A Vision for Instructional Supervision: Mission Impossible?

A Vision for Instructional Supervision: Mission Impossible?

Elizabeth M. Gensante

The standard model for supervising instruction in most school districts is a deficiency model, whereby supervisors take on the role of “snoopervisor,” visiting classrooms to judge what they observe.

As a beginning teacher, I grew accustomed to token visits from my principal whose standard advice was that if I kept an orderly room and maintained student behavior, all would go well for me. Never was there any dialogue about the substance of my lessons. Since he rarely visited my classroom, I assumed I was doing all right.

Toward the end of my 15 years as a teacher, circumstances changed. The new principal assigned to my building believed the time spent on instructional supervision should benefit not only me, but also my students and the principal himself. Post-observation talks with this principal were just that–talks. He encouraged conversation by asking me open-ended questions about specific aspects of my lesson–why I chose certain strategies over others, what went through my mind during the planning stage of a particular lesson, and so on.

All teachers in my school realized this principal expected us to reflect on our teaching and that we could expect him to engage us in post-observation talk that was collegial and nonjudgmental. We also realized that working with teachers on instruction was important to this principal, yet none of us ever felt threatened because we sensed his genuine interest in helping us be the best that we could be.

Do supervisors in most schools today help teachers modify their behaviors and expand their repertoire? Not likely! A survey of school districts probably would validate that most experienced teachers are observed about once a year and the inexperienced teachers are observed perhaps twice. More significantly, such a survey would show that principals rarely spend time with teachers in post-observation talk, exploring lesson data, instructional strategies, teachers’ perceptions about the lesson, and ideas for improvement.

Meaningful Reform

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development’s 1992 Yearbook says instructional supervision is changing from a traditional top down managerial approach to one that involves and empowers teachers. The essence of this movement involves a new vision for supervision, one that creates and nurtures teacher leadership. Though it may sound easy, it is not.

In my role as superintendent, I continue to focus on improving instruction much as I did when I was a classroom teacher and a principal. I am reminded every day that this focus requires persistence, because it is a complex process where success relies on certain beliefs and values. These beliefs and values have to do with goals, expectations, climate, trust, communication, and unity, among others.

I am convinced that meaningful reform in supervision relies upon the following beliefs and values that superintendents must promote:

* Goals and expectations for learning are articulated for the entire school community.

Comparative findings of school effectiveness research are consistent: where a clearly articulated vision and high academic goals and expectations are communicated, student achievement improves.

A strategic planning process can do much to articulate the district or school mission. Everyone needs to know what is valued by the school or district. The board of directors, the administration, and faculty must work together to identify that focus.

Leadership at all levels needs to be nurtured for this to occur. The superintendent certainly plays a key role in making it all happen. The secret to success is involvement from all segments of the organization and a willingness to seek creative ways to articulate goals and learning expectations.

* An administrative team management approach is used and the school board is committed to nurturing teacher leadership.

Successful organizations are characterized by productivity of some kind. The measure of productivity in schools is student achievement. Student achievement improves when schools pay close attention to instruction. Administrators work with teachers to find better ways to meet student needs. Teachers make conscious decisions about teaching every day. They reflect upon the relative success of each lesson.

Principals and teachers have opportunities for professional development–attending conferences, chairing committees, writing curriculum, participating in policy development, and framing instructional supervisory practices that are meaningful to them. All are part of a winning team working together.

The superintendent sets the tone for all this to occur. The board of education endorses and encourages the focus on instruction and student achievement. All of the players feel valued. This is called empowerment.

* A climate of trust exists in the district.

This goal is the most difficult to achieve because management styles, hidden agendas, union issues, and poor communication get in the way. Integrity, honesty, and veracity must be apparent at the central-office level. The tone needs to be set and modeled from the top. The notion that “information is power” destroys the building blocks of trust. A management style that fosters collegiality fosters trust.

* Building administrators are expected to perform as instructional leaders.

This statement implies that administrators are not just expected to be building managers who keep a neat and orderly environment. They must have a thorough knowledge base about curriculum, instruction, and supervision. To succeed as change agents, they must have strong interpersonal skills.

Research consistently supports the notion that a successful school usually has a principal perceived as an instructional leader whose focus is on student achievement. All the energy in the school is directed to refining, analyzing, and reflecting on teaching and addressing student and teacher needs.

Mission Possible

These goals may be considered lofty, difficult to achieve, and even difficult to validate, but my experience convinces me that they are worthy. Where, then, does one begin? Whose responsibility is it to create this new vision in supervision? Can it come from the superintendent who is typically busy dealing with the board, the union, community issues, and politics in general, not to mention the district’s brick-and-mortar needs?

To be effective, the new vision absolutely must come from the superintendent. While expertise in instructional supervision is not required, understanding the change process and organizational dynamics are important. Rather than requiring teachers to submit written lesson plans one week in advance, the superintendent might convene a discussion group of teachers and principals to explore ways to work together on instructional improvement issues.

Another step is to seek out the movers and shakers in the district-principals and teachers looking for a challenge-and pass them the ball. Find ways to involve them in analyzing the supervisory process, setting goals, and improving professional development. Ask them to identify the linkages among these components and challenge them to develop an instructional supervisory process that integrates them.

Remember also to keep board members part of the action. They are critical to the success of any change.

This new vision for supervision has no name or catchy slogan. Its shape and focus will vary according to the district’s mission. The superintendent’s job is to set the stage for people to collaborate, provide them with information and resources, enrich them, coach them, and cheer them on.

COPYRIGHT 1994 American Association of School Administrators

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group