Ways to Lead for Instruction Right Now

on Apr 20, 2020
The Throughline

As schools have changed dramatically over the past month, we have been inspired by what educators are doing to continue leading for instructional improvement. I spoke recently with Chris Lennox, the superintendent of Mounds View Public Schools in Minnesota. Like other districts, Chris and his team went from planning to delivering remote instruction in two weeks, and he shared what that experience was like. “Once people realized a virtual classroom was the only classroom,” he said, “our teachers were amazing in making the shift.”

As a leader, Chris is clear about the opportunity to use this moment to get better on behalf of students — for the short term and the long term. Lately, getting better in Mounds View has looked like:

  • Defining an ideal state by asking the questions: What should student engagement look like? How can we best understand student progress and continuing needs?
  • Surveying students and parents to understand changes in the current state
  • Working side-by-side (virtually) with principals to define what instructional leadership looks like during a crisis and disruption to student learning
  • Engaging personally with principals in short cycles of inquiry to ensure thoughtful progress

Our team often thinks of this steady progress as movement “up the staircase.” The staircase is a visual that my colleague Jenn McDermott developed, and it supports people and school systems at getting better. It can be used at different times and for a variety of challenges regardless of scale or scope.

Boy in classroom

The process is straightforward: naming an ideal state, understanding the current state, and then using evidence of progress, feedback, coaching, and intentional learning to drive deliberate practice along a staircase of actionable next steps.

Jenn and I shared this at the Carnegie Foundation Summit on Improvement in Education this month, where we focused on work CEL does with several California county offices of education who are working to become even stronger partners for school districts in their region. This is work that took place in “normal” circumstances.

But Chris’s story reminds us that foundational approaches like the staircase support the work of leaders even when things aren’t at all normal. Even as Mounds View continues to boost the engagement of its students, Chris says, “I went into this as an instructional leader and will remain an instructional leader during this.”

At this moment, leaders like you are confronting challenges that you couldn’t have foreseen. As you do, please remember that no matter what the circumstances, getting better remains important.

Here are some questions you can ask to guide your improvement:

  • What is the ideal state you’re going for right now?
  • Where are students in that vision?
  • Do you know your current state?
  • What is the first step you can take for improvement?
  • How will you get and give feedback, coaching, and opportunities for intentional learning?


It’s questions like these that are helping Chris stay focused on instruction and students while supporting his team to sustain learning right now. I hope you’ll find these useful, too, as you move forward through this disruption that we’re all facing.

About the author

Max Silverman is the executive director of the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership (CEL) where he provides leadership for improving school systems focused on equitable outcomes for students.
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