In her newest book, Helping Teachers Learn: Principal Leadership for Adult Growth and Development (Corwin Press, 2004), Eleanor Drago-Severson, lecturer on education at HGSE, draws upon her Spencer-funded research in 25 diverse schools with varying levels of financial resources to describe how principals can effectively support teacher learning within schools. We recently spoke with Drago-Severson about her new model of learning-oriented leadership.
Q: Are principals typically regarded as adult educators and instructional leaders, or do you think they are usually seen as filling some other, perhaps administrative, role?
A: In today’s complex educational world, principals assume many challenging roles. They certainly need to be administrators. Yet, given the demands of leading in a nation with an increasingly diverse population of children and teachers, issues related to teacher shortages, standards-based reform and accountability, principals also need to be both instructional leaders and adult educators.
To serve in these roles, principals are searching for practices that will help them support teacher learning. My work emphasizes that there are important individual characteristics to consider, such as age, gender, educational background, ethnicity, and career phase, and important organizational characteristics, such as the roles of financial and human resources, to consider when thinking about how to best support teacher learning. Still, it is also important to be mindful of developmental differences. Merely acquiring information or learning new instructional skills, while important, can never satisfy teacher growth. Support for adult learning and growth must include efforts to improve their capacities for managing the complexities of work and life.
There’s a real need for more effective practices to support teacher learning within schools. My book offers insight into another way to accomplish national goals. Helping principals to more effectively exercise their leadership as instructional leaders and adult educators in support of teacher learning is an initiative that is directly connected to improving the quality of teaching and fostering children’s growth and achievement.
Q: How do you envision school districts will respond, from a policy perspective, to your model of learning-oriented leadership?
A: My experiences working with school districts and helping them to implement learnings from this work has taught me that district leaders are very interested in adopting policies to better support teachers and principals’ learning within their districts. One commonly asked question from district leaders concerns scaling up: I have a district of 2,000-plus teachers, so how can I scale this up to meet the needs of all of the adults? In response, I suggest starting with one step at a time. A good first step is to teach others about the value of a developmental perspective. Doing so provides a language for understanding and considering how to best support teacher development.
A next step is to develop policies that support principals and teachers in piloting the four practices, or a few of them, in cross-functional teams within schools. Simultaneously, inviting principals within the district to meet regularly to discuss their implementation of the four pillar practices is an important step that supports principals and facilitates implementation across the district. Doing so enables districts to build capacity, support growth, and tailor the four practices described in my book to meet the needs of the district.
Q: The 25 school leaders you worked with during your research provided you with great examples of successful practices. What challenges do you see arising when principals are less proactive, enthusiastic, and encouraging of their teachers?
A: There are many challenges that arise when principals are not "encouraging of their teachers.” Among the many responsibilities principals have, one of the more important ones is to support teachers so that they can, in turn, support children’s learning and development. I see principals as lead teachers, adult educators, and leaders of teachers. In order for schools to meet the complex demands of the 21st century, principals need to employ practices that support teachers with different levels of experience, diverse needs and preferences, and different developmental orientations.
The 25 principals in my study, like other principals, serve in low-, medium-, and rich-resource schools and, also like other principals, encounter context-specific constraints, human and financial resource challenges, as well as the complex demands of leadership in the 21st century. These challenges exist in varying degrees in every school.
Principals and school leaders serving in other schools have said that these practices are helping them to think in new ways about how to support teacher learning, in the midst of the context specific-demands they face. The four pillar practices
The four practices composing my learning-oriented model of school leadership can be refined and adapted to other school contexts in light of a principal’s style and a school’s contextual features. For example, while a principal will eventually want to invite teacher participation in all four practices, the leader might want to implement one or two at a time with different pilot groups of teachers. Also, teachers with different developmental orientations might prefer certain practices, especially at first. However, even one of these practices can provide a rich context for learning. This is especially true because each practice enables teachers to meet regularly, examine their thinking and practices, and consider new ways of thinking and practicing.
Alternately, principals with different styles might want to implement several of the four pillar practices and give teachers choices for participation. This option creates a jigsaw option so that teachers can choose one of the four different practices, perhaps on an annual basis. This initial individualization of the model honors teachers’ preferences and empowers them through choice. In other words, principals would be wise to implement more than one teacher-learning practice because a variety will attend to different career phases, learning needs, and ways of knowing. With time, teachers will likely take ownership of these practices, and the practices can become part of the fabric of the school. Again, these practices should be adapted to school context.
Q: You note that school leaders exercise their leadership in varying ways. Did you find that this was a response to varying conceptions of what the leadership role ought to be, or was it more that these principals responded according to the perceived needs and characteristics of their particular schools?
A: Interestingly, many of the principals shared similar conceptions of what it means to lead in support to teacher learning. The ways in which their thinking translated to practices were in response to their school’s needs. Differences in resources, school size, student population, teaching staff, mission, and policy deeply influenced the options and opportunities they had. And while these institutional and contextual characteristics influenced the ways in which they were able to implement practices in support of teacher learning, they were able to develop different creative strategies and practices to support teacher learning.
Q: Is supporting teacher learning more difficult in low-resource schools?
A: The practices principals can employ in low-resource schools look different, but they can still be effective in supporting teacher learning. My research shows that the types of initiatives that the principals employ to support teacher learning are differently influenced by their schools’ locations on a continuum of financial resources. However, a critical finding of this work is that even in schools with few financial resources, principals used creative initiatives that did not require significant financial resources to support teacher learning.
The principals in my study who were serving in low resource schools developed, to different degrees, creative strategies for securing needed financial and human resources as well as time to implement practices supportive of teacher learning. Obviously, these practices often took a different shape in lower resource schools as compared to resource-rich schoolsbut they existed nonetheless.
My work shows that principals can employ creative strategies for promoting teacher learning with minimal financial resources. My book provides examples of the strategies that the principals in my study employed to harvest needed resources to implement practices that clearly support teacher learning. These include inviting faculty to write grant proposals, building partnerships with organizations, and visiting other schools. Principals, in many cases, work to develop partnerships because they revitalize faculty, free up time for teachers to collaborate, and create contexts for teachers and partnering organizations to learn from one another.
Q: Where do you see your research in principal leadership going from here?
A: Finding ways to support principals in their complex, important, and meaningful work as they create schools that can better support teacher learning is a pressing need, given the current educational climate. As a next step, I will examine how reflective practice may be a tool for professional and personal growth by investigating how groups of principals experience participation in reflective practice. In these groups, the principals will be provided with an array of opportunities to engage in dialogue about and reflection on their practice.
For More Information
HGSE News, Harvard Graduate School of Education