Activity 4: What Great Principals Do

Activity Guide

“School improvement is actually a very simple concept, but not easy to accomplish. There are really two ways to improve a school significantly: get better teachers or improve the teachers you already have.” —Todd Whitaker, What Great Principals Do Differently (2013).

Todd Whitaker has influenced the thinking of those who wrote Building Ranks™. His beliefs are reflected in the conceptual model of Building Ranks, the school improvement process for great principals and the administrative team:

  • In order to improve your school, improve your students.
  • In order to improve your students, improve your teachers.


  • NASSP (2018). Integrating the Dimensions of Leading Learning: Leading Learning Case Study. In Building Ranks: A Comprehensive Framework for Effective School Leaders (pp. 126–130). Reston, VA: Author.


Carefully read the Reflections on the Leading Learning Case Study and note the practical examples that could be used for improving instruction at your school. Although you have evaluated and supported teacher improvement in the classroom, how have you addressed teachers who may not know how to change their practice? Note and reflect on the role of effective teachers at your school. How can you as a principal provide enriching experiences for effective teachers and needed support for those teachers who you feel need to change their practice to align with the direction of the school?

Professional Development for Self

  1. Familiarize yourself with the Building Ranks Logic Model. As you read the description below the model, take note of how a principal must be inclusive in their leadership. Reflect on your school and staff and review the key concepts above before completing the Reflections on the Leading Learning Case Study (bullets 1–3 on p. 130).
  2. Answer the discussion questions and thoughtfully record your responses in a journal. Writing your responses down will allow you to review and edit your thinking as you progress through this journey.
  3. Think of the strongest and most resourceful teacher in each content area at your school. Describe these teachers in your own words and record in your journal.
  4. If approached carefully, how could these teachers improve the performance of other teachers struggling in their discipline? In what ways could this interchange benefit your students and improve the school? How could this process be used across content areas? For example, how could an excellent mathematics teacher improve science instruction? Or, how could an excellent science teacher improve mathematics instruction? Reflect on other beneficial cross-content pairings. Think also about specific group or grade-level cross-content projects. Add those projects and the names of teacher leaders with the knowledge and skills to implement them in your journal. Now that you have descriptions of your strongest teachers, how might you be able to use the descriptions?
  5. Now consider which Building Ranks Leading Learning dimensions (listed on p. 127) are strongest at your school. Which might you need to strengthen? Record the strongest and those that need more work in your journal. Jot down ideas about how you might capitalize on the strengths you have identified.
  6. Can you work with a principal colleague whose school is close to yours? Talk with the principal and ask them to complete the same Module 1 activity. It is important that your colleague read, reflect, and journal about their teachers. Then, begin a conversation about how you and your colleague can use peer observations to improve instruction at each school. Focus on very limited teacher exchanges at first, perhaps beginning with pairs of your strongest teachers. How can these peer observations improve both the most effective teachers and the ones who need improvement?
  7. Application: Reflect on how informal classroom visitations can help support teacher observations. Proceed carefully and strategically to suggest teacher partners and peer observations for instruction improvement.
  8. Extend the application: Some teachers may prefer visiting and observing teachers from other buildings. Check with your principal colleague.

Professional Development with Others

Follow the process above with your leadership team. Begin by having participants read the Leading Learning Case Study.

Depending on the size of your group, work through the questions by asking each group member to jot down their responses to each reflective question (on p. 131.) Ask them wherever possible to include authentic examples from your school. If you have a large group, you may need to divide the group and split the questions evenly.

Ask the team to identify which Building Ranks Leading Learning dimensions are strongest at your school? Which might need to be strengthened? How did the input from the team differ from what you identified in the Professional Development for Self? What might you need to consider now that you have more comprehensive input from your staff concerning strengths and weaknesses around the Building Ranks dimensions at your school?

Extend and Apply

Have a conversation about how to capitalize on the strengths you have collectively identified. Consider using the Discussion Guide Planning Templates A, B, and C to work through any new initiatives or changes you are considering.