Principal PD: Reflections and Takeaways

By Lynmara Colon

At #naesp16, I attended the session “How the Work of the Wallace Foundation Informed District Change,” which offered a case study of principal leadership and growth in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Here are my reflections on principals’ professional development.

Session: How the Work of the Wallace Foundation Informed District Change

Key Takeaway: Principal development must be aligned with the mission and vision of our schools, because ultimately, there are no good schools without a good principal.

Principal as Analyst

One of the greatest strengths principals have is our knowledge of educational research. It’s a school leader’s role to study and analyze data to find trends and help teachers plan for instruction and assessment, while taking care of all the other factors that impact a school. Many of us are avid readers; many of us stay current on the latest educational practices by engaging in social media or consulting with peers with similar challenges.  

The downside is that we often have limited time to develop systems for new strategies to work. Plus, launching some of these practices could be overwhelming if support from central administration is lacking. Data reveals that, in order to help principals survive, districts need to give them tools and strategies to help them implement educational research and pedagogy.

Principal as Learner

Many principals have had to attend professional development sessions that lacked collaboration or feedback on how to implement new initiatives at their schools. Unfortunately, many principals are charged with implementing practices without appropriate support or checkpoints to monitor effective implementation during the school year. In most cases growing as a leader is up to the individual; the principal’s role is often lonely.

The Wallace Foundation has conducted extensive research and studies on principal growth and development, focusing on how to retain effective leaders and sustain their work in schools. It has engaged in conversations with school principals and it saw the need to create a platform where leaders have an opportunity to voice their biggest challenges when it comes to their development.  

Prince George’s County Schools in Maryland saw value in this work and engaged in a partnership with the foundation to support school leaders. Central office staff was intentional about the implementation, using data to drive every decision. The goal was to provide support that would translate in a positive change. The foundation’s work provided clear tactics, feedback, and strategies on how to sustain the work. Constant collaboration and strong culture were key to the change process in supporting these efforts. Educators there put a lot of effort into developing principal capacity and with resources that any district looking to support and grow their leaders could use.

Principals as Investments

In the session, we learned that Prince George’s County Schools sees the value in visiting programs and universities that have strong educational leadership programs that produce the right talent. School districts looking to adopt a similar system should have a tool to track candidates that will support their mission and vision. Leadership programs and institutes at the county level are needed to give leaders an opportunity to develop relationships, ask questions, reflect, collaborate, and learn. Mentoring is key to new principals’ success.

While funding was required to successfully implement this initiative, districts can look at other options that are not costly. One step is to bring educators together to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of their practice. Authentic relationships are built on honesty. Creating the space for these valuable conversation does not cost money.

Principal as Reflective Leader

As I reflect on the qualities of a highly effective principal and the partnership between The Wallace Foundation and Prince George’s County School District, I can’t ignore the importance of reflecting throughout the process. Most districts do an excellent job providing learning opportunities for teachers, but neglect the leader of the school. We can’t ignore the power that professional development plays in the growth of a school leader. The ultimate goal should be to have teachers that are a reflection of their school principal.

If districts invest time and effort into priming principals for success, then more teachers will want to move into the principalship. It is time to support principals in developing stronger leader; principal growth is not optional. Principal development must be aligned with the mission and vision of our schools, because ultimately, there are no good schools without a good principal.

Lynmara Colon is principal of Mary Williams Elementary School in Dumfries, Virginia.