Eroded arrows

The research is clear: Long-term, site-based professional development makes a difference in teachers’ instructional practices. This stands in direct contrast with professional development workshops and one-day sessions that do not allow teachers the opportunity to dig deeply into a topic. Many administrators know this and are providing school-based professional development. What is less clear is what the role of the principal should be in this effort.

As professors interested in supporting teacher knowledge, we host long-standing professional development collaborations with teachers in urban, rural, and suburban settings. From this work, we have identified four actions that principals can take that will support meaningful and long-lasting instructional changes for teachers. 

These actions themselves are hardly new. However, it is the interaction that contributes to sustainable professional development. In instances where the principal engages in one or two of these actions, it is possible for professional learning to occur. However, we have found when principals utilize all four of these actions in tandem, they truly contribute to implementing new instructional practices. (See Figure 1 below for an overview of the four actions.)

Action #1: Learn Beside Your Teachers 

The principal is a co-learner in professional development. Scott Hatteberg, principal of Solon Middle School in Solon, OH, has taken this concept to heart. A former math teacher, Hatteberg initially knew little about literacy instruction. During meetings, he was equally invested in learning because he wanted to develop a “good handle” on what was happening in classrooms. Simply put, he wanted to understand what teachers were investigating and implementing with students. 

The principal as co-learner is an important practice in theory. However, this notion becomes real through actions-when principals or vice principals fully engage in the professional development experiences and discussions themselves, teachers notice. A collective unity of “we are figuring this out together” develops. These leaders show they’re part of the team by being present in the meetings, not working on the computer or reviewing other paperwork-and that sends a clear message. 

After designing a memoir unit of study, Hatteberg wrote a memoir himself because he wanted “to experience what the students’ experienced” and because he did not recall writing anything like that when he was in school. He had done the work, taken the test, read the passage, and written the responses-all in an effort to understand literacy instruction. This supported him during classroom observations, in problem ​solving with teachers, and in thinking about the needs of particular students. When the principal learns beside the teachers, the instructional practices become something we do rather than something the teachers do.

Action #2: Give Permission to Try New Things 

Learning is messy. This concept rarely receives recognition in embedded professional learning. Teachers often want to “do it right” without allowing space and time for the inherent messiness of learning. Principals can embrace this notion and support teachers’ exploration of new ideas. 

Hatteberg reinforces the message that “messiness is OK” by encouraging individual teachers to try different approaches and reporting how it went. The message he deliberately sends is, “It is OK for a lesson to not go well; we will learn from what you try.” Teachers must be comfortable admitting when something is not working or they need help. A teacher having difficulty conferring with students needs to be able to share that information without fear of repercussion. In part, this message also encourages teachers by letting them know they are trusted to explore what works for their own students. 

Terese D’Amico, intermediate principal at North Olmsted City Schools in North Olmsted, OH, uses a different phrase to encourage teachers to take risks. If a teacher is upset that a new strategy failed or that she or he wasn’t mastering a concept to take into the classroom, D’Amico responds with: “So what?” That doesn’t mean she’s dismissing the issue; she’s dismissing the teacher’s worry that she or he is letting the principal or students down. D’Amico says, “I want them to know that it is not the end of the world. They have all the time they need to be successful.” This phrase often leads to more productive conversations by allowing the teacher and administrator to work through the kinks and be ready to try again.

Figure 1: Four Actions to Support Professional Development

chart showing the actions of effective principals to support professional development

Action #3: Be a Problem Solver 

The principal must also be mindful of barriers to implementation. D’Amico considers these prior to a new professional development cycle. “When I look at the initiative, I brainstorm obstacles I think teachers may encounter or identify before we begin,” she says. “Will they discount a strategy because they think it will be too difficult for our students? Will they give up if a lesson fails on the first try?” By identifying these potential barriers, D’Amico is able to plan alternative paths to success and teacher supports ahead of time.

Kelli Cogan, assistant superintendent with Olmsted Falls City Schools in Olmsted Falls, OH, views her position as problem solver slightly differently. “I am here to listen during professional development. When teachers begin listing the reasons why something won’t work, or [they] return from implementation and tell me they need something for a strategy to succeed, I need to find solutions quickly,” she says. “One negative teacher can turn a staff quickly.” By solving any issues on the spot, Cogan has been able to keep the faculty moving forward in a productive and positive manner.

Because professional development can be met with resistance, being flexible to meet and diminish implementation challenges is key for administrators. Common barriers in professional development include the need for materials, concern about an implementation dip, reluctance to take risks, scheduling issues, and fear of repercussions on teacher evaluations. If a building is truly committed to progress, these barriers must be anticipated, dealt with, and passed so the real learning can happen.

Action #4: Give Teachers Space to Grow 

As important as it is for the principal to be at the table as a co-learner, it is also important for that principal to identify when teachers need time and space to digest and work on the new learning without administrative presence. In other words, during any long-term professional development, there is a time for the principal to leave the table.

Colleen Longville, principal at Falls-Lenox Primary School in Olmsted Falls, OH, explains: “I was present every time a strategy was modeled in a classroom and when initial professional development sessions were given, but often left the debriefings that happened at the end of professional development days. I wanted teachers to see that I was a part of the learning, but also wanted them to feel safe to talk about what that learning would look like in their classrooms.”

Allowing teachers this space sends a message. “I need teachers to know that I trust them,” D’Amico says. “If they are planning instruction to incorporate their new learning and I am looking over their shoulder, I am implying otherwise. I leave the room to give the teachers breathing room to think how this fits into their own teaching style.”

There is a time in the professional development cycle where the administrator should provide teachers space to discuss and plan without “the boss.” This creates the trust necessary for teachers to take risks and make changes in their instruction.

Collectively, these four actions support professional development that allows teachers to grow. Together, they create an atmosphere of “we do” instead of “teachers do.” The interaction of these actions illuminates the powerful role the principal plays in site-based professional learning.

Denise Morgan, PhD, is associate professor of literacy education and director of the Reading and Writing Center at Kent State University in Kent, OH. 

Lori Wilfong, PhD, is associate professor of literacy education at Kent State University-Stark in North Canton, OH.