Tools for the Trade: The Power of a Principal’s Professional Learning

minds_under_constructionTwo years ago, I was fortunate enough to receive the “Principal as Leader of Professional Learning” grant from The Learning Forward Foundation. It has been an amazing journey to explore an intentional professional learning plan, not only for myself but also for everyone on my campus.

Part of the reason this opportunity was such an honor is because it was Learning Forward (formerly the National Staff Development Council) that taught me that quality professional learning is more than “a fun workshop” with “good presenters” and “cute ideas”. Learning Forward is the organization that instilled in me that quality professional learning should result in new tools that I could add to my toolbox of teaching and learning that results in increased student achievement.


My learning these past two years has been an action research in the concepts of grit, growth mindset, and the impact on student achievement when these concepts are intentionally taught to students, specifically students who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.  All of this learning expanded my resources to meet the diverse needs of my students.

Here are some of my key “aha”s from this experience:choose the right tool

  • Don’t bring a hammer when you need a wrench. There are lots of opinions about grit and growth mindset. As with any strategy, there is no magic bullet. It is about having the right tool in your toolbox and using it in the right situation to impact learning. With grit and growth mindset, you have to make sure the student sees the relevance to their life. It is not about just creating struggle but helping a student see they have the mental capacity to overcome the struggle when faced with challenges.
  • Renovate one room at a time. If you want an educational initiative to work, you have to be intentional and focused. It will be tempting to try to fix everything all at one time, especially if you have lots of needs and see some initial success. When you do home renovation and expect to live there while you do it, you typically move room to room until it’s all done. Finishrenovation the job you are working on before you move on to the next one so that you don’t have everything torn apart. You can’t live in a house with everything ripped up (at least not effectively or affordably). In schools, we don’t have the benefit of living somewhere else while we transform educational practice.  If you focus on improving the most important things that will get the most results, you see the most growth and become motivated to work on the next most important thing when the first thing becomes a habit. Working on one thing at a time is brain-friendly and prevents feelings of being overwhelmed, burned out and emotionally bankrupt.
  • Train your apprentices. Think about an apprentice. They watch the knowledgeable tradesman. Then they work side by side before gradually taking over the jobs themselves while the mentor gives feedback. It’s a gradual release model. When you want something to become practice for teachers, you have to model it as the leader. How in the world will they be able to carry out your vision if you only talk about it? They need to see it from you and practice with you there, so they feel confident to do it themselves.


  • Clearly communicate your vision for the desired outcome. You shouldn’t be shocked at a failed implementation or a result that doesn’t match the “end” you had in mind.   Everyone needs to know “what” change is needed, “why” it is needed, and “how” you plan to get there.   When these three things are clear, the goal becomes much more achievable. I think this is true whether you are working with students or adults.  It is human nature to be successful.  Having an idea of the purpose and plan helps people get started in the right direction.
  • Involve your clients in the design. We no longer can afford to live in a world where we tell people step by step, exactly what to do.  Everyone on the team brings expertise and creativity.  I am a huge fan of George Couros and his philosophy of “the smartest person in the room is the room.”  
  • Expertise doesn’t mean flawless. The minute you think you have to perform perfectly you have slipped into a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset is the enemy of learning and learning is the purpose of education. Forget perfection. Learn from mistakes. Allow others to see how you learn and grow from them. When things go wrong, don’t try to cover it up, make excuses, or quit. That can be costly.
  • Study the situation before you jump in and “fix”. Knowing and understanding your learners and their context allows you to give them learning in ways that are meaningful to them. Results in learning take place more quickly and make it more likely to stick.
  • Take your time and do the job right. Providing that learning in meaningful ways takes time. Lots and lots of time. (But it often gets results faster than things we have always done.)I have seen this on my campus with student conferencing and goal setting. It’s tedious. I’ve heard some say it takes time away from “real teaching”. However, providing feedback and guidance on a student’s individual work is the most powerful teaching in existence. Think about why athletes have private coaches or musicians take private lessons. While it has taken an investment, it is probably the most successful strategy we have used to increase student results.

The expectation today is for administrators to be instructional leaders. When I look at the Texas Principal Evaluation and Support System (TPESS), instructional leadership tools are critical for success. However, to be an effective instructional leader, you must first be the lead learner.  

We can’t just assume that we are the sole giver of knowledge to our teachers and students. Nor can we hand over the dissemination of critical knowledge to others outside our organization and trust that they understand all that needs to be done. As building leaders, we must facilitate the learning process and continuous improvement of the adults, so that teachers to do the same for our students, so they also have the tools they need to  design their own successful, productive lives.

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