Principals must be leaders. As in any industry, some leaders seem to innately possess the requisite skills and abilities to lead. However, all principals need leadership training to hone those skills and address new challenges. We convened a roundtable in November with principals and administrators familiar with leadership training, including Marilyn Boerke, former NASSP board member and current human resources director in the Camas School District in Camas, WA; Margaret Calvert, principal at Jefferson High School Middle College for Advanced Studies in Portland, OR; Robert Dodd, elementary and middle school consulting principal in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland; and Melissa Hensley, principal at Central High School in Woodstock, VA. Principal Leadership Senior Editor Michael Levin-​Epstein moderated the discussion.

Levin-Epstein: In what areas do secondary school principals need the most leadership training? 

Calvert: I think that probably the initial part of transitioning into the principalship as opposed to being an administrator in a school is navigating both building-level concerns—the work at the building level-and also the district. We are a mid-sized urban district, so we’re working with other principals and trying to figure out how to prioritize and keep [each] building’s focus, but also making sure that you’re able to get the system overall to work. Being cognizant of switching between those lenses is a significant part of how to plan and prioritize the work.

Hensley: As leaders, we are successful when we are able to bring other people along with us. How do we get others on board? How do we bring them along? How do we develop a shared vision and get others to work together; to trust one another and really build that culture that supports collaboration and encourages others to be leaders? I believe that only when we are strong leaders can we possibly develop that in others. To do that, we must provide transparent feedback to others and really take the time to sit down and have those tough conversations with people about how they become better. Ultimately, secondary principals must receive training in how to develop a vision and mission of academic success through the use of research-based instructional strategies that drive the goals and action plan of the organization. 

It is also imperative that school leaders know how to cultivate a culture where shared leadership results in leader development across the organization, resulting in high-achieving teachers taking a joint responsibility for student progress in learning. In addition, great leaders need the training in managing people, data, and processes. Being able to ask the right questions at the right time is imperative, and school leaders need training to develop this skill. Being a great leader means cultivating leadership skills in others.

Dodd: I would add making sure that principals—right out of the gate—really know how to focus on teaching and learning. I think that’s the biggest part of their job and the part of their job that can be at the most risk daily, based on the demands on their time. Balancing those building-level concerns with what really matters the most is key, making sure the instructional program is exceptional and that kids are learning.

Boerke: Our focus is the teacher evaluation system and student growth. Trying to assess student growth as it relates to a teacher’s performance can be very challenging, particularly the calibrations between multiple evaluators in the same building. That’s what I get the most questions on in my office now as the HR director—evaluations. How do you have those difficult conversations? How do you coach someone up from a lower score? How do you coach someone down who rates themselves as “distinguished” in all areas? Really, it’s the coaching piece related to evaluation and student growth goals [that leaders could use more training].

Levin-Epstein: What kind of leadership training did you have?

Calvert: One of the things that probably was most significant for me early in my career, both as an administrator and then as a principal, was mentors. We had a formal mentoring program that helped create space for folks to be sounding boards, to think strategically, to sequence discussions, and to grow leadership within the building. That sort of one-on-one ability to speak frankly with a mentor to work through issues, to prioritize, and to also have someone that has been a principal providing some sound advice, I think was really helpful. The concept of “How do you create space for people to have the time to develop as leaders while working?” is challenging. One of the things that I think was unique about the McKinsey program [The McKinsey Management Program for School Leaders] was that it was very focused. It created space for me to think differently and to hear a variety of perspectives, some of which reinforced my work and some of which made me think differently. Then, the ability to do some structured, real-time collaboration with colleagues from across the country—I think it was really valuable to hear different perspectives.

Hensley: The McKinsey program really helped me in a lot of ways. It reaffirmed some of what I’m already doing and validated that piece of it, but on the flip side, I think it really challenged me to think deeper about some of the other processes that we’re doing. [Some of those processes] maybe were surface-level “OK,” but through some of the things that McKinsey offered, we [our school leadership team] were able to really take those initiatives and expand them. We’d go deeper in our implementation and analysis by having more effective reflective conversations, as well as utilizing data to tell a compelling story of what’s working and what needs refining. For example, the use of the performance boards that McKinsey introduced in the sessions has been invaluable for many of the committees we utilize at our school. While we thought our committees were running really efficiently, they were not running as efficiently as they could have been. Once we put the performance boards in place, we quickly became more efficient and effective in our implementation and monitoring of our programs and student learning.

