One principal’s experience with a groundbreaking executive training course

National Principals Month provides a much-needed time for principals to be celebrated. But after the confetti has fallen and the “thank-yous” have faded, one fact still remains: Principals need greater support and training.

I say this for many reasons, but the top one is this: School leadership is second only to teacher quality in its impact on student achievement. This is huge. And if principals don’t receive quality professional development (PD) on a regular basis, it is the students who will suffer.

The Ever-changing Role of Principals

The principalship has evolved greatly over the past decade. From school safety to social media, we are in charge of a much greater host of responsibilities. In recent years I have had to step off campus to attend school safety training and handle a bullying situation on social media. Gone are the days where principals sat behind a desk; the job now requires that we roll up our sleeves and be true hands-on leaders.

But often we get so tied up in issues that arise and pulled in different directions that the students aren’t the primary focus anymore. While I come from a smaller high school, many principals are leading schools with thousands of students, which is not unlike running a small city.

But no matter our school size, to properly tackle all the issues we face, principals must not only execute outstanding leadership, but also train teachers to contribute at a higher level. This idea of shared school leadership isn’t always easy to create. It requires effective two-way communication with all members of your staff, which can be a challenge. And guess what? There’s no special internal communication training before you get the job.

In addition to training outstanding teacher leaders, I strive to balance the needs of the staff while also pushing them to be innovative and to challenge the status quo. There may be tenured teachers who need to get in touch with current trends, so how do you reach them? This effort becomes a unique challenge when teachers are uneasy about speaking to their principal. There may be one group of teachers in your school that has an easy, open dialogue with you on a regular basis-and there may be another group that seldom has one-on-one talks with you. How do you reach that second group?

Professional Learning to the Rescue

That’s where relevant professional development comes in. I recently took part in a pilot group for principals of an innovative new executive leadership training program: The McKinsey Management Program for School Leaders (MMPSL). This online program is a powerful collaboration between NASSP and McKinsey Academy that, I think, will revolutionize leadership training for school leaders.

I participated in the Team Management course with a group of principals from around the country. The course is designed to give principals the strategy and skills necessary to create an open dialogue to enact real school change. And for me, it did exactly that. After taking the course last summer, I walked into the 2015–16 school year with a new set of tools to help me develop relationships with teachers, manage my teams more efficiently, and better handle difficult situations.

The training helped me think more from the other person’s perspective—not to minimize or dismiss the issue at hand, but to be more empathetic about where he or she is coming from. When possible, I also try to give people a brief synopsis of a meeting’s purpose ahead of time so they can be prepared instead of having a moment of panic. The course allowed me to reflect on past conversations and what I could have done better. I now ask myself, “Did I handle that right? Could I have handled that better? How could I improve upon that next time?

The MMPSL platform made learning easy. The platform is clean, easy to use, and intuitive. Unlike some online courses I’ve taken in the past, I wasn’t constantly switching between windows, uploading and downloading a ton of documents. Everything was streamlined for a smooth experience. It was very helpful to see different scenarios played out via video by role-playing—it got me in the mindset of seeing the other person’s perspective. I also appreciated that the course used a nice blend of text, video, and interaction with other participants in the cohort.

That interaction was a wonderful part of the program that really enriched my learning. After reading an article or watching a video, we had the opportunity to give our thoughts and respond to each other’s comments. This opened up a valuable dialogue and gave me insights from a variety of principals with different experiences from my own. It helped to break down the walls and distance between us. I’m a New Englander, and learning from a principal on the other coast in Washington state was quite enlightening. It was comforting to learn that we’re all facing similar issues.

In addition, some exercises required us to run scenarios with a partner, which further deepened my connection and understanding of the material. I’m positive that anyone taking these courses would walk away with new connections to expand their professional learning community.

Perhaps best of all, the online program allowed me a great deal of flexibility. Principals are juggling so much on the job in addition to their personal life, which makes it difficult to attend more traditional, in-person professional development trainings. With MMPSL, I was able work on my own time when it was convenient for me—even when I was traveling. I could sign on in the morning, log a few hours, and then continue with my day.

Advocate for Your McKinsey Experience

So, this National Principals Month, I recommend that you stand up and ask for more—and higher-quality—professional development. Principal PD gets pushed aside all too often. I understand budget constraints faced by district leaders, but if we don’t advocate for ourselves, nothing will change. The good news is that there are some funding sources you can explore in order to cover a program like MMPSL.

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states can set aside 3 percent of Title II funds specifically for principal development. The McKinsey program—which aligns to Title II’s requirement that funds be dedicated to improving principal quality—also directly satisfies the requirements of the ESSA-defined Tier IV of Effectiveness. You can also seek grant money or try to negotiate PD into your contract.

The bottom line is that quality professional development is a game changer for principals-so don’t stand silently anymore. Make it your personal pledge to ask your state and district leaders to invest in their schools by investing in robust principal development

Daniel Kelley is the principal of Smithfield High School in Smithfield, RI. He also was selected as the 2016–17 NASSP president-elect, and was named the 2012 Rhode Island Principal of the Year.

Transform Your Leadership With the McKinsey Program

The McKinsey Management Program for School Leaders offers breakthrough content covering the most important aspects of organizational leadership contextualized to an educational setting. Using a dynamic online platform and research-based pedagogy, you will walk away with the real-world solutions you need to revolutionize your school.

Each five- to eight-week course in the program utilizes best-in-class techniques to develop specific management capabilities as well as provides tools, techniques, and real-life examples to enrich school administrators’ leadership skills. The three courses currently available are Communicating for Impact, Team Management, and Mastering Challenging Conversations.

Learn more and enroll today by visiting