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Growing Leaders

Ground your principals in PD that will make them better evaluators, talent scouts, and managers.

If you look at the growing list of demands placed on a school's top administrator, you'd think they have limitless hours in the day.

There is student achievement to track, loads of data to analyze, parents to appease, new technology to consider, crises to manage, and teachers to coach and evaluate.

"There's an expectation that the principal touches everything. That's not realistic anymore," says John Nori, associate director of program development at the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP).

"We are expecting a tremendous amount from them for school improvement, but we are not giving them enough support," says James H. Stronge, professor of education policy, planning, and leadership at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

So how can they juggle it all? How can principals be CEO and make sure the buses run on time? They can delegate, but the buck stops with them.

Professional development for principals is a big part of the solution. Just as school leaders expect teachers to improve their craft through PD, principals need leadership training to help them handle their expanded roles-especially when it comes to building leadership capacity and teacher evaluation skills. 

Navigating New Expectations
"Principals are the lead learners in their buildings," says Mary Beard Martin, associate professor of education at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina. "To be out front and take teachers in the direction they need to go with innovation in the classroom, principals have to continue to learn."

Under new teacher evaluation requirements, principals are spending more hours evaluating teachers and are being asked to provide ongoing feedback to help improve instruction. And many need assistance navigating this process."Evaluation is bigger than classroom evaluation," says Nori. Principals are being asked to build profiles to help teachers improve. It's not just a checklist. The process requires truly meaningful feedback.

This is a skill that principals need to learn, says Sharon McCarthy, a New Jersey-based consultant working with NASSP to write a leadership training program for principals on teacher evaluation. "Administrators need to learn about the human relations part of giving feedback for growth," she says. How serious a teacher's weaknesses are, for example, should influence the way a principal delivers positive or negative feedback. The principal has to decide to either be a coach and mentor or to counsel someone out of the teaching profession.

"There are so many resources being absorbed by the new evaluation process: money, time, and talent," says McCarthy. "Rather than all the resources for compliance being checked off as done, our goal is to leverage [the process] and to create a growth mind-set in the school."

Some districts, such as Hartford Public Schools in Connecticut, are leveraging systems that use technology to provide professional development and templates for teacher evaluation. The 23,000-­student district is in its second year of using Teachscape, which includes software tools, online content, and instructional videos to help principals build expertise and a common ­language to evaluate teachers' strengths and weaknesses.In Hartford, administrators must complete 30 hours of training and pass two online Teachscape tests to become consistent observers and evaluators, says Scott Nicol, the district's executive director of performance management. The district also offers two support sessions a month for principals to work in collaborative groups. "We have a critical mass of teachers and administrators who understand the rubric for teaching," says Nicol.

Melony Brady, a principal at Annie Fisher STEM Magnet School in Hartford, says she and other principals gathered in small study groups to watch videos and score together to hone the process. "On the first day, I realized we had different views of what quality teaching was," says Brady. But the group's members came to understand the model and arrived at a common vision. Brady says the intensive training gave her an unbiased way to assess teachers. And, because she is responsible for 60 evaluations a year in both formal and informal observations, she has found the time management aspect of the training extremely helpful.

Teachers are becoming comfortable with the new system, but Brady notes that anytime you embark on something new, there is hesitation. "Now I see the school as more of a student-driven community," she says. "To have a student-centered classroom, you have to actively see it happening with the teacher as the facilitator and the student as a leader. Before, it was more teacher-driven."

Blended Training Is Best
To equip principals with the skills for implementing teacher evaluation and other reforms, professional development is being offered online, in small groups, and at large conferences. "So often we try to streamline to make professional development easy to get," says Martin. Online training is one strategy, but she says it is best coupled with in-person activities, including role-playing and critiquing one another's practices.

Beth Wardy, principal of Sterling Elementary in Pineville, North Carolina, likes to talk through ideas in small peer groups to see what's working elsewhere and to get fresh ideas. Wardy says online courses can be effective, but finds they work best when combined with discussion.

North Carolina principals have been trained to walk through classrooms at different times to observe five areas of teaching: student engagement, aligning curriculum with the standards, assessments, rigor, and interactive strategies, according to Martin, who worked for 30 years in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. The evaluations are more than cursory observations; they include teachers bringing in student work, evidence of collaboration, and success using new technology. Principals need to then turn that information into useful feedback to help the teachers improve.

Wardy says the intensive training has helped her to use her evaluations to effectively convey to teachers where they are and where they should be headed. "I make teachers understand it's not punitive," she says of the evaluation. "It's a growth document."

Developing Teacher Leaders
When it comes down to building leadership capacity in a school, Stronge says the process starts with hiring good ­teachers: "If you have good talent, leadership can naturally emerge." Yet two of three principals have not been trained in how to hire a teacher, he adds.

The thinking used to be that exem­plary teachers who were ready to be leaders would move forward on their own, but now there's more focus on developing teacher leaders, says Martin. A ­teacher may be strong, with great potential for leadership, but not comfortable moving up until a principal encourages it. 

