Prioritize to Stabilize

A three-point framework can offer a foundation for rebuilding your school community

Topics: Education/General, Principal Leadership, Professional Development, Student Engagement

Even the most dedicated educators might be experiencing an ebb and flow in their enthusiasm while navigating the uncertainties facing our profession. Pandemic-era challenges have produced feelings of isolation and exhaustion; even the positive aspects of personalized and online learning have been undercut by diminished opportunities for collaboration and community.

As many in the school community are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of responsibilities and expectations, principals have a pivotal role as an epicenter of prioritization. Principals have the opportunity to stabilize learning communities by analyzing the values that should continue as we attempt to restore joy to teaching and learning. But how can instructional leaders best prioritize?

Focus on the Essential

Administrators are making unprecedented decisions. Teachers are reinventing content and instructional delivery to transition back and forth between in-person and virtual learning. Parents have become more involved in student learning. The adults supporting education are working tirelessly to provide the best possible learning opportunities for students.

But while some students benefited from virtual learning, many have become confused, frustrated, or disengaged. Data shows that overall academic growth has been affected by disparities in access to technology, language learning support, and access to interventions. Our most essential priority is to ensure quality learning opportunities supported by a safe and inclusive learning environment for all students. Where do we start?

The Principal Priorities Framework

A framework is an essential supporting structure that provides a foundation for sharpened decision-making that ensures alignment within and across schools as we rebuild. Our framework for principal priorities has three critical elements: culture, clarity, and collective efficacy.

Culture. The culture of a school sets the foundation for teaching and learning. Leah Shafer, a researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, asserted in a 2018 study that a strong, cohesive culture relies upon collective knowledge of a school’s distinctive character and the collegial interactions that make that character thrive.

The Centre for Studies of Inclusive Education describes an inclusive school culture as an evolving and developing community that seeks to make all members feel welcome; has a common, shared philosophy; incorporates high but attainable expectations; and values equity. The commitment to quality is accompanied by the removal of obstacles to the success of each individual and the system as a whole.

Principals can do a self-check on several aspects of a school’s culture to find strengths and areas in need

of development:

  • Shared values: A unified belief in the students and community that drives all words and actions each day.
  • Community: Dedication to creating a safe, welcoming environment that ensures all educators and students know that they belong.
  • Inclusiveness: Active, intentional actions to cultivate equitable, culturally, and linguistically relevant instructional practices.
  • Student focus: A commitment to the affective and academic engagement and success of each and every student.
  • Engagement: Everyone is committed to the success of every student and the school as a whole.

Clarity. Organizational clarity ensures clear goals and expectations for staff, students, and the entire community, minimizing confusion and discord. According to Chatham Sullivan’s 2013 book, The Clarity Principle, an organization clarifies its purpose by defining itself through intentional choices and communicating those choices so that every member of the community knows the purpose and integrates it into their daily work.

The foundational elements of clarity include:

  • Understanding: Staff and students know and understand goals and expectations.
  • Communication: Immediate, actionable feedback loops.
  • Assessment and data: A comprehensive system that goes beyond standardized tests and includes the analysis of cultural and instructional practices and student learning.
  • Focus on learning: Collaborative practices and multitiered systems of support (MTSS) create learning opportunities that stimulate self-direction, motivation, and efficacy to ensure student success.
  • Collaboration: Student learning and success are cultivated through collaborative practices and community goal-setting.

Collective efficacy. Collective efficacy is supported by the belief that teachers realize the biggest impact on student learning when they work as a team. Collective efficacy results in improved student performance, motivation, concentration, persistence, and engagement—and it can enhance relationships with parents and create a collegial work environment that builds teacher commitment, according to Public Impact’s Dana Brinson and Lucy Steiner.

Principals can set priorities to ensure that schools are dedicated to collective efficacy by providing teachers with standards, data, time, systems, and opportunity. That shared goal of providing engaging and effective student learning begins with the development of three key areas:

  • Student efficacy: Opportunities for students to partner with teachers to plan and experience engaging learning opportunities aligned to interests and with minimal distractions.
  • Ongoing professional development: Professional learning that includes teacher implementation and team discussion and analysis.
  • Cycle of inquiry: Educators work together in teams or PLCs to study research-based practices, plan implementation of new learning into classroom instruction, analyze their lesson plans and student work products, and discuss areas of effectiveness and need for revision.

An Action Plan

Using the three foundational priorities, principals can formulate an action plan from their list of school strengths and growth areas. Since prioritized areas are interconnected, the action plan needs to include opportunities to combine goals to ensure the ongoing development of a symbiotic system.

Many leaders intentionally begin with actions that can realize results quickly, moving toward additional actions over time. It is important to include a process for data collection to guide implementation, review the plan periodically to make necessary adjustments, and provide evidence of success and celebrate it.

Principals are the cornerstone of our work—to revitalize the culture of schools and districts in order to ensure a safe and inclusive learning environment for each and every student to thrive.


Bonnie D. Houck is the principal consultant for Houck Educational Services and an experienced teacher, administrator, consultant, coach, author, speaker, and trainer.

Tracy Frederick Corcoran is director of teaching and learning for Faribault (Minnesota) Public Schools.