I think that another key concept for me was the concept of renewal—really, strategically planning for that and making sure that not only we as building leaders take time to do that for ourselves, but to make sure those around us and those whom we work with every day also are taking the time to do that. This component of the course resonated with me on a personal level because we rely so heavily on a shared decision-making model.

Boerke: The McKinsey Academy gave me an opportunity to hone and practice skills in real time, and I appreciated the status board where you had projects and you tracked them. I was able to institute that with my team and really track our progress. We were able to hold each other accountable to some things that we thought, “You know, we want to do this, it’s really important,” but we didn’t ever have a mechanism to track it. That was probably the most valuable—that project management tool. We were able to institute some things we had been thinking about for a while and come with a work product to the next meeting because we had due dates. That was very, very valuable.

Dodd: To prepare to be a principal at the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), we have a three-year program where assistant principal positions are actually not sitting positions in our system. They are more like apprenticeship positions, where you’re trained by a principal and you have four to five very structured meetings a year with a group that really monitors your leadership development across the six standards that we use. If you survive all that, every principal in their first year has a consulting principal-as a consulting principal I have 10 clients—where I basically am on-call. I’m not their boss, I’m their coach and mentor 24/7 for their first year. It’s all about their leadership development across our standards to make sure they are focused on school improvement, teaching and learning, and building relationships within their school communities. Then, after that, we have professional learning communities at each level—at the elementary, middle, and high school level—where principals have time every month to get together and are provided training to continue to develop their leadership skills. Doesn’t sound as structured as McKinsey, which sounds awesome, but they do get a lot of time to spend together focused on school improvement and leadership development.

Levin-Epstein: Will there be a significant change in leadership training now that we’ve got ESSA and not the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act?

Boerke: I wouldn’t say that it has changed yet because we sort of have a wait-and-see attitude right now. In terms of evaluation and student growth, no. Our state legislature has dictated to us what that will look like in our state. It wasn’t federal guidelines as much as it was our state guidelines. The federal guidelines allow us to hire teachers—that “highly qualified” status [spelled out in NCLB, which required teachers to have a bachelor’s degree, full state certification, and demonstrate competency in the subject(s) they taught] was a killer in some of our smaller districts, because you don’t have that many people to choose from, right? To find someone that’s endorsed in multiple subject areas can be really challenging. The fact that now [under ESSA] if a teacher has a K–8 endorsement, they’ve got the golden ticket; they can teach anything again. This used to be the case, and then it wasn’t the case, and now it’s the case again. It’s really opened us up in a positive way for response to intervention initiatives and things like that, because we can hire teachers that aren’t specialists—they’re more generalists—and allow them to do some assistance in math and some assistance in reading, potentially. 

Dodd: I do think that [ESSA] has implications for an even more intense focus on equity and how we have to develop leaders to improve outcomes for underserved populations of kids. I think that is just going to be more important than ever, and I think leaders have to really focus on social justice in a way that maybe they haven’t in the past. It’s more than just about closing the gap and improving outcomes; it’s also for leaders, about how they are going to change instruction, and the culture and climate of their buildings to support improved outcomes for all kids.

Calvert: At this point, I don’t think it has shifted anything yet. I think that there are a number of pieces, some issues that are happening here in Oregon that are coming through some ballot initiative processes, as well as the state legislature, that we’ll have to weave together. I think probably that will take some time to sort out, which is typical with education, right? What is happening at a local level, at a state level, and then at the federal level is something that we have to make sense of and then weave together. 

Levin-Epstein: Is there going to be more focus on social media training? 

Dodd: Yes, I think so. I have a whole new cadre of principals this year who are excellent with Twitter and use Twitter really as a high-leverage strategy to get their message out. I do think that’s important. I think messaging through social media is critical in this day and age, and teachers and principals do need support in it.

