New Opportunities for Principal Leadership: Shaping School Climates for Enhanced Teacher Development
by Eleanor Drago-Severson — 2012
Background/Context: Improved professional development for teachers and principals is central to our national educational agenda. Principals struggle with the challenge of how to build school climates that improve practice in an era of heightened accountability and increasingly complex adaptive challenges.
Purpose/Objective/Research Questions/Focus of Study: While researchers have investigated for more than 100 years the importance of building healthy school climates that support adult learning, it is essential to examine how principals shape school climates, given the challenging educational demands educators face in contemporary society. More specifically, how do principals shape growth-enhancing climates that support adult learning as they work to manage adaptive challenges (i.e., situations in which both the problem and the solution are unclear)? What effective strategies do principals, who serve in different types of schools (i.e., public, independent, and Catholic), employ to shape climates that are common across different contexts and which, if any, are distinct? The purpose of this investigation was to address these questions to offer insight into a way to accomplish the national goal of supporting teacher development by identifying leadership strategies for building school climates that foster teacher learning. Findings reported here stem from a larger research study that addressed the following meaningful, practical, and theoretical research questions: (a) How do principals shape school climates to promote adult learning? (b) What practices do principals use to support teachers’ transformational learning (growth)? (c) How do principals support their own development? (d) What developmental principles underlie practices that support transformational learning? In this article, I focus on the first two research questions to address one major area of inquiry stemming from the larger study—namely, how do principals shape growth-enhancing climates in diverse contexts? In so doing, I describe (a) how principals serving in different types of schools describe their priorities and practices for shaping climates supportive of teacher learning, (b) principals’ conceptions of their roles as shapers of climates supportive of teacher learning, and (c) principals’ challenges and creative strategies for shaping these school climates. Although this research was conducted before the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, identifying learning-oriented leadership practices that cultivate growth-enhancing school climates proves all the more necessary given the complexity of leadership today.
Research Design: Through qualitative interviews and document analysis, this study—conducted as part of a larger investigation of developmentally based principal leadership practices—explored how 25 principals from different types of schools with varying financial resources responded to the challenges (e.g., financial, human, time, increased accountability) they encountered in shaping school climates that were supportive of teacher learning.
Discussion: This research identifies strategies that principals in high-, middle- and low-financial resource Catholic, independent, and public schools use to foster school climates that promote teacher learning and development. Nearly all of the principals in this study employed the following leadership imperatives: (a) attending to context-specific priorities for creating and enhancing school climate, (b) cultivating shared values and flexibility, and (c) building a culture of collaboration. Because principals use a variety of approaches to cultivate learning-oriented climates (i.e., those that support adult learning and development) for teachers, this study suggests the need for support in balancing these approaches. In other words, while all of the principals in this study noted the importance of their climate-shaping role and shared some common strategies for doing so, the practices the principals prioritized and used most frequently varied by school type as opposed to financial resource level. More specifically, the public school principals tended to employ mostly managerial leadership strategies to address the financial and structural realities of their settings. All emphasized the importance of building structures for adult collaboration and the essential need to allocate time for collaboration as well. Independent school leaders mostly relied on the flexibility afforded them through their different missions to create structures and cultivate opportunities for collaboration. The Catholic school principals focused more often on visionary leadership to cultivate school climate supportive of adult development in relation to the school’s Catholic mission.
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