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The Need for Principal Renewal: The Promise of Sustaining Principals Through Principal-to-Principal Reflective Practice

by Eleanor Drago-Severson - 2012

Background/Context: Given the challenging complexity of the modern principalship—including high-stakes testing, standards-based reform, increased accountability, and severe budget cuts—practitioners and scholars emphasize the urgency of supporting principals’ stress-relief and renewal.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This nationwide study offers insights into how a group of principals renew themselves and prevent burnout, crucial for 21st-century school leaders. This article focuses on how 25 principals supported their own renewal and their yearning to engage in reflective practice with colleagues as a support to their own revitalization, growth, and learning.

Research Design: Eighty-nine hours of qualitative interviews with a diverse sample of 25 public and private (independent) and Catholic school principals who served in schools with varying levels of financial resources (i.e., high, medium, and low) were conducted, in addition to analyzing field notes and approximately 60 documents. Interviews for the encompassing research study—an investigation of developmentally based principal leadership practices employed to support adult learning—concerned a variety of topics, including principals’ practices for supporting teacher learning and how principals themselves supported their own renewal.

Data Collection and Analysis: All interviews were transcribed verbatim. Two researchers coded interviews, documents, and field notes for central concepts (theoretical and emic codes were employed). Thematic matrices were developed, and narrative summaries were created. A grounded theory approach was employed, and important literatures informed analysis. Matrices displayed confirming and disconfirming instances of themes, and two researchers conferred on alternative interpretations.

Findings: Findings reveal that these principals (1) employed a variety of strategies for self-renewal given the complex challenges of their leadership work in the 21st century and (2) expressed a desire for engaging in ongoing reflective practice with colleagues as a to support their own development, sustainability, and renewal. All also expressed that although they were fulfilled by their jobs, the scope seemed vast and overwhelming. Whether they served in high, low, or medium financial resource schools and whether they served in public, independent, or Catholic schools, they emphasized that they needed to develop more effective and frequent strategies for self-renewal.

Conclusions/Recommendations: These school leaders explained that they yearn for regular, ongoing opportunities to reflect with colleagues and fellow principals on the challenges of leadership, emphasizing that this type of ongoing collegial reflection would help them to more effectively exercise leadership, avoid burnout, and renew themselves. Although all these principals spontaneously voiced the desire to engage in collegial reflection, only 3 were doing so on a regular basis. This research suggests the importance of supporting and retaining principals by using reflection and collegial support for renewal, with serious implications for education policy and school district practices.

Improvement requires fundamental changes in the way public schools and school systems are designed and in the ways they are led. It will require change in the values and norms that shape how teachers and principals think about the purposes of their work, changes in how we think about who leaders are, where they are, and what they do, and changes in the knowledge and skill requirements of work in schools. In short, we must fundamentally redesign schools as places where both adults and young people learn. (Elmore, 2000, p. 35)

Many have argued that the principalship is one of the most difficult, complex, and challenging jobs in the nation (Battle, 2010; City, Elmore, Fiarman, & Teitel, 2009; Hoffman & Johnston, 2005; Kegan & Lahey, 2009; Wagner et al., 2006). In light of this, scholars and practitioners alike maintain that we must find better ways to support principals in their daunting work (Donaldson, 2008; Kegan & Lahey, 2009). This will enhance principals abilities to manage the demands of their work and to better support teachers growth and learning (Donaldson, 2008; Kegan & Lahey, 2009; LaPointe & Davis, 2006). It is not surprising that schools around the world anticipate a principal shortage at a time when the work of schools is becoming more complex (Arnold, 2005; Battle; Drago-Severson, 2009; Murphy, 2006; Normore, 2007).

For example, principals have the difficult task of leading in an atmosphere of high-stakes standards-based reform, increased accountability, and severe budget cuts (Donaldson, 2008; Elmore, 2004; Fullan, 2009; Shoho, Barnett, & Tooms, 2010). Teacher shortages, turnover, and an increasingly diverse student population are among other crucial issues that principals face. In addition, research shows that the complexities of principals work can lead to excessive stress and eventually burnout (Battle, 2010; Donaldson, 2008; Friedman, 2002; Fullan, 2009; Normore, 2007; Whitaker, 1996). Thus, there is an urgent call for effective ways of helping principals combat stress.  How do principals recharge given the complex challenges of their job? How do principals support and sustain themselves in their challenging work? These were the questions that guided this inquiry.

As Blaydes (2002) emphasized, Principals have the power, the ability, and the compassion to make the world a better place, but only if they have learned how to sustain their well-being (p. 52). This sentiment has been echoed by other scholars and practitioners more recently, and calls for urgent attention (Battle, 2010; Byrne-Jiménez & Orr, 2007; Donaldson, 2008; Kegan & Lahey, 2009). Yet, educational reforms of the last decade have not adequately addressed the need for principal renewal, despite the greater stress on principals created by the new accountability atmosphere (Battle; Kegan & Lahey, 2009). There is a need for explicit policies that support principal renewal. This research illuminates some of the renewal strategies principals use and highlights reflective practice as a support to their well-being and even more effective leadership. Indeed, regardless of school type (public, independent, Catholic), school location, and school financial resource level, all these principals yearned for ongoing reflective practice with colleagues as a way to renew themselves and as a path to more effectively exercising leadership. With the demands of leading schools in the 21st century, the majority of these principals expressed that they struggled to carve out enough time to renew themselves. Even in the schools with higher levels of financial resources that enabled principals to take sabbaticals, carving out time to engage in self-renewal was challenging.

District policy makers must understand how to allocate time and resources to support and retain principals in their leadership work, and they must prioritize it. As Richard Elmore (2000) emphasized in the opening passage, retaining principals will require continual learning across levels of the system and fundamental changes in the system itself. One essential change is to prioritize and secure time and resources for all adults, including principals, to engage in reflective practice with colleagues. This is one important way to ensure continual learning across levels of the system (Murnane & Willet, 2012).