Calvert: I think [social media] does tie into the question of social justice as well, when you see communication and the pace with which people are expecting communication to happen. As you’re working with a number of populations that speak a variety of languages, I think it poses some challenges. That sense of how to manage speed with making sure you are connecting with all of your families requires developing systems; this is a critical part of how to stay in contact with families.

Boerke: LGBTQ interactions have been a hot-button issue nationwide, certainly now with the change in administration in the White House. So, training on LGBTQ interactions is something that our principals are seeking guidance on routinely, as we have more kids that identify even as young as elementary school. How do you manage that with an equitable lens? That’s part of our challenge, respecting all students and their learning needs and knowing that kids can’t learn if they don’t feel safe. Providing a gender-​neutral restroom is a big deal in middle school, high school. This is something that we could use some assistance with.

Levin-Epstein: Do Gen Xers and millennials require that principals acquire different leadership skills? 

Dodd: I’m a former Gen X principal, and I started to see in my last few years in the principalship a major shift in how we needed to provide professional learning for our teachers who are millennials. I hired lots of millennials over a five-year span, and just telling millennials what to do, giving them a playbook, we found didn’t necessarily fit their learning styles. They really need to know the “why,” and they also need to be independent and be able to seek out their own professional development opportunities. I think bureaucratically we had to look at how we engaged our millennials in professional learning because the old way was not working as well as it did for my generation or the generations before me.

Levin-Epstein: Can you give an example?

Dodd: We might be teaching an instructional strategy out of a book, and millennial teachers have already found ways through using Google Classroom or their own research on the web to empower themselves. I think the differentiating of professional learning for them will be increasingly important. They also want to network. In my last few years as a principal, [millennials] started their own Teacher Learning Network in our school. It was about their own learning. It was grassroots, professional learning for them where they were sharing ideas. Most of it always had to do with technology in the classroom.

Levin-Epstein: Do all principals need structured leadership training?

Calvert: I would say that what I hear a call for repeatedly is—whether it’s critical friends’ groups or problems in practice—that people are looking for opportunities to develop and learn from colleagues in ways that are in real time. We continue to look for development of our own PLCs and trying to hold space to do that. I think that is challenging, but I think that’s probably what I hear most in our district in working with principals in Oregon in general, is just finding the time to actually put problems in practice—[to] work through specific schema to support that, in addition to looking at instruction collaboratively or looking at meetings with colleagues at the same time to do some analysis of what we’re seeing.

Hensley: I think that one thing that we do very well in our school division is taking the time to meet together as principals to discuss the instructional process—how to successfully build school communities, how to manage people, utilize data, manage processes, build strong school cultures, and cultivate the building of leaders in our schools. To bring a more authentic experience to these discussions, we often meet in other principals’ buildings so that we can go out and visit classrooms and programs and be immersed in the culture of the building while examining the instructional process. [All the while we’re] asking, “What are the students learning? How do we know? Is the instruction aligned for the students who need it the most? How do we know? How can we make this better? What’s going great, and what’s not?” I think the opportunity to do that together as a cohesive unit allows us to improve our practices and reinforce the importance of using the same language to talk about instruction as well as school cultures. Having these collaborative work sessions really plays a big part in reducing the principal turnover rate in our school division, as well as developing the skills and camaraderie of our administrators. Having that opportunity to work together enables us to set a clear standard for high expectations that is similar in all buildings in our school division.

Boerke: As human beings, we have different filters through which we view the world and teaching and instruction and all those types of things. Through that collaboration practice and the learning labs, we have the opportunity to practice problem solving and the application of those soft skills that evaluations bring to the table. If we can remove as much of the subjectivity and use objective forms of mechanisms and rubrics and things like that [for teacher evaluations], then our students will ultimately benefit, because our teachers will feel that they’ve been judged fairly. I think that’s critical-learning labs, problem solving, and calibration are really critical.

Dodd: To echo my colleagues, I do think it’s critical to have a systematized way where principals understand and have a shared language and understanding of observing and analyzing teaching, and how to coach and provide feedback to teachers to improve instruction.