Getting in the Way

imagesAs an aspiring principal I like to approach thinking about professional development from the perspective of an administrator, asking questions such as which research-based approaches would I develop with my (future) staff and why; what would my role be given various approaches (coach, participant, hands-off); and how could I best support the development of teachers while allowing them the autonomy to develop their own leadership abilities? In this week’s readings, Zepeda (2012) discussed collaborative teacher development through study groups, whole-faculty study groups and book studies in chapter 8, while chapter 9 focused on critical friends groups. My key take-away from this reading is the need for teachers to have the time, support and climate to collaborate. The role of teacher collaboration is key in improving student achievement and student achievement is improved through the improvement of teacher’s instructional capacity.

However, simply creating opportunities and structure for teacher collaboration isn’t nearly enough to ensure that instructional changes leading to increased student achievement become an embedded practice. In Instructional Capacity: How to Build it Right, Ann Jaquith notes “Principals can increase the instructional capacity of their schools by creating opportunities for teachers to collaborate as they use key resources to improve teaching and learning. This is easier said than done” (2013, p. 56). Indeed, the article is built around two case studies of middle school principals that are working towards improving the instructional capacity of their staff through the creation of professional learning communities. In one of the schools, the structures for collaboration have been put in place but there is no intentional follow-through or leadership by the principal. “…teachers met with their grade-level, subject-area “partners” once a week during the school day and with their subject-area colleagues once a month after school. The Liberty principal had reorganized school structures so teachers were less isolated from one another….the principal’s job was to create organizational structures for teacher collaboration and provide many opportunities for professional development—then stay out of the way and let teachers do their job”. The teachers were reported as liking the autonomy yet never really working together on instructional strategies, just in the creation of summative assessments; no collaboration that led to the improvement of teacher’s instructional capacity occurred. In contrast, the second principal framed the work for afternoon teacher teams then worked with small groups as they interacted with student work as collaborative teams. Jaquith (2013) offers the following points that principal’s should consider when determining their role in supporting and developing teacher professional learning communities:

  • Create the right structures
  • Create the right conditions
  • Create the right expectations
  • Create the right kind of teams
  • Create a learning focus


Different types of professional learning communities demand different types of leadership from principals. For example, Zepeda (2012) details the benefits of two types of study groups: whole faculty and standalone. While both learning communities serve distinct purposes, whole faculty study groups are noted as benefiting from a more active principal than standalone study groups. Principals are encouraged to:

  • be involved in the process
  • comment on action plans and logs
  • maintain group focus
  • keep focus on research
  • use decision-making cycle
  • share in the work
  • use data
  • support core practices
  • look deeper
  • deal with reluctant teachers
  • celebrate work and success

In contrast, administrators are encouraged to approach critical friends groups (CFG) in a manner that is supportive yet varies according to the perceived needs of teachers: “Administrators must show support in the manner in which they participate in the CFG process. Some school leaders may choose to be coaches or participants. In either case, there must be a relationship that enables participants to be critical in a productive and nonthreatening way” (Zepeda, Chapter 9). Regardless, it is imperative that principals show that they trust teachers to be effective while promoting high levels of collaboration.

When I think about the types of collaboration I am encouraging through my work setting up the structures for professional development in my current school, I have to admit that I have tended more towards “set the structures in place and get out of the way” method similar to the first principal in Jaquith’s article. Much of this is due to a lack of strong focus on one or two identified needs; given the critical areas for improvement in my school’s latest WASC accreditation report, our entire staff is permanently engaged in a “just staying afloat” mentality as we tend to the many initiatives and work that must be accomplished this year. Despite feeling permanently behind, I was able to engage in my own professional learning this past week at the East Asia Regional Conference for Overseas Schools (EARCOS) annual leadership conference. There were nearly 1300 leaders from some of the best international schools in the world, heady stuff. My biggest take-away from the conference? Sunday’s keynote speaker, Martin Skelton, who structure an hour-long presentation for 1300 people around one simple phrase; less is more. When I return to school tomorrow and begin planning our first day-long professional development workshop for January, this simple yet powerful phrase will remain with me. I’ll also be thinking about the appropriate and most effective ways I can support teacher learning through the perspective of an aspiring principal.


Jaquith, A. (2013, October). Instructional capacity: How to build it right. Educational Leadership, 71(2), 56-61. Retrieved November 5, 2013, from

Zepeda, Sally J. (2012). Professional Development: what works, second edition [Kindle version]. Retrieved from


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