On the Importance of Professional Development for School Leaders

By Adam Tilove and Yael Kidron

In England, the Head of School (school principal) is often known as the Head Teacher. Aside from the fundraising, marketing, grant writing, disciplinary issues and communications, there is still one role the Head of School plays that is too often dismissed – that of teacher. Moreover, when this teaching occurs, the impact can quickly move from faculty meetings, to classrooms, and even to the playground.

As an example, Adam Tilove, head of school at The Jewish Community Day School of Rhode Island, was surprised when a student told him how the entire school had participated in creating one massive snow fort.

But it couldn’t have been everyone,” Adam objected. “It must have just been a few students with other kids helping just a little?” he suggested.

Nope. Everyone did it together, because whenever anyone had an idea, we would say ‘Yes, andinstead of ‘No!” she said.

Sure enough, just two week earlier, Adam taught the staff about design thinking and the power of saying “Yes and” and now students were using it on the playground. Ideas spread like wildfire!

Yet if any role is more forgotten than Head Teacher, it’s that of Head Learner. Heads of School need to be voracious learners, always willing to keep a growth mindset, learn best practices, and discover the best work of their peers. Otherwise, how could a Head Teacher bring new, effective and meaningful educational strategies and ideas to his/her team of teachers?

New Evidence on the Importance of Leaders’ Professional Development

Continued professional development (CPD) is defined broadly as learning opportunities with well-defined sequence and learning objectives. These should be designed to enhance a leader’s professional competence, knowledge and skills. CPD may include multi-session programs, such as certificate programs and leadership institutes, as well as professional workshops. Effective continued professional development is linked to personal development goals and school improvement initiatives – it is not an end in itself but a means to instructional improvement.

According to the research brief, Leaders as Learners: The Case for Continued Professional Development – prepared by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) on behalf of the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education (CASJE) with funding from The AVI CHAI Foundation and The Mandell L. and Madeleine H. Berman Foundation – the participation of day school leaders in continued professional development improves teachers’ instructional practices. Researchers from AIR asked day school teachers about the frequency at which they:

  • Teach Jewish values
  • Make connections between general and Jewish studies
  • Embed Jewish or Hebrew terminology into lessons and conversations
  • Discuss current events affecting the Jewish community or the Jewish world
  • Talk to students about their questions related to their Jewish identity
  • Encourage students to participate in the broader local Jewish community

Data showed that the more the head of schools learned within the last five years on these or related topics, the more likely those ideas ended up in the classroom. This is important for the Jewish mission of the school, but it applies to any aspect of any school life.

The findings of the AIR study add to a growing body of research suggesting that school leaders are able to provide leadership to improve teaching and learning only if they themselves receive this relevant training. Lack of participation in continued professional development is associated with less feedback and guidance to staff, regardless of the strength of leaders’ background.

Heads of Schools Can Make Time for Professional Development

School leaders often worry about the time commitment necessary for professional development opportunities. While this reflects the reality of the increasing complexity of school leaders’ job, school leaders often have more time than they perceive. Think about it this way: when a Head of Schools is sick, the teachers still show up and teach; parents still drop off and pick up their children; and lunches will be served in the school cafeteria. While Heads want to stay responsive and ever accessible, investing in continuing education is an invaluable way to sustain their schools.

There is Something for Everyone

There is a variety of professional development opportunities for school leaders. Here is just a partial list of learning opportunities for educational leaders in Jewish day schools:

The Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) – professional development for new and aspiring heads of Jewish day schools that combines engaging experiential learning opportunities, cutting-edge leadership development, ongoing mentoring, and the chance to collaboratively problem-solve with cohort peers.

YOU Lead, a program of Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools (formerly YU Lead, a program of Yeshiva University School Partnership [YUSP]), aims to generate a pipeline of new professional leaders in Modern and Centrist Orthodox schools.

Harvard Principal Center Summer Institute – the program is designed to stimulate and begin implementing a high impact project in schools. Selected leaders attend one of two Harvard summer institutes: Advancing the Art of Leadership (AOL), for leaders with 1-5 years of experience, or Leadership: An Evolving Vision (LEV), for leaders with 3+ years of experience.

JDS Collaborative – professional development for school leadership teams. The JDS Collaborative supports day school teams as they collaborate in the design and implementation of programmatic initiatives that further their schools’ Jewish missions. Utilizing networked techniques, the Collaborative connects at least three schools that share a common passion for a specific project identified as a priority by the school’s leadership.

Head of School Professional Excellence Project (HoSPEP) – a program that creates fellowship cohorts of new heads of school (“Fellows”), each of whom is partnered with a long-time head of school (“Deans”) for a year of intensive training, coaching and mentoring.

Get Out There and Learn

As the visionary leader, the lead teacher, and the head cheerleader, a community looks to its Head of School for guidance, support, energy, enthusiasm and knowledge. These responsibilities provide ample reasons for focusing on in-service days that also include the school staff in professional development. If a Head of School’s job is to point the direction of the school – not to dig out from a pile of emails – and to work on the school while others work in it, then she or he must be a “learner in chief” as much as anything else.

Adam Tilove is Head of School at the Jewish Community Day School of Rhode Island. Yael Kidron is a Principal Researcher at American Institutes for Research.