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In Translation: School Leaders Learning in and From Leadership Practice While Confronting Pressing Policy Challenges


by Eleanor Drago-Severson & Patricia Maslin-Ostrowski — 2018

Background/Context: Worldwide, principals face enormous challenges while translating policies and mandates for which they are accountable into their mission and practice. While some of these school-level challenges are technical, many are adaptive (Heifetz), requiring leaders and those in their care to grow their cognitive and affective (emotional) capacities so that they can manage change. Principals are under pressure to decipher problems quickly and create conditions to build capacity at ground level.

Purpose/Research Question: This research examined how principals framed pressing challenges they confronted in leadership practice (technical, adaptive, or mixed), and in what ways, if any, learning was part of their response. A pressing challenge is defined as a difficult problem named by leaders that they—themselves—identified as one they are currently facing or have recently faced. We explored how they helped other adults (e.g., teachers and staff) and themselves to manage change associated with meeting these challenges. Additionally, we queried how prior and new learning helped them lead while overcoming pressing challenges.

Setting: We recruited principals working in urban K–12 public schools in the U.S. Eastern Seaboard and Bermuda, sites focused on educational reform.

Participants: A purposeful sample of 13 principals (eight male, five female) representing primary, middle, and secondary levels was used. State department leaders and educational leadership faculty recommended principals who they perceived were “effective”—in other words, based on their knowledge and by reputation, these were successful school leaders.

Research Design: This qualitative study used in-depth interviews to explore the experience and perceptions of principals leading through challenges.

Data Collection and Analysis: Principals participated in in-depth semistructured interviews. After member checking, interview transcripts were coded and categories developed to capture themes and patterns.

Findings: Leaders’ pressing challenges have elements of what Heifetz calls adaptive, technical, and mixed. There was a recurring theme of leading to support change. Regardless of how these principals conceptualized challenges, they responded by creating customized professional learning experiences—informational (aimed at increasing skills and knowledge) and transformational learning (aimed at internal growth and capacity building)—for teachers, staff, and for themselves. While appreciating formal leadership preparation, they emphasized learning from informal experiences and focused on job-embedded learning in their schools.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Understanding technical and adaptive work, the ways that adults learn and grow, and how strategically to create space and spaces for continuous, customized experiential learning in schools (informational and transformational) offers a potential pathway for principals to build capacity and surmount pressing challenges.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 120 Number 1, 2018, p. -
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22009, Date Accessed: 11/22/2017 1:14:11 PM

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About the Author
  • Eleanor Drago-Severson
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    ELLIE DRAGO-SEVERSON is a professor of Education Leadership and Adult Learning & Leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University and directs the PhD program in Education Leadership. Her research, teaching, and consulting focuses on helping school leaders of all kinds to support their own growth (personal mastery) and to support those in their care. Recent books include Tell me so I can hear you: A developmental approach to feedback for educators (Harvard Educational Press, 2016) and Learning designs (coauthored, Learning Forward & Sage, 2015).
  • Patricia Maslin-Ostrowski
    Florida Atlantic University
    E-mail Author
    PAT MASLIN-OSTROWSKI is a professor in the department of Educational Leadership & Research Methodology and coordinator of the higher education leadership program at Florida Atlantic University. She was recently invited by Australian Catholic University to be a distinguished visiting research fellow. Her research and practice focus on the human dimensions of leadership and a quest for policy and practice that better supports the preparation and development of leaders, and that engenders a holistic, authentic approach to their vital work.
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