Scholars and practitioners argue that to effectively manage work, cope with the stress of the principalship, and avoid burnout (Battle, 2010; Byrne-Jiménez & Orr, 2007; Fullan, 2009), principals must renew and restore themselves. Blaydes (2002) defined renewal as the ability to replenish the personal resources necessary to continue to be able to give to others (p. 54). Both Blaydes and Oplatka (2003), among others (e.g., Argyris & Schön, 1974, 1978; Mezirow, 2000; Murphy, 2006; Lori, McClelland, & Stewart; 2010; Normore, 2007; Osterman & Kottkamp, 2004), highlighted the importance of carving out time for reflection and the reevaluation of practices. Reflection on practice creates opportunities to examine situations through a new lens.

Leading at this particular historic moment requires that principals attend to what Harvard psychiatrist Ronald Heifetz (1994) referred to as adaptive challenges. He defined these as problems for which there are no known solutions and that require the acquisition of new knowledge, new tools, and new internal developmental capacities to solve the problem in the act of working on it (Wagner et al., 2006, p. 10). For example, in addition to facing the kinds of challenges and complexities noted earlier, principals must adapt from having largely managerial roles to being architects of collaborative learning organizations and adult developers. Without the tools or supports to meet these sizeable challenges, many principals experience burnout or excessive stress and leave their professions for more supportive environments (Ackerman & Mackenzie, 2007; Battle, 2010; Kegan & Lahey, 2009; Moller & Pankake, 2006). Development of effective support models for principal renewal and development can make the difference. Although principals may need support in fulfilling technical aspects of their work (e.g., budgets, technology, schedules, personnel), new demands (e.g., accountability, standards-based reform, external mandates) mean that some of the challenges are adaptive as well.

To meet these pressing challenges, principals will need to develop even greater internal capacities in order to manage the tremendous amounts of complexity and ambiguity inherent in adaptive challenges. In addition, they will need to learn new approaches to address these challengesin the process of working on them. Such processes require ongoing support, as opposed to training on specific topics and the acquisition of discrete skills only. Further, although experts can externally provide some supports, many must come as leaders work on the ground through the exercise of leadership. As their role changes dramatically, one way to facilitate the support of principals is to shape collaborative learning communities for principals in which they can share their dilemmas and learn from others (Byrne-Jiménez & Orr, 2007; City et al., 2009; Fullan, 2003, 2005, 2009; Normore, 2007). These contexts create opportunities for  principals to consider their own and others leadership experiences and challenges through shared reflective practice. This research highlights the ways in which a group of 25 principals renew themselves and their belief that reflective practice groupswith principal colleaguescould more effectively sustain them and help them grow to better manage the complexity inherent in their complex and noble work. These principals stressed the importance of renewal through reflective practice with colleagues, who can support them as they work their way through, and more effectively manage, adaptive challenges. Engaging with peers in what they call conversation is what they long for.

Although it is very difficult for principals to find time to reflect, carving out time for reflection on practice and its complexities is essential (Byrne-Jiménez & Orr, 2007; Fullan, 2003, 2005, 2009; Normore, 2007). In Blaydess (2002) words, To regain control of their lives, principals need built-in reflection time to evaluate, mediate, and contemplate (p. 55). The principals in this study vocalized the same need for reflection that Blaydes views as crucial to their success. However, they emphasized the need to reflect with colleagues rather than independently.

Supporting renewal helps principals meet leadership challenges and can reduce the incidence of burnout in the principalship (Battle, 2010; Donaldson, 2008; Kegan & Lahey, 2009; Sparks, 2004; Supovitz & Poglinco, 2001). Data for this research were collected prior to our current No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era of increased testing and accountability. However, principals today face even more stress and greater demands in their workand the changes since 2001 have only exponentially increased the palpable and urgent need to attend to principal renewal. Reflecting on thinking and practice in the company of colleagues can be an important source of renewal for principals.

From 1999 through 2004, through a nationwide Spencer-funded study consisting of qualitative interviews, field visits, and document analysis, I examined how 25 U.S. school leaders in different contexts understood the practices they used to support teacher learning and support their own renewal. In this article, I focus only on how these principals supported their own renewal and what they felt they needed to be better supported in order to thrive in their leadership. As we know, principals have the privilege and responsibility of supporting the learning and growth of teachersbut for them to do this, they must also support their own renewal and learning (Donaldson, 2008; Drago-Severson, 2009; Kegan & Lahey, 2009). Accordingly, this article describes the renewal strategies and needs of a group of principals in answer to the following research question: How do principals renew themselves and learn in light of the new and complex challenges they face? Drawing primarily from the studys interviews, this article describes the principals effective practices for self-renewal as a means to better leadership, sustainability, and growth, and illuminates their deep need for regular reflection with colleagues.


Researchers and practitioners have long recognized that the principal is one key to school improvement (Barth, 1990; Howe, 1993; Wagner, 2007) and that leadership supportive of adult development makes schools better places of learning for children (Darling-Hammond, 2003; Darling-Hammond & Sclan, 1996; Donaldson, 2006, 2008). In fact, supporting adult learning and development has been linked to increases in student achievement (Donaldson, 2008; Guskey, 1999). Supporting principals so that they can grow and better support their own and their teachers growth is also a key to improvement (Byrne-Jiménez & Orr, 2007; Donaldson, 2008; Kegan & Lahey, 2009; Moller & Pankake, 2006; Wagner; Wagner et al., 2006). Yet, how do principals care for themselves and their renewal while caring for the learning of others?

Three literatures informed this investigation: (1) the principals role in teachers learning, (2) principal learning and renewal, and (3) reflective practice as a support to adult learning.


The leadership literature suggests that principals can support teacher learning in three important ways. First, they can create a developmentally oriented culture (Donaldson, 2006, 2008; Evans, 1996; Levine, 1989; Peterson & Deal, 1998; Sarason, 1995). They can also build relationships among teachers (Arnold, 2005; Barth, 1990, 2006; Bolman & Deal, 1995; Moller & Pankake, 2006). Finally, principals can emphasize teacher learning in their schools (Ackerman & Mackenzie, 2007; City et al., 2009; DuFour, Eaker, & DuFour, 2008; Elmore, 2004; Hawley & Valli, 1999; Johnson, 1996; Johnson et al., 2001, 2004). However, the question of how principals implement specific leadership practices to build school cultures that support teacher growth is only beginning to be addressed (City et al.; Donaldson, 2001, 2008; Kegan & Lahey, 2009; Lieberman & Miller, 2001; Moller & Pankake; Mizell, 2006).

