong instructional leaders enter schools with an understanding that changing core teaching beliefs and practices is not a managerial function, but a pedagogical undertaking . . . Such leaders view instructional or organizational problems not as situations to be managed, but as opportunities to teach faculty about theory-driving instructional initiatives (p. 109). Jones is wise to recognize that teachers must believe in and understand educational initiatives if they are to take root in the classroom. As Jones states, directives issued from offices will change neither teachers intellectual understandings of a subject nor how the subject is taught in classrooms. (p. 127). Jones urges leaders to recognize that orders dont change classroom instruction, winning hearts and minds does, a focus often overlooked in the fast pace of todays schools.
While less than 200 pages, Joness book is dense. It is packed with analysis and critiques. It goes into lengthy (at times repetitive) discussions around creating and implementing an instructional worldview and working with teachers; it addresses many practical and ethical challenges faced in todays educational contexts. It is not light or casual reading and it remains unclear if busy principals or school leaders would make the time for such reading within the demands of their hectic, over-scheduled days. His book may be better suited to academic classrooms filled with aspiring leaders as Joness emphasis on the private journeywhere the leader deeply examines and determines what he or she believes is notably missing in many contemporary schools of education.
Ultimately, Joness book is a rallying cry for independent leaders. Amongst a sea of demands, Jones believes that leaders must risk disturbing the status quo in order to bring about purpose and meaning to schools. He urges readers to challenge established ideas and think critically about the work of schools, strong instructional leaders . . . deliver a message that deflates accepted ways of seeing the world and have the courage to voice oppositional messages in an educational climate more attuned to examining test results than developing a passion for learning (p. 18). While critiques may say that Joness argument for thoughtful, independent instructional leaders is nothing new, in todays politicized era of education reform, it would be wise to not ignore the courage that Joness book both expresses and advocates.