What Kind of Professional Development Best Supports Principals Right Now?
When the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) released a report earlier this year that indicated a looming exodus of principals from PreK-12 schools, many in the education field found the results alarming—but not surprising. From managing significant changes in running their schools during the pandemic and increased political tensions to having to become overnight crisis management and crisis communications managers, principals have been running a race without a finish line since early 2020.
At the same time, the profession itself is changing. As schools start to play even more of a key role in helping students become responsible citizens, develop a healthy sense of self, and prepare them for their future, principals have the opportunity to focus less on the compliance tasks and be the visionary leaders schools need—strengthening school communities and having the courageous conversations that make those strong communities possible.
Impactful and sustainable professional development (PD) may hold the key to both retaining your best school leaders and giving them the working conditions where they can thrive. As you’re looking to find new ways to support your principals, here are four essential professional learning needs that principals are looking for:
Impactful and sustainable professional development may hold the key to both retaining your school leaders and giving them the working conditions where they can thrive.
Continuous, job-embedded PD
The primary focus of any leadership development opportunity is for leaders to translate theory into practice. When principals are able to apply what they’ve learned through incremental, repetitive, and targeted practice, it becomes an embedded part of their day-to-day work. There are plenty of opportunities for school leaders to engage and participate in collaborative cohorts and peer networks, but one of the most impactful ways for them to truly practice what they’re learning is through a coaching or mentor relationship.
The relationship between a principal and their coach is one-to-one and focused on their specific needs. Depending on where principals are in their leadership role and where they want to be, a coach is able to work with them on co-developing an action plan for getting there and fueling student success. Coaching also provides a non-judgemental space to talk through concerns with another leader who has been in their shoes—support that can’t be underestimated. At New Leaders, for example, our coaches are former principals, school systems leaders, teachers, and industry experts, and 57% of our staff identify as people of color.
Coaching and mentoring also offer a way for principals to slow down a bit—something they hesitate to do in the flurry of activity of a school day—and get curious. A coach will not only keep school leaders accountable to their action plans but also ask them to voice their reflections, pose additional questions for them to explore, and elevate perspectives they may not have considered. It prompts self-reflection, which is a critical part of their own improvement and self-care.
Coaching and mentoring also offer a way for principals to slow down a bit—something they hesitate to do in the flurry of activity of a school day—and get curious.
Time to create their own learning communities
Professional learning communities (PLCs) aren’t a new concept, but they’re often talked about through the lens of teachers, who work collaboratively in cycles of collective inquiry and actionable research to achieve better results for the students they serve.
This kind of learning community can also benefit school leaders. A PLC with colleagues can promote collaboration on problem-solving, provide a safe space to voice concerns and get much-needed emotional support, and learn strategies that benefit everyone in their school community.
A “principal learning community” offers a way to have insightful conversations and explore bold ideas with a group of peers who understands the challenges of the role—something that will likely impact them more than a singular workshop or online course.
While it’s not what you think of when you consider more “formal” professional development opportunities, ensuring your school leaders have the time and space could prove to be essential. A “principal learning community” offers a way to have insightful conversations and explore bold ideas with a group of peers who understand the challenges of the role—something that will likely impact them more than a singular workshop or online course.
Opportunities for social-emotional development
It might seem counterintuitive, but one of the best ways for your principals to create and maintain inclusive and culturally-responsible school communities is to look inward. When school leaders focus on their own social-emotional learning (SEL), they develop increased self-awareness, have more capacity to manage stress, and become better listeners.
When educators thrive, students thrive—which is why school leaders focusing on themselves have benefits for establishing SEL programs in the schools they lead. The more principals can model their own SEL development, the more they’re making it a priority to make sure the adults in their building feel heard, cared for, and supported in strengthening their own SEL competencies. In turn, teachers and staff feel authenticity in modeling SEL for students.
When educators thrive, students thrive—which is why school leaders focusing on themselves have benefits for establishing SEL programs in the schools they lead.
This focus on SEL also leads to a high-trust environment, where school leaders and faculty work together on bringing forward a shared vision for the school, communicate more effectively, and even distribute leadership responsibilities for maximum impact.
Intentional, equity-focused training and techniques
In a recent report from the National Association of Elementary School Principals and Learning Policy Institute, creating equitable school communities was an area in which principals were craving more training opportunities. Sixty-nine percent of those surveyed wanted more PD on equitably serving all learners. This is significant because research shows that all students benefit from seeing teachers and school leaders working together to replace inequitable practices with school cultures rooted in high expectations, respect, and inclusivity.
As you’re providing the support to make this type of professional development opportunity happen as a district leader, work with your principals to seek out programs that do more than simply provide information on why equity is important. Instead, focus on programs that provide techniques and training on how to best deliver it and accelerate student achievement.
As you’re providing the support to make this type of professional development opportunity happen as a district leader, work with your principals to seek out programs that do more than simply provide information on why equity is important.
Here are a few questions to consider as you’re planning equity PD with your school leaders:
- Does the PD we’re considering go beyond defining concepts and developing general awareness?
- What specific practices and instructional strategies are participants able to apply as part of their professional learning journey?
- What evidence will be documented to measure progress toward more equitable outcomes?
By asking these questions, you’re ensuring your principals are truly getting what they need out of this professional learning opportunity and continuing education. And, equally important, that equity becomes an integral part of the schools they lead. This equity focus also helps to improve teacher retention, something we know many schools are struggling with in the present.
Professional development for a shifting role
Providing high-quality professional learning opportunities gives your principals the necessary skills and competencies for school leadership—a job that’s evolved and expanded over the past few years.
Giving school leaders the support they need and the opportunity to expand their knowledge creates self-confidence and also renews their excitement for their role—two results that can’t be underestimated when it comes to principal retention.