Traditionally, the most frequent way in which teachers have been supported in their learning and development is through professional developmentor, what is increasingly being called professional learningprograms. Historically, however, teachers, principals, and researchers have recognized that more time needs to be devoted to such programs and learning opportunities (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2001; Donaldson, 2008; Little 2001; Meier, 2002; Renyi, 1996; Roy, 2005). This remains true today in relationship to the needed infusion of professional learning communities in schools (DuFour et al., 2008; Hord & Sommers, 2008). In addition, many scholars and practitioners note that current professional development/learning models and programs operate on divergent assumptions about and expectations for how teacher growth is defined and can be supported within schools (Cochran-Smith, 2006; Cochran-Smith & Lytle; Drago-Severson, 1994, 1996, 2004b, 2009). Furthermore, scholars have recently discovered, to their dismay, that the principles that underlie models of professional learningfor example, professional learning communitiesare often translated into practice differently than was originally intended (DuFour et al.; Hord & Sommers). More specifically, scholars have noticed that sometimes emphasis is placed on what teachers are doing when engaging in professional learning communities, as opposed to what they are learning (W. A. Sommers, personal communication, 2010).

Conversely, research highlights the need to attend to peoples meaning-making, the teacher as a developing person, and context as a factor in growth (Donaldson, 2008; Drago-Severson, 2007; Johnson et al., 2004; Kegan, 2000). This is especially important because scholars and practitioners have emphasized that many professional learning programs focus on important knowledge and discrete skills without also supporting and challenging teachers growth by focusing on how teachers themselves can grow internal capacities (City et al., 2009; Donaldson, 2008; Hord & Sommers, 2008; Kegan & Lahey, 2001, 2009). The same is needed for supporting principals development and their renewal (Battle, 2010; Byrne-Jiménez & Orr, 2007; Donaldson, 2008). Assisting principals in finding ways to sustain themselves in their complex leadership work can also help address the challenge of supporting teacher development within schools (Donaldson, 2008; Kegan & Lahey, 2009; Oplatka, 2003). Caring for their own development and finding ways to renew themselves can provide principals with greater internal resources and capacities for supporting other adults development (Donaldson, 2008; Kegan & Lahey, 2009). Thus, examining the practices that principals employ to renew and sustain themselves can offer insight to other leaders as they work to support adults learning and development in schools (Ackerman & Maslin-Ostrowski, 2002; Boyatzis & McKee, 2005; Desforges, 2006; Donaldson, 2008; Fullan, 2009; Perkins, 2003), especially those who must first come to see themselves as developers of teachers.

Furthermore, this research extends prior work by illuminating the strategies that principals used to support their own renewal and to tackle adaptive challenges. This work also points to the principals expressed desire to engage in reflective practice with principal colleagues as a form of renewal. Twenty-four of the 25 principals in this research spontaneously expressed that participation in reflective practice groups would help them lead more effectively, sustain themselves, and better manage the complexities and daunting challenges of their leadership work. Creating forums for principals learning and growth could help principals develop their own leadership and personal capacities to better support the growth of other adults in their schools and to build human capacity.


 Put simply and complexly, we need greater knowledge about how to support principals learning, development, and renewal. How can we help principals grow and renew themselves? What practices help them to better manage the complexities of their leadership challenges? Following is a brief summary of what research has taught us about these questions.

Researchers maintain that principals receive too few resources to meet the expectations of outside stakeholders. Moreover, the emphasis on accountability, coupled with insufficient support, is a leading cause of the principal shortage crisis (Battle, 2010; Desforges, 2006; Donaldson, 2008; Fullan, 2009; Kelley & Peterson, 2002; Murphy, 2006). Researchers attribute the global shortage of principals to excessive stress, the new demands of leadership, the tendency to blame principals, and the difficulty of achieving a balanced life in this role (Battle; Boyatzis & McKee, 2005; Houston, 1998). Excessive blame without time and energy to sustain a balanced life easily breeds anxiety (Boyatzis & McKee; Coleman & Perkins, 2004; Normore, 2007)and principals are increasingly resigning because of this stress, inadequate training (Battle; Donaldson, 2008; Klempen & Richetti, 2001; Moller & Pankake, 2006), insufficient compensation, professional isolation, bureaucratic micromanagement, uncertainty related to role expectations, inadequate support (Arnold, 2005; Learning Forward, 2011, 2012), and the responsibility to inculcate youth with a knowledge base on which leaders cannot agree (Langer & Boris-Schacter, 2003; Wagner et al., 2006). To attend to these complex facets of principals work (Battle; Drago-Severson, 2009; Wagner, 2007; Wagner et al.) and better support principals, researchers and practitioners suggest that principals both receive and seek support. In fact, many have emphasized the importance of principal renewal and argued that it will prevent burnout and stagnation, enhance professional knowledge, and replenish energy (Battle; Donaldson, 2008; Oplatka, 2003).  

These issues highlight the need to better support principals and their efforts toward self-renewal. Research shows that supporting new and experienced principals by creating opportunities for reflection on practice is crucial to everyone in a school (Drago-Severson, 2004b, 2009, in press; Boyatzis & McKee, 2005; Donaldson, 2008; Kegan & Lahey, 2009; Leithwood & Jantzi, 1998; Normore, 2007). This is especially important and urgent in light of the increasing demands of leadership in the 21st century. Practitioners, researchers, policy makers, and principals themselves are searching for more effective ways to support school leaders (Ackerman & Maslin-Ostrowski, 2002; Battle, 2010; Byrne-Jiménez & Orr, 2007; Donaldson, 2008; Kegan & Lahey, 2009; Tucker & Codding, 2002;Wagner, 2007).

