Personalize Your Professional Learning

Even the busiest principals need to engage in professional learning continually—and they have plenty of options to do so.

Topics: Professional Development, Professional Learning

I think of learning as extremely personal. Even as I lead professional learning for NAESP members, I try to make decisions about what will help me grow my knowledge base and help me excel in my role. It’s often as much a personal decision as it is a professional one.

School leaders have the same challenge. How do you determine what to participate in, where to learn, and what’s best for you when your plate is overflowing? How do you digest the available research on principal leadership in professional learning to help inform your decision-making?

One of the challenges in my position is to ensure that current research informs what I do and provides the foundation for what works for principals in schools. That research is not always easy to digest or understand, but much of it points to the critical role of the principal in today’s schools.

A new book in my library, Developing Expert Principals: Professional Learning That Matters, says that strong school leadership is critical to the creation of engaging learning environments, developing and supporting high-quality teachers, and influencing student outcomes.

A Learning Policy Institute report, “Solving the Teacher Shortage: How to Attract and Retain Excellent Educators,” cites principal support as one of the most crucial factors in a teacher’s decision to stay in a school or in the profession. And The Wallace Foundation-commissioned research review “How Principals Affect Students and Schools” says it “is difficult to envision an investment with a higher ceiling on its potential return than a successful effort to improve principal leadership.”

I also keep in mind the barriers that prevent principals from engaging in quality professional learning. If we were playing Family Feud and Steve Harvey asked a group of principal contestants to name the top barriers, they would be the following:

  1. Not enough time
  2. Insufficient coverage for leaving the school
  3. Not enough money

Are you surprised?

Like anything that’s important to us, we make time for it. School leaders are often bad at making time for themselves, however, because they are so busy taking care of everyone else. To be effective and impactful in our sphere of influence, we must nourish our souls while honing our craft.

How Do You Rate?

Research from the Learning Policy Institute shows several key features of professional learning that can help produce principals equipped to improve school outcomes. With time at a premium, to what extent have you participated in the following kinds of professional learning?

Professional learning that focuses on improving schoolwide instruction for whole-child education. This includes supporting students’ social-emotional development and physical and mental health.

Professional learning that focuses on fostering equitable school environments. This encourages principals to develop an unbiased, supportive school environment in which each child receives affirmation as an individual. The cultural assets associated with each student are leveraged through culturally responsive teaching; building strong, trusting relationships among students and between students and adults is a priority.

Meaningful applied learning experiences that are problem-based and context-specific. Examples of such experiences are doing school walk-throughs with peers or an instructional coach and analyzing student data to identify learning gaps. These experiences enrich principals’ skill development.

Mentors and/or coaches who provide individualized support. If a principal believes in being a lifelong learner, they can benefit from mentoring or on-the-job coaching that supports them in fostering school improvement and leadership development.

Opportunities to participate in collaborative learning. Just as schools benefit from professional learning communities, other networking structures can help school leaders collaborate in small groups to learn on the job together. Connecting with other principal colleagues allows school leaders to reflect continually on learning as individuals and collectively as a part of a larger network.

Based on the information above, how would you answer the following essential questions?

  • As I examine my skill set, what are my strengths? What skills do I still need to create a school environment that develops responsible young people and fosters critical thinking?
  • As a school leader, how do I model equitable practices, inclusivity, and cultural responsiveness with my stakeholders?
  • What are the leadership practices I share with peers, and what applied learning experiences are most meaningful to me and reinforce my role as a school leader?
  • What are the ways in which my mentor or coach helps support my work as a school leader?
  • How has my role in a network or community of practice informed my leadership?

Look to NAESP

As you apply the above information to your professional learning, we hope you see value in planning your professional learning with NAESP. The association offers a range of options to fit any member’s schedule, career stage, and goals, delivering all of the key features of effective professional learning as described above.

Annual Conference

Our biggest face-to-face offering is the annual conference. This year, we’ve partnered with the National Association of Secondary School Principals to bring you UNITED: The National Conference on School Leadership (Pre-K–12), July 15–17, 2024, in Nashville, Tennessee. Conference strands include:

  • Building Leadership Capacity;
  • Instructional Leadership;
  • Leveraging Student Voice and Agency;
  • School Climate, Culture, and Inclusivity; and
  • Whole-School Wellness.

The conference will feature expert keynote speakers, knowledgeable practitioners leading breakout sessions, and multiple forums to connect with colleagues and strengthen your skills as a school leader. Registration is open at

Pre-K Leadership Academy

NAESP’s Pre-K–3rd Grade Leadership Academy, its online Principal Leadership Course for the Early Grades, and the National Aspiring Principals Academy offer information on improving schoolwide instruction for whole-child education, cultivating equitable school environments, and discussing learning experiences with expert facilitators, coaches, and advisers. More information on each of these professional learning opportunities is available at

Mentor Training

NAESP’s National Mentor Training and Certification Program teaches principals and other administrators how to incorporate best practices in mentoring and adult learning through a nine-month mentor-in-training internship with a certified coach. The program personalizes the needs of principals, integrating principal competencies that align with the Professional Standards for Educational Leaders and support leadership succession planning.

Small Group Training

The Mastermind Group also offers mentoring, coaching, and support for school leaders. Whether it’s through conferences, the district, or social media, remarkable things can happen when school leaders connect to discuss problems of practice and strategies for success.

Communities of Practice

Just like we champion the power of relationships and belonging in our schools, NAESP’s professional learning places a premium on participation in collaborative learning in communities of practice such as the Early Career Principal Community of Practice, Assistant Principal Community of Practice, Centers for Advancing Leadership communities of practice, and Principals of Color Network. You are never alone, and we provide multiple ways for you to connect, collaborate, and network with principal colleagues across the nation. Learn more at

I’m a big Ted Lasso fan, as you might have realized. Throughout the series, the word “believe” plays a pivotal role in bringing the players of AFC Richmond, a fictional professional soccer club, together as a team. Participating in ongoing professional learning as an assistant principal or a principal is a way to build belief in yourself as a leader and model being a lifelong learner.

Principals are often drawn to practical strategies that they can implement right away in their schools. But remember that research helps inform your practice, and professional learning can help you grow as a leader. As Ted Lasso would say, “Doing the right thing is never the wrong thing.”

Gracie Branch is NAESP’s associate executive director for professional learning.