The quality of a school’s instructional leadership can
have a significant impact on student achievement.
Most administrators enter the position with the
goal of delivering quality instructional leadership;
they envision themselves being in classrooms,
working side by side with teachers and students, and
collaborating with team members around instruction,
curriculum, and data. However, the obstacles they
face once they enter the position often get in the way
of fully realizing this goal. There are the practical
obstacles, where short school hours are quickly filled
with meetings, managerial tasks, and discipline
issues. There are often perception obstacles, as
many administrators left the classroom years ago
and staff may not view them as knowledgeable in new curriculum, technology, strategies, and tools.
And there are knowledge obstacles, as middle school
administrators cannot possibly have the background
and expertise of all content areas in a building.
Considering these obstacles, how can administrators
maintain credibility and maximize impact as
The best answer I have found? Teach… well,
co-teach really. A few years ago, to improve our
own instructional leadership and build credibility,
my principal and I decided to start co-teaching
each year with a staff member. The goal was multifaceted.
First, by actively and regularly teaching we
were continuously improving our own instruction,
strategies, and skills. We had a classroom to try out the effectiveness of new ideas instead of simply passing
them along. Second, by being “in the trenches,” we
earned credibility from staff. We dealt with behavior
issues, juggled district requirements, and implemented
new resources. We also gained knowledge of subject
areas that were outside our expertise.
For these reasons and more, I recommend
anyone who has moved out of the classroom fulltime
(building administration, curriculum specialist,
etc.) to reconnect with the classroom. While the
challenges to the co-teach strategy are real, if we
hold instructional leadership as a core value, then we
have to find a way to live it. To make the endeavor
successful, here are some ideas on overcoming
obstacles and maximizing this opportunity.
Even in a building with the most positive climate and
culture, the idea of having an administrator teach
with you can make the most confident teachers a bit
nervous. Having built strong relationships over the
years with teachers made rolling out this process
much easier and more accepted by staff. However,
even the teachers that volunteered admitted they
were nervous about the idea of the boss being in the
room constantly. Being transparent about your goals,
explaining what you can offer teachers, and modeling
being a learner yourself can help alleviate many of
And remember, you might have a perfect co-teacher
in mind, except that person has no desire to teach
with you. Solicit volunteers for the experience and be
open to the opportunities that may arise (or not arise).
My first teacher volunteered because she wanted
fresh ideas and believed my outside perspective could
provide a new lens, and I saw an opportunity to deepen
my knowledge in a subject I hadn’t taught. When you roll out the idea of co-teaching, be open and explicit in
your reasons behind it, and explain what you hope to
get out of the experience.
While in the classroom, use this as a time to
experiment. Try new things and be okay with failing.
Use different co-teaching models so you can talk
directly with co-teachers on how to implement them in
their classrooms. Talk openly about your failures, and
model for other staff the learning opportunities. Push
yourself and your co-teacher to try something new. Ask
others to come in and give you feedback. Co-teaching
is the perfect vehicle to model yourself as the lead
learner in the building. As you get ready to roll out the
idea to staff, be able to answer these questions:
- What do I hope to gain/learn from the experience?
- What can I offer to teachers that will benefit them
and their students?
- How can I use this experience to better the school
as a whole?
One important benefit to co-teaching is the
opportunity to build relationships with teachers and
students. Yet the quickest way to lose credibility
and trust is to say you’re going to be somewhere
and then not show up. As you begin the co-teaching
journey, know the realities of your schedule and
find a consistent time that will realistically work. I
recommend once a week, as it keeps you regularly in
the classroom without overwhelming your schedule
and to-do list. I knew the days that always held
meetings (Monday and Friday), and the blocks I was
often called to handle discipline issues (3rd and 4th).
With those in mind, meet with your co-teacher and
find mutually agreeable times to teach together (for
me it was Tuesdays 2nd block one year, Thursdays 1st
Once you both decide on a time, get it on your
calendar for the entire year so nothing else gets
scheduled during that time. However, remind your
co-teacher you will need some flexibility, as conflicts
will inevitably arise. When they do, reschedule. If
you don’t, it sends a message on the importance of
your presence in the classroom. To aide in planning,
answer these questions:
- What times of day (periods, blocks, etc.) am I usually
the most free?
- What days of the week should I avoid?
- How often is realistic?
- When will we be able to plan?
The first year I started co-teaching English language
arts, my partner and I were teaching whatever plans
happened to fall on the day I was in there. This led to
disjointed planning, awkward lessons, and not true
co-teaching (beyond one-teach, one-assist). At the
end of the semester, we revised our plans. We decided
to set aside the days I was co-teaching to utilize a
specific resource that ELA teachers were expected
to use weekly. This had two benefits. It allowed us
to be intentional when planning co-taught lessons
to maximize having two teachers in the room. It
also allowed me to more deeply understand the ELA
resource and how to use it effectively in the classroom.
I also was intentional about the teacher I selected
to teach with based on what we could learn from
each other. One teacher had a great deal of content
knowledge that I did not, and I looked forward to
learning from her. One of my strengths has been
building positive rapport with students, which I
modeled throughout our year together. Another
teacher brought great energy and creativity to the
classroom, and I wanted to learn from his ideas. In
return, I helped him use data in a way that improved
student outcomes from the year before. As you plan,
answer these questions:
- In what subject/content area do you lack
- Which staff or content resources do you want to
learn more about?
- Which staff member do you think you would
- Who might be able to learn from your strengths and
In This E-Learning World
Recent events have thrown middle level education
into uncharted waters. Uncertainty and e-learning
should not scare you away from co-teaching. However,
it may be helpful to keep a few extra pieces in mind.
- Be understanding – As this is a stressful time for
everyone, understand if teachers are not jumping at
the chance to co-teach right away. There are plenty
of reasons teachers may be reluctant to sign up
right now, and with all the stress people are under,
it may be the furthest thing from their mind. Just
be patient; people will come forward when they feel
- Be helpful – It might not be the co-teaching situation
you had in mind, but helping your co-teacher lighten
the load (leading online meetings, following up
with students, providing feedback) may build the
credibility you need as school returns to in-person
- Be positive – Co-teaching in an e-learning
environment provides a great way for administrators
to understand the work teachers are putting into
this new venture, so remember the benefits as you
engage. Help your co-teacher stay positive and focus
on the impact you can have with students, even
from a distance.
Becoming an effective instructional leader is a
worthwhile goal, but one that requires time and
commitment. Through co-teaching, administrators can
develop and refine their instructional leadership. No
professional development or book I’ve read has taught
me as much as being both in the classroom and in the
Pauline Zdonek is a middle school assistant principal at
Jane Addams Middle School, Bolingbrook, Illinois. Prior
to administration, she was a mathematics instructional
coach, middle school math teacher, and special education
Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2020.