students sitting at table with adviserBeing a principal is tough. What happens the day after the school board announces your appointment? What do you do when you are an experienced principal appointed to a challenging school? Who helps when you have a question?

This article is the result of a shared writing experience of 47 participants and leaders that was conducted February 12, 2015, to describe a program and tell their story in The School-University Research Network (SURN) Principal Academy at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA.

The SURN Principal Academy provides principals—from first-year leaders to veterans—with research, tools, resources, and connections to increase student engagement and learning in their schools. 

During the 2014–15 school year, 50 principals conducted more than 3,000 student engagement observations in all content areas from pre-K through 12th grade. According to John Hattie, the author of Visible Learning for Teachers, feedback provided to teachers has a strong influence on student outcomes.

Becoming Peer Coaches

The shared writing experience at the February meeting, which is summarized in the narrative in this article below, provided a number of interesting conclusions on effective feedback.

As principals, we work hand in hand with teachers of all subjects by providing frequent and effective feedback. Once teachers become familiar with the feedback and reflection processes, they, too, collaborate, share resources, and become peer coaches. By networking with fellow instructional leaders, we realize we are not alone in this journey, and we do not operate in isolation. We observe students’ actions, provide feedback, and coach teachers to validate the learning process. Together, we develop a shared understanding of terms and cultivate our capacity within the school to use the strategies. We have changed the paradigm from observing teacher actions to looking at what students are doing.

Table 1: Create a Culture of Visible Leading

Visible leading is about helping teachers view learning from their students’ perspective. It offers an enhanced role for teachers as they become evaluators of their own teaching. Below is a comprehensive list of resources and action items to use with your own faculty to enhance professional development and promote a culture of literacy and collaboration. 

Protocols, Tools, and Resources for Professional Development On-the-job Professional Development Opportunities for Further Professional Development
  • SURN Indicators of Student Engagement and SURN Teacher Pedagogy
  • Observation Protocols
    • Online portal to record observations
    • School observation data of high-yield strategies
  • Edited videos of classrooms for discussion
  • Book study facilitator guides
  • Conference protocols and conversation stems
  • Presentation templates
  • Collaborate during classroom visits with peers, teachers, impact coach, central office
  • Model strategies
  • Lead book studies
  • Share in understanding of student engagement
  • Research action, data analysis, and presentations
  • Practice video simulations using observation protocols to increase inter-rater reliability
  • Define “effect size” (see, Hattie Ranking tab) and affirm why you should consider it
  • Implement relationship-building activities and high-yield strategies
  • Read professional journals, articles, and books
  • Practice post-observation conferencing and give specific and valuable feedback
  • Utilize data to assess your impact

The topics listed in the above chart were referenced in the following resources: John Hattie’s articles and books, The Wallace Foundation’s The School Principal as Leader: Guiding Schools to Better Teaching and Learning, James Nottingham’s Challenging Learning: Theory Effective Practice and Lesson Ideas to Create Optimal Learning, and Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

Observation and Formative Feedback

The SURN Indicators of the Student Engagement tool identifies 12 high-yield learning strategies, as well as five lower-yield strategies commonly seen in classrooms. Key learning strategies include setting learning goals, making choices, reading, writing, discussing text, engaging in problem solving, creating products, engaging in cooperative learning, applying metacognitive strategies, creating or using learning tools, self-assessing work, and asking for—as well as giving—specific feedback.

We use iPads to code how students are engaged, annotate evidence of the high- or lower-yield strategies, and email the form to teachers, providing timely and specific feedback that drives the postobservation dialogue.


To increase our skills and inter-rater reliability, we engage in collaborative observations with our fellow participants. In small teams, we meet at different schools. Typically, the team of visiting principals observes four classes for approximately 15–20 minutes each, and then debriefs. This dialogue is a critical component to ensure inter-rater reliability, as administrators calibrated their own observations by sharing what they observed and discussing differences in what they saw.

The final step in the team’s collaboration process is to discuss takeaways. This focuses the dialogue on student engagement and goes beyond quantifying strategies observed to deepening understanding of those strategies.

Culture of Sharing

This type of professional development fosters a culture of sharing among a diverse group of instructional leaders, and it offers numerous resources, supports, and methods for participants to assess their impact on the school. “Sharing together about strategies to improve student achievement not only enhanced our teachers’ pedagogy, but it also created a culture of literacy and learning together that benefited everyone,” a participant wrote. 

Table 1 lists samples of research sources, job-embedded activities, and strategies that participants experience and selectively decide to use with their own faculties.

Impact of Professional Development on School Success

Principals need to be their school’s lead learner through a continual cycle of learning, practice, and assessment. School faculty learning is informed by the collection, disaggregation, and analysis of student engagement data and its relationship to student achievement and success. One participant wrote, “My state review on student engagement was outstanding … where we were in September has grown leaps and bounds.” Through the application of the research, we positively impact student achievement as teachers assess their impact, increase student engagement, and create a culture for student-centered learning.

Jan Rozzelle, EdD, is the executive director of SURN (The School-University Research Network) at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA. 
Angela Seiders is principal at Tabb High School in Yorktown, VA. 
LaQuiche Parrott, EdD, is a principal in the Gloucester County Public Schools in Hayes, VA.

Sidebar: Making It Work

How secondary school principals can implement student engagement best practices at their schools: 

Embrace Change. Learning is social. Model the student engagement strategies during faculty professional development sessions and celebrate when teachers use them effectively. This is about sharing what works, growing together, and focusing on students.

Expand Your Network. Think about principals with whom you interact at conferences, know from sidelines of field hockey games, or met during administration classes, and connect on another level. Explain that you are looking to exchange ideas or see how their school addresses a particular need.

Observe Collaboratively. Consider schools where you have something in common, such as the observation tool or an initiative (e.g., problem-based learning), and set up times to visit each other’s schools.