More recently, given the urgent call to support principals renewal, growth, and sustainability, different programs have emerged to address this critical need. For example, some states offer training programs to support new principals. Other programs focus on teaching cognitive skills and decision-making as ways to support principals in their work (Klempen & Richetti, 2001; Sykes, 2002). Still other programs focus on coaching as a way to support principals (e.g., Learning Forward, 2012). Helping principals manage the complexity of their multiple roles as instructional, managerial, and visionary leaders is vital to supporting principals renewal and development (Donaldson, 2008). Yet, how do we better support principals in meeting challenges and caring for themselves while caring for the learning and development of others?

Again, this research expands prior work by showing that the principals in the study yearn not just for more private reflection time, but also for ongoing opportunities to engage in reflective practice groups with other principals. This article describes how they believed this form of renewal would help them to manage the complexities of work, sustain themselves, and lead more effectively. Although principals benefit from skill development and training, this research points to the need on the part of districts to invest more time and resources for reflective practice with fellow principals.


Engaging in reflective practice has been identified as a tool for individual and organizational learning. Practitioners and theorists have identified reflective practice as a mechanism that supports both personal and professional learning and growth in teachers and administrators (Brookfield, 1995; Donaldson, 2008; Kegan & Lahey, 2009). Yet, how does reflective practice work in a group setting? Prior research in adult education suggests that adults learn from stepping back from the immediacy of their own experiences to gain new insight into their practice (Argyris & Schön, 1974, 1978; Arnold, 2005; Wagner et al., 2006). In other words, when adults engage in reflective practice, they have the chance to become aware of their own and others thinking and assumptions. This awareness can, in turn, clarify thinking and help with developing a better understanding of behaviors, leading to growth. The ultimate goal of reflective practice is, according to Jennifer York-Barr and her colleagues, increased student learning (York-Barr, Sommers, Ghere, & Montie, 2006).  Importantly, shared reflective practice over time can support principal learning and renewal as well (Byrne-Jiménez & Orr, 2007; Donaldson, 2008). Next, I discuss some of the fundamental principles of reflective practice and adult learning theory.

As Donald Schön (1983) highlighted, When a practitioner becomes a researcher into his own practice, he engages in a continuing process of self-education (p. 299). Engaging in reflective practice can help all adults to develop deeper understanding of the influence of assumptions on thoughts and actions. Building on the work of Argyris and Schön (1974, 1978) and Schön (1987), Osterman and Kottkamp (2004) defined reflective practice as a method for developing a greater self-awareness about the nature and influence of leadership. They contended that dialogue and collaboration are essential to reflective practice and learning. As they stated, As learners ask questions, challenge ideas, and process learning verbally, they clarify their thinking and deepen understanding (p. 20). Collaborating with others creates an opportunity to share thinking and insights and to develop an understanding of ones assumptionsall of which facilitate learning (Kegan & Lahey, 2009; Osterman & Kottkamp). Reflective practice, from these authors perspectives, is about individuals working with others to critically examine their own practice to resolve important problems (Osterman & Kottkamp, p. 21). Given the adaptive challenges that leaders face today, this type of professional development strategy could help sustain leaders, decrease isolation, improve leadership, and promote renewal. As Peterson (2002) noted when considering the professional development of principals, Programs should support reflective practice and provide opportunities to work, discuss, and solve problems with peers (p. 214). Furthermore, this type of reflection on practice needs to engage the participants in thinking, reflection, analysis and practice with a strong component of coaching and feedback (Peterson, p. 231). Scholars have noted that when principals engage in reflective practice, it positively influences school climate and teacher growth (Donaldson, 2008; Youngs & King, 2002).

More specifically, reflective practice is based on principles of adult learning. Next, I briefly highlight a few key principles of adult learning theories that shed light on how to best support principal renewal and learning through reflective practice. Major principles follow:


Adults bring different life and educational experiences, needs, personalities, and learning preferences to their learning that shape their perspectives on learning and professional development experiences (Cranton 1996; Kolb, 1984; Merriam & Caffarella, 1999; Mezirow, 1991, 2000).


Adults want to understand why they need to learn something; learning must be of value, whether it occurs informally or formally (i.e., related to their lives and work; Brookfield, 1987, 1995; Knowles, 1984; Marsick, 1998; K. Taylor, Marienau, & Fiddler, 2000).


When creating opportunities to support adult learning, social context and culture must be considered (Brookfield, 1995; Lawler, 2003; E. W. Taylor, 1994).


Adults learn experientially and approach learning as problem-solving (Knowles, 1984; Mezirow, 1991, 2000; Osterman & Kottkamp, 2004).

Jack Mezirow (1975) broke new ground when he developed and introduced his transformative learning theory. In so doing, he established fundamental ideas about how transformative learning could take place in adulthood. Transformative learning, according to Mezirow (2000), is the process of transforming our taken-for-granted habits of mind and frames of reference, which do not adequately help us to make sense of a new experience, by making them more open, reflective, and integrated.  His theory, which has been expanded over the years (Mezirow, 2000), pivots on the importance of critically reflecting on our assumptions (i.e., the big truths that guide our behaviors and thinkingwhich we take for granted and rarely question unless they are purposefully brought to our attention), actions, and behaviors, and validating meaning-making by intentionally examining and evaluating reasoning.

One central feature of Mezirows theory that illuminates why reflective practice can support principal learning is his idea of frame of reference. This frame has cognitive and affective components that enable us to understand and interpret our experiences. From Mezirows (1991, 2000) perspective, frames of reference are transformed through the process of self-reflection in which we reconsider and question our beliefs and how we interpret experience. Like others (Brookfield, 1987, 1995; Cranton, 1994, 1996; Marsick, 1998), Mezirow (1991, 2000) emphasized the deep connection between self-examination and transformative learning. This can occur when principals gather in collegial reflective practice groups and can be an important form of self-renewal.

Critical reflection occurs when we invest time reflecting on the content of the problem, the process of problem solving, or the problems basis. Disorienting dilemmas, such as adaptive challenges, can be rich contexts or triggers for this type of reflection. This process enables us to consider alternative ways of thinking and to generate beliefs and opinions that will prove more true or justified to guide action (Mezirow, 2000, p. 8). This process requires time and intentionality as well as a willingness to examine how we know what we know and the values that produce and influence our perspectives (Mezirow, 1991, 2000). Adult learning theory can help us understand how principals experience reflective practice as a support to their learning.



