Evidence for Learning: Instructional leadership in action

Instructional leadership in action

What a thriving primary school led by a dedicated principal focused on instructional leadership looks like.

Instructional leadership in action

Blog •5 minutes •

Evidence for Learning has the vision of helping great practice become common practice. I see this aim to be a major part of my role. Firstly, there is the focus on spreading the evidence on what works from the Teaching & Learning Toolkit. A key consideration is what works, for whom and in what circumstances. The other part is building the capacity of the profession to document their practice-based evidence (Vaughan, Deeble, & Bush, 2017). Bryk (2015, p. 469) describes this concept as educators are now cast as active agents of improvement rather than as passive receivers of knowledge developed by others’. In my work presenting the Toolkit, I have been fortunate to connect with over 3,100 educators from across Australia. Arising from these presentations is sometimes the opportunity to form a collaborative partnership.

In this blog, I will detail some of the excellent practices that I observed at Alawa Primary School in the Northern Territory. I met Sandy Cartwright, the Principal at Alawa Primary School at the 2017 Highly Accomplished and Lead Teacher Network (HALT) summit facilitated by AITSL. We reconnected on my way to Katherine to work with another passionate leader from the Northern Territory – John Cleary (you can read the blog here).

A walk through of the school with Sandy earlier this year identified many examples of great practice occurring within this school. Sandy recently was awarded Northern Territory Principal of the Year by the Northern Territory Government. Sandy approached me to act as a critical friend to Alawa Primary School. I was invited to conduct a case study to determine how the current strategic plan was progressing through interviewing the staff and students to help inform future directions for this school.

I saw this as an opportunity to document and share the great practice at Alawa. This was an interesting approach for me as I had always used the case study approach to investigate the impact of Arts programs on schools (Caldwell & Vaughan, 2012; Vaughan & Caldwell, 2017; Vaughan, Harris, & Caldwell, 2011), rather than having a school request me to use this approach as evidence to help them plan. In this way, I saw Sandy as an active agent of improvement’. Alawa Primary School is a Preschool to Year 6 government school with 31 percent of student enrolments from the bottom quartile of ICSEA. The school supports a diverse population of students with 26 percent identifying as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander background and 24 percent with Language Backgrounds Other than English (LBOTE). The school is situated within the northern suburbs of Darwin, a 15-minute drive from the city centre.

Instructional leadership

The work of Professor Viviane Robinson illuminates the importance of instructional leadership (Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008). Crucial to Instructional Leadership are goals that have an academic focus. Three key areas were identified by Robinson et al:

  • Promoting and taking part in teacher learning
  • Establishing goals and expectations
  • Planning, coordinating and evaluating teaching and the curriculum

The largest effect size was 0.84 for promoting and participating in teacher learning and development. Robinson defined this as when the leader participates in the learning as leader, learner, or both’ within formal and informal contexts (Robinson et al., 2008, p. 663). I will use these three key areas as identified by Robinson to contextualize the work of Sandy and her leadership team.

Promoting and taking part in teacher learning

Sandy Cartwright is an instructional leader, still maintaining a teaching schedule of three hours a week. Her lessons cover mathematics and Creative and Critical thinking once a week and is available for relief teaching / class covers as required.

Through her involvement with regular teaching Sandy can understand her teachers work and help them through observations and mentoring.

Establishing goals and expectations

There is a clear line of sight from the strategic plan to the actions on the ground at Alawa Primary School. The staff have a clear vision for their students that is driven to be a learning organisation within a learning community that responds in innovative ways’ to the educational needs so that every child reaches their full potential. The performance development of the teachers is clearly linked to the strategic plan.

They don’t feel like they are wasting the classes time by doing add-ons. The strategic plan is re-visited once a term to determine what progress has been made. This approach ensures that the strategic plan is treated as a living document, with a recent staff meeting held to go through feedback provided by parents, teachers and students through the annual perception surveys. The feedback was integrated into the strategic plan as evidence of progress or identified as needing further attention.

Planning, coordinating and evaluating teaching and the curriculum

Another teacher described the culture as one where making mistakes is alright as there is a lot of structure to assist your learning as well as strong support networks and high collegiality’. Beginning teachers are strongly supported by a mentoring program where they are given two hours per week with their mentor, who is part of the leadership team to plan. The beginning teachers also have a minimum of five observations for the first year. The observations are undertaken by different staff members including the principal, mentor or another member of the leadership team.

Instructional rounds are routinely undertaken with teachers focusing on a specific area. The teachers all plan to teach a specific concept/​focus area on the same day for the walk through during the instructional rounds. The results and feedback from the teaching is presented at a staff meeting.

Concluding observations

Alawa is a thriving primary school led by a dedicated principal focused on instructional leadership. The staff are strongly supported in their growth through mentoring, co-planning and instructional rounds. The activities within the school are strongly aligned to the strategic plan with a clear sense of vision and moral purpose to help every child achieve.


Bryk, A. S. (2015). 2014 AERA Distinguished Lecture Accelerating How We Learn to Improve. Educational Researcher, 0013189X15621543.

Caldwell, B. J., & Vaughan, T. (2012). Transforming Education through The Arts. London and New York: Routledge.

Robinson, V., Lloyd, C., & Rowe, K. (2008). The Impact of Leadership on Student Outcomes: An Analysis of the Differential Effects of Leadership Types. Educational Administration Quarterly, 44(5), 635 – 674. doi:10.1177/0013161x08321509

Vaughan, T., & Caldwell, B. J. (2017). Impact of the Creative Arts Indigenous Parental Engagement (CAIPE) program. Australian Art Education, 38(1), 76.

Vaughan, T., Deeble, M., & Bush, J. (2017). Evidence informed-decision making. Australian Educational Leader, 39(4), 32 – 35.

Vaughan, T., Harris, J., & Caldwell, B. J. (2011). Bridging the Gap in School Achievement through the Arts: Summary report Retrieved from http://www.songroom.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Bridging-the-Gap-in-School-Achievement-through-the-Arts.pdf

Dr Tanya Vaughan is an Associate Director at Evidence for Learning. She is responsible for the product development, community leadership and strategy of the Toolkit.