August 24, 2021

Bill Ferriter: On Expiration Dates and Instructional Leadership

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Bill Ferriter writing at Building Confident Learners makes the controversial assertion that principals are not the instructional leaders of their buildings.

My argument is really quite simple: Being an expert instructor requires constant practice — and once someone leaves the classroom, it is hard to continue practicing. Over time, you lose your skills and your professional agility — the ability to translate concepts to real-world environments in an instant and on the fly.

That’s what I call, “Your Expiration Date” — and it is the moment where you lose the ability to fully understand the work of teachers because you don’t do that work anymore and because your first-hand experience came during a different time with different demands, different resources and different expectations.

Expiration dates are a reality in every profession that requires highly skilled practitioners.

The managing partner at a law firm doesn’t argue that she is still a top rate trial lawyer anymore. The hospital administrator doesn’t argue that his skills in the operating room are on par with his top surgeons. The director of operations at a dealership’s service center doesn’t argue that she should be the first to diagnose problems on the cars rolling through for repairs.

The simple truth is that in knowledge-driven professions, practice is constantly evolving and to stay at the top of your game, you have to actually DO the work. Once you move into positions beyond the courtroom, the operating room, the service bay or the classroom, you might know a ton about practice — but knowing about practice and actually practicing are two completely different things.

Now, every time that I write about expiration dates and the myth of the instructional leader, I am VERY careful to acknowledge that administrators have knowledge and skill that is essential to the success of schools.

In fact, one of my central arguments is that we should start calling principals “leaders of instructors.”

To me, that work involves creating the conditions that allow teachers to learn from one another — and it is highly skilled work, too. Understanding how to move organizations forward requires a unique set of knowledge and skills that classroom teachers rarely have. More importantly, understanding how to move organizations forward is incredibly complex work that has a direct impact on the success of students in a school.

And to continue my analogy from above, the top trial lawyers, surgeons, mechanics and teachers all recognize that they don’t have the skills or knowledge to fill the roles played by managing partners, hospital administrators, directors of operations, or the best principals.

The roles that people play in professional organizations are complementary — all equally important to success, but all requiring a unique set of skills and expertise that are not equally shared across positions.

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