Twenty-five principals who had served as school leaders for at least 5 years were intentionally selected for this research because they were leaders responsible for supporting teacher learning within their schools. This sample was diverse in terms of the participants  number of years as principal, gender, race, ethnicity, educational background, and type of school in which they served. As Table 1 indicates, principals in public, independent, and Catholic schools that differ by financial resource levels, type of school (i.e., elementary, middle, high school, K12), populations served, and geographic location (region of the country and whether the school was an urban, suburban, or rural school) were selected. All principals except for two asked me to use their real names when discussing learnings from this research. As Table 1 shows, I have assigned aliases for the two participants who elected not to use their real names.

Table 1. Characteristics of the Sample: Principals and Demographic Information1

School Type


Years of Experience

Students (n)

Teachers (n)


Student Diversity

Resource Level/ Endowment or School Budget (in $100,000s)2



Mr. Kim Marshall3





Mather School, Dorchester, MA: Urban



Mr. Joe Shea





Trotter School Boston, MA: Urban



Dr. Mary Nash





Mary Lyons Alternative School, Brighton, MA: Urban



Dr. Len Solo





Graham & Parks Alternative School, Cambridge, MA: Urban



Ms. Muriel Leonard





McCormick Middle School, Dorchester, MA: Urban



Ms. Kathleen Perry

912 +GED8




Lake Worth Community High School, Lake Worth, FL: Urban


Medium to High/$37

Dr. Jim


912 +GED




Watertown High School, Watertown, MA: Urban



Dr. Larry Myatt

912 +GED9




Fenway Pilot High School, Boston, MA: Urban


Low to Medium/$1.9



Mrs. Deborah ONeill





St. Peters School, Cambridge, MA: Urban



Sr. Barbara Rogers

512 (all girls)




Newton Country Day School of the Sacred Heart, Newton, MA: Suburban



Mr. John Clarke





Cardinal Newman High School, West Palm, FL: Urban



Sr. Judith Brady


(all girls)




St. Barnabas High School, Bronx, NY: Urban



Mr. Gary LeFave





Matignon High School, Cambridge, MA: Urban



Sr. Joan Magnetti





Convent of the Sacred Heart, Greenwich, CT: Suburban





Mr. John (Jack) Thompson





Palm Beach Day School, Palm Beach, FL: Suburban


Medium to High/$3

Dr. Sarah Levine







26 ft/6pt


Belmont Day School Belmont, MA

Suburban Polytechnic, Pasadena, CA: Urban





Dr. Dan White10





Seabury Hall, Maui, HI: Rural


Low to Medium


Ms. Barbara Chase





Philips Andover Academy, Andover, MA: Rural


Very High/$535

Dr. Sue David11


< 10

Approx. 300

< 75





Mr. Joe Marchese12






Germantown, PA: Suburban



Dr. Jim Scott





Punahou School, Honolulu, HI: Urban



Mr. Scott Nelson





Rye Country Day School

Rye, NY: Suburban



Ms. Mary Newman





Buckingham, Browne, & Nichols, Cambridge, MA: Urban



Mr. Jerry Zank





Canterbury School

Fort Myers, FL: Urban



Ms. Shirley Mae13





CA: Urban



1. A similar version of this chart appears in Drago-Severson (2009).

2. As mentioned, 20002001 financial resource levels were determined either by using school Web site information or publication materials (i.e., district financial reports), or, in two cases, the principals themselves initially identified their schools resource levels. These were confirmed and comparison with other schools of the same type in similar locations (e.g., Florida Catholic urban schools). This determination, for any school type, does not include the principals strategies to secure additional external grant funding (e.g., federal, state, development fundraising, or gifts). I have listed the 20002001 endowments of the independent and Catholic independent schools, In the case of the Boston public schools, I have also listed their approximated school budgets for the General Fund [which] refers to money that is allocated to the schools by the city budget (Boston Public School Fiscal Year Report, 2001, p. 203). I have listed the 20002001 operating budgets for parochial Catholic schools. Reported numbers have been rounded to the nearest half million. In the one place where no amount appears, the participant preferred not to share it for privacy and confidentiality reasons.

3. Principals whose names are italicized have left their positions as school principals or principals at these schools for a variety of reasons.

4. Parenthetical numbers indicate the number of teachers and support staff (assistants and specialists).

5. This school is designated as an alternative school for children with special needs.

6. Dr. Nash had a great deal of autonomy over her school budget because this school is an alternative school and was one of the first of its kind in Boston. She was also able to negotiate with the district to secure additional funding for a needed after-school program for her students, and this added to the available financial resources.

7. Graham & Parks school is an alternative school based on constructivist thinking and John Deweys philosophy of education. The classrooms are open, multigraded, and self-contained. Learning is considered a social activity that transpires through social interaction. Len Solo, this schools former principal, served as interim principal of a public high school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 20012002.

8. Lake Worth Community High School is a magnet school; it has ROTC programs, bilingual programs, and day and evening GED programs.

9. Fenway High School, founded in 1983, became an alternative pilot high school in 1995. This status gave the school freedom from the Boston public school (BPS) system; it receives some funding from the BPS but does not have to conform to all the guidelines for other Boston public schools.

10. Boarding schools appear in bold font; Seabury Hall is a boarding school.

11. This participant preferred to remain anonymous; therefore, I have assigned an alias.

12. Westtown is a Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania.

13. This participant preferred to remain anonymous; therefore, I have assigned an alias.

Of the 25 principals who participated in this research, 13 were recommended by professional colleagues at Harvards Graduate School of Education as being known for prioritizing time for, and using practices that create, opportunities for engaging teachers in different forms of reflection (e.g., engaging in writing, private and shared reflection, and dialogue) as a support to teacher learning. This sampling strategy was employed for the larger, encompassing study (Drago-Severson, 2004b), which had as its overarching research question an interest in learning how a group of principals supported adult learning within their schools. Thus, one group of principals (n = 13) was selected because they were known to prioritize contexts for teachers to engage in private and shared reflection on practice within their school. In other words, this first group of principals comprised leaders who were recognized by professional colleagues or myself as those who met all of the following criteria:


Created forums (i.e., meetings, book discussion clubs, vertical and horizontal teams) and prioritized time for teachers to discuss literature and reflect on practice through writing, dialogue, and shared reflection on practice.


