School leaders are expected to engage in management routines (e.g., establishing an organizational vision, ensuring a safe and healthy learning climate, crafting schedules for courses and professional learning, and managing facilities and communication strategies internal and external to the school). They are also responsible for aspects related to the improvement of teaching and learning (e.g., hiring, retention, and evaluation/support of teachers). The role of principal-as-instructional leader is reflected in standards documents guiding the preparation and certification of school principals, although the responsibility for instructional leadership often rests with a range of school leaders (e.g., principals, assistant/associate/vice-principals, instructional coaches, content-area specialists, department or grade-level chairs, and teacher-leaders). Instructional leadership can itself be challenging, given time and resource constraints. Leadership in the content areas can be even more fraught, as leaders may be required to enact routines (e.g., walkthroughs, debriefs, coaching conversations, and evaluations) in content areas with which they are partially or wholly unfamiliar. Yet, leaders are responsible for supporting the learning of every student, across all content areas.

Broadening thinking so that leaders value all content areas, as opposed to strictly privileging those subjects frequently tested as part of state or federal accountability policies, is one challenge to engaging robust leadership in all content areas. Time is a challenge to leading in the content areas; engaging with teachers in a robust cycle of observation, debrief, and coaching can be overwhelming when a leader is familiar with the subject matter at hand. When a leader must also work to explore new discipline-specific standards, curriculum, and strategies for instruction and assessment, this time burden necessarily grows. Leader capacity is also a challenge. When leaders are unfamiliar with instruction related to particular disciplines, they may be at a loss as to how to engage teaches around issues of instruction, at least beyond shallow or general strategies.

To respond to these challenges, school leaders tend to adopt one of three broad approaches. First, they focus engagement and feedback on more generalized (content-neutral) instructional practices, such as formative assessment, differentiated instruction, active learning and student engagement, visible thinking, and aligning instruction and assessments with desired outcomes. Second, they adopt a distributed leadership approach, in which they stretch leadership over several persons in the school context – so that any gaps in their own disciplinary knowledge can be filled by others who have such knowledge or experience (recognizing that distributing leadership does not equate to ceding responsibility for learning about the various content areas or engaging with teachers in those areas). Third, they look to build their own pedagogical content knowledge in unfamiliar areas, intentionally diving into standards and best practice strategies associated with particular disciplines.

Preparation programmes and school districts (i.e., preservice and inservice/induction) share responsibility for equipping leaders to lead in the content areas. Aligning preparation efforts with the 2015 Professional Standards for Educational Leaders can help focus preservice programmes on aspects of instructional leadership, while incorporating particular disciplinary standards (such as the Principles and Standards for School Mathematics [National Council of Teachers of Mathematics] and the National Curriculum Standard for Social Studies [National Council for the Social Studies]) can help aspiring leaders ground instructional leadership practice in the disciplines. Ongoing leadership training – such as, leveraging professional networks and professional learning communities to engage in case studies related to the disciplines – are promising practices through which school districts can support ever-deepening development among leaders of discipline-specific knowledge.

The field is in need of more evidence specific to what makes interactions about instructional practices between leaders and teachers fruitful, and this need is magnified when it comes to leading in the content areas. The need is even more dire in content areas that are not typically in the spotlight already, due to accountability policies. Working across silos (e.g., teacher education, leadership education, and instructional coaching) can be a way to support explorations and generate evidence related to when and under what conditions leadership in the content areas results in a broad range of positive student outcomes.