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Three Steps for the Busy Principal

Updated: Sep 1, 2023

Professional Learning That Impacts the Classroom

As one of my principal colleagues says “I love July!” For school building leaders, the pressure has alleviated, a carefree vacation can be taken, and all of those ideas for creating a more dynamic and promising school year can be given the attention they deserve. It is during this time that principals often consider their year-long professional learning aspirations for teachers.

Then August arrives. Teachers and parents re-engage, schedules need fine-tuning, new hires need attention, and building readiness takes precedence for another grand opening. The daily demanding life of a principal begins its uphill journey. So what can a busy principal do to ensure that those ambitious PD ideas come to fruition during the all-consuming school year? How can a professional learning plan that has a direct and relevant impact in the classroom be realized and sustained? Here are three manageable steps.

Professional Learning Step #1: Set Realistic PD Goals Districts tend to help their schools progress through research-supported, long-term initiatives aligned to their students’ needs. These befittingly tend to be imposing, which can be overwhelming for the busy principal especially as they have to quickly figure out how to develop an aligned professional learning plan for teachers. The question becomes, “What can teachers realistically do with the resources and time provided during PD?” The first step is to set pragmatic goals. For example, your district’s initiative might ask you to employ the principles of differentiated instruction to meet the varying needs of individual students. You might only have one consultant-led professional learning day with 3 hours of follow up PD time. The busy principal asks “What specific goal can I reasonably set for teachers that will improve their pedagogy?” In our example, the goal might be for collaborative teacher teams to examine and utilize just one differentiated learning strategy. This easy to use S.M.A.R.T. goal development template from Santa Clara University can help a school’s leadership team take the first step.

Professional Learning Step #2: Design & Implement Product-Driven PD Sessions Teachers need to gain new pedagogical knowledge and understanding during professional learning but even in adult learning, these concepts need to be applied for it to have meaning. This is why the next step for the busy principal is to design and implement product-driven PD sessions aligned to the attainable goals set in step 1. So what are these products? In our example, teachers would take their new knowledge and understanding on differentiated learning strategies and create a relevant learning activity that could be immediately used with students in the classroom. Ideally, these PD sessions would be done in collaborative teams with teachers choosing which principle of differentiated instruction to apply. This is also a good time to promote trusted teacher leaders as facilitators of the work. Teachers will be highly engaged in this type of professional learning because they will have choice and ownership over their own learning and the products they create. Elena Aguilar discusses this and more in her article “10 Tips for Delivering Awesome Professional Development.

Professional Learning Step #3: Let Teachers Evaluate Each Other’s Work The next set of questions for the busy principal is “How do we know if the teachers’ products were impactful? What data should I look at? Where will I find the time to evaluate this?” Firstly, teachers can help each other evaluate the effectiveness of these applications. Principals can structure these by embedding consultancy and critical friend protocols into timely follow-up PD sessions. It is also important that these protocols stress reflection and revision. Remember, if teachers find a strategy effective, they will use it over and over again. This is the pedagogical change that will have a positive and sustaining impact in the classroom. Secondly, in the short-term, any quantitative data collected is at best anecdotal. This type of data needs to be collected long-term and in greater quantities for it to have meaning. Instead, have confidence in the teachers’ ability to evaluate more qualitatively especially since they know their students and understand lesson design. Lastly, principals must embed themselves in some aspect of the professional learning evaluation. Collaborating with one team during the PD and providing written feedback to one other team will go a long way. Teachers know their principals are busy but they want to know you value their endeavors as they strive to support building goals and district initiatives. More protocols for collaborative work and feedback can be found on The National School Reform Faculty website.

A busy principal can easily be inundated by the continuous flow of literature on how to develop an effective professional learning plan for teachers. These three steps can make the process feasible without compromising its effectiveness. Principals can then put more of their attention on other important elements for leading a school.

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