"It's no different than being in a classroom. We expect teachers to know every child well, assess their needs, and give them the stretch they need," says Martin. "It's the same thing the principal is trying to do with [his or her] staff. To make sure they see where they are, what they need to be working on next, and setting goals with teachers."

The new evaluation instrument being used in North Carolina includes a section where teachers reflect on their own growth and practice. Martin says this can be a useful strategy, since it is happening at a time when principals recognize they need to share leadership.

To delegate effectively, principals need to recognize teachers' strengths and give them time to build their skills. Since the new leadership role might not come with extra money, administrators should provide the support and follow-­through to help them succeed, says Martin.

Principals should also learn to clearly convey expectations, says Ann Cunningham-Morris of the ASCD. "The role of the teacher leader is leading learning of their colleagues. They are seen as experts in the classroom around specific pedagogy," she says, adding that the principal retains the role of supervisor. 

If they are working to improve instructional practices, teacher leaders are most effective when they remain in the classroom. "Teachers need to be able to see someone in their building who is dealing with the same district culture and has the same kids, implementing best practices," says Cunningham-Morris.

To build credibility among teacher leaders, Cunningham-Morris suggests principals have processes and procedures in place for teacher leadership programs. Districts are increasingly formalizing the role of teacher leaders, recognizing the need for expertise in a variety of areas, she says. Principals have become generalists. They know a lot of different things to a smaller degree, says Martin, so it's particularly important to tap teacher leaders in an array of subjects. Teacher leaders focus primarily on the instruction and curriculum at a much deeper level.

"It allows the principal to help teachers focus on what's really important to our children. At the same time, it allows principals to survive," she says. "It builds a totally different culture and makes work a place where everyone wants to be, because it's not like everybody is trying to do things to please the principal- everyone is trying to do what's best for the students."

Making Principal PD a Priority
As principals' jobs have expanded, effective districts have made professional development a priority, says Jody Spiro, director of education leadership at the Wallace Foundation in New York. "This is a huge job. It's the linchpin of success of any education reform endeavor."

The Wallace Foundation has worked with urban districts to provide school leadership programs to help principals better manage their time, provide coaching for teachers, and promote shared leadership, which can enhance the credibility of the administration.

"Sometimes principals think they have all the answers. They don't," says Spiro. "They need to cultivate leaders, and that's increasingly happening."

In Montgomery County, Maryland, principals go through an extensive training program coming into the job and receive ongoing professional development once they're in place. "Most teachers struggle their first year on the job. It's true of new principals, too," says David Steinberg, director of the department of professional growth systems for the suburban district of 149,000 students. To become a principal, candidates spend two years in an assistant principal program and a year as a principal intern. They also have a principal mentor to help as they transition into leading a building.

Part of their training includes direction on how to analyze teachers' strengths to see who has the capacity to take on more leadership, says Steinberg. "Most people who receive a new duty want to do really well, but often they haven't done anything like that before," he says. "There have to be check-in points, a time to give them their charge initially, and there have to be coaching meetings."

The district has taken a system-wide approach to coaching. This might include asking questions that require teacher leaders to reflect on their practice. "It's less about monitoring and more about supervising from a teaching stance," explains Steinberg.

Sarah Sirgo went though the Montgomery County training to become a principal and now works for the district as a consulting principal for elementary schools. She says structured preparation and professional development is critical for an administrator to be effective, and it's developed through working on leadership teams and shadowing other administrators. "Principals are paid for their judgment," says Sirgo.

"As principals, we have a responsibility to seek out as well as support teachers in the building who want to be part of this work," Sirgo says. "The best part is that it teaches you to make decisions in a way that is collaborative. You can understand your role as a leader but also give others an opportunity to step up and participate."    


Common PD Pitfalls & Fixes

Pitfall: High expectations, little support
Fix: When a principal is held accountable for a new task, a district needs to provide professional development and coaching. This means having ongoing professional leadership development, practices, and structures that engage principals in learning. Rather than putting new principals in schools with the highest teacher turnover, for instance, they should be given support and placed in situations that set them up for success.

Pitfall: No time allowed for peer exchange
Fix: Make sure principals have professional learning communities, or PLCs, just like teachers do. Districts should provide opportunities where principals are together not only to share administrative ideas but also to learn. This can be face-to-face or through social media networks and online communities.

Pitfall: Generic, one-size-fits-all training
Fix: Professional learning is best when realistic and job-embedded, where principals can apply what they’ve learned with follow-up, application assignments. Training should be differentiated based on the needs of individual leaders and use a variety of approaches.

Pitfall: Work ends when session is over
Fix: When implementing newly acquired skills, collect data along the way to evaluate if the professional learning is effectively transferring into practice. Get feedback from teachers and use reflection tools. Determine: Is what the principal learning making a difference?

Source: Ann Cunningham-Morris, co-director of professional development, ASCD


—Fall 2013—  

About the Author

Caralee Adams writes about education, parenting, and health. she  lives in bethesda, md.  you can write to her and the editors at

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