Developed structures for holding teachers accountable for having high expectations for children and/or youth while principals provided feedback (verbal and often written) regularly and encouraged dialogue (with principal and colleagues).


Secured financial and human resources for professional learning opportunities (e.g., making certain that substitutes were available so that teachers had time to collaborate on projects, grant writing, presenting innovative work to colleagues and/or new initiatives, and encouraging teachers to attend and deliver workshops at local, regional, or national professional conferences).


Embraced opportunities to engage teachers in shared leadership (e.g., through practices such as forming vertical, cross-disciplinary, or cross-functional teams and by inviting teachers to assume a variety of leadership roles in their grades, departments, and schools).

Twelve additional principals who met some but not all of these criteria and were not known explicitly for prioritizing teacher learning in their explicit missions were selected to provide comparisons and increase diversity. As noted, a balanced sample was the main goal, and selection of this second group was guided by the following criteria: personal or colleague recommendation, schools financial resource level (i.e., high, medium, or low), school type and level, population served, and geographic location. Moreover, it is important to recognize that despite their inclusion in this second group, these principals (n = 12) may have been exemplary in other ways. Additionally, although scholars have noted that principals own efforts to renew themselves can positively influence the practices they employ to support teacher learning, principals were not selected with regard to whether they employed practices for self-renewal. An additional subquestion for the larger research study focused on learning how all 25 of the principals renewed themselves in their challenging and consuming work, and what supports they felt would help them do this work even betterand it is on this aspect of the study that this article focuses. Readers might also be interested to know that although there were some distinctions within and across the two groups in terms of how the principals in each group supported teacher learning and the resources they had for doing so (financial, human, and so on), meaningful differences did not emerge in terms of the different kinds of practices that principals employed for self-renewal or in their expressed desire for engaging in reflective practice groups with principal colleagues. Therefore, this article does not distinguish between how principals in either of the two groups described their practices for self-renewal or strategies they employed for doing so. In other words, there were very few differences in the practices they employed to renew themselves, and these were not attributable to being in one group or the other.  It is important to note that the selection criteria that were employed for choosing participants in this study were not based on their renewal strategies, but rather on all the overarching research questions concerning how they supported teacher learning within their school context.

Although differences existed across the sample in terms of how, and the degree to which, these participants engaged in self-renewal practices, this article illuminates the principals successful practices and their common needs for renewal given the complexities and daunting challenges of leading in todays contemporary society. It is important to understand that the participants in this article who are not mentioned were not necessarily successful or unsuccessful in their renewal strategies. Space limits the stories shared.  

School financial resource levels for 20002001 were assessed by analyzing school financial reports (e.g., Boston Plan for Excellence, 1999; annual reports; district financial reports), Web sites, internal and external publications, and various additional reports. Assessments of each schools financial resource level (as indicated in Table 1) did not account for external grant funding or funding from other sources (e.g., federal, state, fundraising or gifts), though these were also examined. Public schools approximate budgets for the 20002001 year (e.g., General Fund [which] refers to money that is allocated to the schools by the city budget, Boston Public School Fiscal Year Report, 2001, p. 203) were assessed. For the nonpublic schools (e.g., independent and Catholic schools), 20002001 endowments were also considered. For Catholic schools, 20002001 operating budgets are reported. As shown in Table 1, no amount appears for two schools because participants wanted to protect the institutions privacy.

To understand human resource levels (i.e., numbers of full- and part-time faculty, administrators, and staff), published and internal school documents were examined and then confirmed with participants in interviews. In two cases, it was difficult to secure information related to financial resources, initially and for a variety of reasons. For instance, at one of the schools, information on the schools annual budget was unavailable both before and during the first data collection visit. Therefore, information about the school leaders understanding of his schools budget and financial resource level, relative to other schools of the same type in a similar geographic location (e.g., urban Catholic schools in the same region of the state), was noted during the first interview. During follow-up interviews with this principal, he was able to provide documents related to his schools financial resource level, and this information was confirmed in published annual reports and information available on the schools updated Web sites. Triangulation of this nature occurred in several ways. Most principals engaged in follow-up interviews, additional e-mail communications, and phone calls, which presented opportunities for enhancing the researchers understanding of the participants perspectives, and sharing the researchers interpretations with participants as a form of member checking (Maxwell, 2005) and incorporating alternative interpretations.


Data collection consisted of in-depth qualitative interviews with the sample of principals, field notes from school visits, and document analysis. Procedures are outlined next.


A total of 75 initial hours of semistructured, qualitative interviews and 14 hours of follow-up interviews (aimed at checking interpretation of data and following up on initial interview questions) were conducted. All interviews were tape-recorded and transcribed verbatim. In every case except one, before conducting an interview, a tour of the school with the principal was conducted, and field notes were recorded. Although some questions in the interview were site and/or participant specific (e.g., questions specific to a participants school context), to collect comparable data, participants were asked similar questions about a fixed set of topics, including how they support teacher learning, what kinds of practices they employ, the challenges they face in their leadership practice, and the ways in which they support their own development (e.g., the kinds of self-renewal practices they employ and the impact of these practices on their ability to sustain themselves). The full interview protocol is included in Appendix A. After conducting interviews with the first few participants (fall 2009), it became apparent that asking them about how prior life experiences had shaped their thinking about supporting adult learning was essential, because each participant discussed this in his or her interview. Therefore, a question focusing on this aspect of experience was added to the interview protocol in spring 2000.

All participants were sent a hard copy of their interview transcript and were invited to review it, which all but three did. Six participants made minor syntax changes to their transcripts (e.g., Please delete the names of people I spoke about in the transcript). A few elaborated on responses offered during interviews in their transcripts by providing additional examples of situations experienced and/or by saying more about their practices or lack of practices for self-renewal. The principals review of their transcripts, memos, and phone communications about the study and their reflections on their own experiences, and follow-up interviews provided validity checks and triangulation of data.


