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Niche Training for Principals: The Next Big Thing in PD

Today, specialized training is commonplace in almost every competitive industry.

Medicine, law, technology—these are just a few examples of professions where expertise in specific focus areas is at a premium. Teachers, too, undergo training for specific classroom disciplines.

School principal training and professional development programs, on the other hand, have been slow to adopt specialized training as a matter of course.

University-level degree programs are largely restricted to theories behind school building management, for example. It’s a reality that has many new school principals feeling ill-equipped to solve everyday instructional, emotional, and communication challenges in their schools.

But that’s starting to change, writes Arianna Prothero in a recent article for Education Week.

Over several years, Prothero reports, universities, non-profits, and school districts alike have developed “niche” training programs to equip school building principals with the skills they need to solve practical in-the-hallways issues.

To understand where to focus principal training, districts and states first have to understand the challenges facing students. That process starts by listening.

Changing roles

The need for specialized training shouldn’t come as a surprise given how much the role of the principal has changed over the past decade.

As a 2012 report from the National Association of Elementary School Principals stated:

“The role of principal continues to become more complex and challenging. Traditional leaders may have considered their jobs to be solely the managers of schools. But the current social and educational context—which combines high-stakes accountability with the high ideals of supporting social, physical and emotional needs of children—demands that principals demonstrate the vision, courage and skill to lead and advocate for effective learning communities in which all students—and adults—reach their highest potential.”

Today’s principals are more than administrators or disciplinarians, the report posits. They’re also marketers, brand ambassadors, learning strategists, even school counselors.

As the school choice movement creates more competition, principals will have to up their customer service game as well.

Asking the right questions

With so many challenges, it’s common to wonder where to start.

The good news is school leaders don’t have to make this decision alone.

Whether through a school-wide survey or through one-on-one conversations with students, parents, or teachers, school building leaders should ask their community for guidance. This approach both helps set priorities and helps principals identify gaps in their training.

If parents observe a lack of empathy among students, for example, principals can pursue social-emotional learning programs. If student equity is a priority, principals might explore restorative justice approaches to punishment, as was the case in New York’s Bronx Academy of Letters recently.

Here’s three questions district and school leaders should ask their students, parents, and community members when planning training programs:

  1. What’s the biggest challenge facing our schools? If your leadership team doesn’t identify the same problems as your community, that’s a good indication of a communication breakdown in your district.
  2. What do you want from your school leaders? Do school principals have the skills community members seek in a school leader? If not, they need to cultivate them.
  3. Do our schools communicate effectively? There’s always room for improvement when it comes to school-community conversations. Make sure your school building leaders can effectively identify communication challenges, and solve them with critical thinking.

Where do you focus your school principal training programs? Tell us in the comments.

Want more on effective training? Read 3 essential priorities for school principals.