Approximately 60 documents, including mission statements, self-study reports, Web sites, school budgets, principals memos about the research after interviews (e.g., elaborating on a prior response to an interview question), principals memos to various constituencies (e.g., parents, board members, faculty, entire school community), and demographic information were analyzed. These documents assisted in learning about important contextual features of each school (e.g., student population and mission). The memos and e-mails that principals wrote about the interviews and the overarching focus of the study provided validity checks. Considering these findings in relation to different bodies of literature (e.g., professional development, school leadership, reflective practice, need for principal renewal, and adult learning theories) provided comparisons for evaluating reliability and triangulation of data.


A grounded theory approach (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss & Corbin, 1998) to analysis was employed, which accounts for multiple levels of data and diverse perspectives on its interpretation by attending to data at individual and school type levels, as well as the sample as a whole. The literatures and theoretical frameworks discussed herein also guided analysis.

Immediately after each interview, field notes were recorded about surprises, examples that stood out, central interview themes, observations of the school, and how, if at all, the literature and theory cited herein seemed to inform the principals experiences. These were noted for each question in the interview guide and transcribed verbatim (the researcher tape-recorded these notes). In addition, comparisons were recorded between literature and theory, and cross-case comparisons were noted related to principals experiences. Following the interview transcription, in order to address research questions, initial and follow-up interviews, documents, and field notes were analyzed by employing a code list of more than 50 codes (emic and theoretical codes were employed; see Appendix B for the code list). Two researchers (myself and one other person) coded all interview transcripts. We met for 34 hours each week during this analytic phase to discuss, compare, and cross-check codes (Miles & Huberman, 1994) of all raw data from transcripts and our interpretations from 2 participants transcripts in one particular school type in the sample.  In other words, we analyzed two transcripts each week. We started with 2 public school principals with similar financial resource levels (i.e., high) and then moved to analyze transcripts from principals with medium and low financial resource levels. When we finished analyzing principals transcripts from public school, we examined analytic notes to see if differences emerged from those in Group 1 and Group 2 (those who were identified as exemplary with respect to creating contexts for teacher reflection and those who were not). We then followed the same analytic processes for principals in independent and Catholic schools.  

This phase of analysis began with a preliminary code list, and researchers added to that code list as analysis progressed. When we disagreed on applying a particular code, we reexamined data and talked through our interpretations until we either settled on a code and agreed as to how we would apply it; developed a new code if needed; or came to an agreement as to how we would employ differentiated codes. For example, during this analytic phase, we discovered that what we were coding as mentoring initially could also be coded as an example of teaming, providing leadership roles, and collegial inquiry, depending on the context and the sense-making of the participant. Therefore, we decided that we would indicate this on transcripts and in analysis by stating this on the coded transcript.  Also, the code resources needed to be subdivided into financial resources, human, time, and know how. Participants renewal practices and desire to engage in reflective practice with colleagues were coded and analyzed for themes.

After meeting to discuss codes, a summary analytic memo was composed in response to five overarching analytic questions that aligned with initial overarching research questions guiding this study (see Appendix C for an example of a summary five-question analytic memo). As Appendix C shows, these questions focused on each principals understanding of rewards and challenges of supporting teacher learning; conceptions of the challenges they face in their leadership; and how they supported their own self-renewal (practices and strategies) and cared for their own development. This was a helpful tool in initial data reduction and also presented a quick sketch of the full interview in relation to central research questions. During all analytic phases, analysis benefited from my own and at least one other researchers interpretations. This was done to strengthen analysis and to incorporate alternative interpretations.

Next, coded interviews were grouped by school type and also by financial resource level to examine patterns across categories. Narrative summaries, which included data from transcripts in relation to codes and interpretations of data, as well and emerging connections across cases, were then crafted for each participant (Maxwell & Miller, 1998). These comprehensive narrative summary memos allowed for examination of each participants experience and eventually allowed for cross-case comparisons so that patterns across categories (e.g., principals renewal strategies and wishes for support) could be examined across participant cases. These memos helped to condense data from interviews and with the examination of themes. For example, we were able to look closely at participants renewal practices, how they felt their strategies for renewal were working, and whether they voiced a desire for reflecting on their practice with colleagues.

As noted, descriptive and interpretative validity threats were attended to in several ways. All transcripts were transcribed verbatim. Participants received copies of their transcript and were asked to check for accuracy of transcription. Multiple data sources (e.g., interviews, documents, principals memos) provided varied perspectives. Each analytic technique (coding, analytic memo writing, and so on) during all phases of analysis was conducted by at least two researchers so that codes could be cross-checked and alternative interpretations could be considered. Principals feedback and elaborations on first interviews were included in analysis (i.e., member checks were conducted; Maxwell, 2005). Throughout each analytic phase, data were examined for confirming and disconfirming instances of themes (Miles & Huberman, 1994). This research benefited from ongoing analysis and synthesis of data.


This article focuses on two central themes shared by participants through illustrative examples: (1) practices that these principals employed for self-renewal given the complex challenges of their leadership work in the 21st century, and (2) their expressed desire for engaging in ongoing reflective practice with principal colleagues to support their own development, sustainability, and renewal. In some instances, I have not attributed names to presented quotes given the sensitive nature of information shared in these places. As noted earlier, all but 2 principals gave their permission to use their real names when discussing learnings from this research. I have assigned aliases for the 2 principals who preferred to remain anonymous.

These themes converge in an overarching lesson from the study on the importance of reflective practice groups for principals to support their own development and renewal in light of the implicit and explicit demands of leadership in the 21st century. Ongoing collegial communities wherein principals could share their challenges and reflect on practice with colleagues, they said, would enable them to better support their own development while supporting the development of other adults in the schooland also support their efforts to become more effective leaders.


I think the challenges [in the principalship] are endless and many and exhausting and stimulating. (Sr. Barbara Rogers)

One of the things that we [school leaders] all struggle with in our schools . . . well, in our lives, is the time pressures and the balance. And the pressures . . . parent expectations, colleague expectations, and then youve got faxes and e-mail and voice mail and legal issues; it goes on and on. Theres not much time for reflection. And the kids say that and we say that to each other. (Joan Magnetti)

Here, Sister Barbara and Joan Magnetti capture what all principals in this study expressednamely, that principals across school type and financial resource levels were fulfilled by their jobs, but the scope seemed vast and overwhelming. When asked about self-renewal in their work, nearly all of them (19/25) told me quietly that they needed to get better at it, and they often asked for a prompt as to what other principals said, admitting that they did not devote enough time to self-care. Whether they served in high, low, or medium financial resource schools and whether they served in public, independent, or Catholic schools, they emphasized that they needed to develop more effective and frequent strategies for self-renewal. Moreover, all but one (24/25), who was a member of a reflective practice group composed of principals, spontaneously discussed a craving to regularly reflect on their practice and leadership with fellow principals. And, only 3 were participating in reflective practice communities. Although their work was satisfying, it was also exhausting and lonely. They emphasized the need for engaging in regular dialogue with colleagues in groups and said that this kind of shared reflection would be a support to their well-being, sustainability, and leadership.  

As one principal explained,

I think [the need for support] was something that I knew intellectually because I worked closely with many principals, but what took me a while to actualize is how lonely a job the principalship is. I find it really hard. I mean, sometimes its just work, work, work, work, work and then collapse.

When asked about how they care for themselves, more than half of the men and women (14/25) stated that it was difficult for them to separate their personal and professional lives because they had so little time, were tired, or saw these aspects of their lives as intertwined. In addition, nearly every principal (23/25)regardless of school context, gender, and school financial resource levelcommented on the amount of time needed to fulfill their responsibilities and the consuming and inflexible nature of the job. Two thirds of these principals across all school contexts and financial resource levels emphasized that working really intensely (e.g., 12 hours a day, 6 days a week) for many years can, without replenishment, lead to burnout. Mr. Jerry Zank, former principal of a large urban school in Fort Myers, Florida, identified with what several shared. He renewed himself only by reading, my own personal contacts, and doing a workshop or two. Thats about it. Though I hate to say it. He elaborated by sharing that he would love to find something more programmatic, cause I feel its always in isolation. Despite their obstacles, all but 2 strongly emphasized that renewal was something they were working on.

These findings support the need to help principals carve out time for renewal. Blaydes (2002), Donaldson (2008), and others have found this to be true in their research as well (Battle, 2010). This research extends prior work in that these principals, regardless of gender, school type, and school financial resources, emphasized the need for renewal.

The admittance on the part of the principals that renewal is something that they are working to get better at highlights their need for increased support. The greatest barriers they named in terms of implementing more strategies for renewal were the demands of their work and time. Next, I discuss the effective strategies this group of principals employed to care for their own renewal, avoid burnout, and bolster themselves.  


Both male and female principals across all school types named a range of renewal strategies. All of them explained that they had at least one way to restore themselves, though they wished for more. They also expressed the desire for more time to implement renewal strategies. Although more than half appreciated being able to just relax being by myself with time to totally reflect and come back to myself, the majority (20/25) expressed a shared need: to achieve more balance. One principal shared the following, which echoed what many expressed.

So unfortunately, Im at this point in my life when I havent been able to separate my professional life from my personal life. Im working at getting back to that, because believe it or not, you know, 4 years ago, this body was 40 pounds lighter. I used to exercise and have a kind of life outside of work.

The following list details their renewal strategies (in order of most common and most emphasized in interviews to least). Interestingly, and importantly, most of the supports were strategies they employed to support themselves and not supports provided by others.


Spending time with family and friends


Reading independently and/or participating in book groups


Dialoguing with school board members, trustees, and/or school site council members


Carving out time for reflection and retreats


Attending conferences, delivering talks, and speaking with other principals at conferences


Learning through formal programs and fellowships


Using some portion of the summer to get away from school


Talking with mentors and mentoring aspiring or current principals


Connecting with universities and principal centers


Participating as a board member in professional organizations


Talking with and observing students






Appreciating art and music




Participating in reflective practice groups with principals


Watching television

Next, I present examples of how the principals described their renewal practices.1

Family and friends: Balancing priorities in a world of competing commitments. One way in which I replenish myself is to make sure that Im much more in tune to the signals that my [spouse and children] are giving to me about spending time with them, and doing that guilt-free. Thats a very tough thing to do (Joe Marchese, Westtown School).

One theme was the need for balancing work and family, given the long hours and nature of their careers. Approximately one half of these principals (13/25), across school type and school financial resource level, explicitly discussed how the level of stress associated with the complex challenges of their work precipitates a need for renewal. Most principals explicitly mentioned that they depended on a tolerant and supportive familyespecially partners (13/25)and emphasized the importance of getting away from work to be with family. This is an important recognition on behalf of these principals, which corresponds with the importance of finding a balance between family and work that is recommended by Blaydes (2002) as an important renewal practice. This research extends Blaydess work by illuminating how a group of principals who serve in different school contexts with different levels of financial resources experience the tension in achieving a balanced life.

Nearly all (23/25) principals named supports with a personal (i.e., family and friends) and a professional (i.e., work) component. For example, they explained that having a rich personal life rejuvenated their professional lives. By a rich personal life, they meant that it was important to them to work very hard at maintaining intimate connections with family and friends. Investing time with family, away from the stress of work, allowed family to see them without the stress level that theyre accustomed to seeing and provided affirmation of [the] importance of taking the time to balance, as Mr. Joe Marchese of Westtown School explained. Achieving this balance was difficult and also something they were working toward. This was true for female principals in this study who had children, the male principals who had children, and the female and male principals who did not have children.

Like many others (18/25), Jerry Zank, former leader of the Canterbury School in Fort Myers, Florida, remarked that associations with colleagues support his renewal through frequent phone calls, and he felt that sharing experiences openly with these trusted friends generated new energy for him and reduced his isolation. Similarly, Mary Newman, former principal of Buckingham, Browne & Nichols School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, nourished herself by keeping a rich personal life that fed her professional life and kept her most alive: I try very hard and always have to keep up a very rich personal life. Thats critical to me. And if I dont, I dont have as much to bring to my work. Both the work and the home are really of primary importance to me.

Reading independently and in book clubs

Across school type and financial resource level, nearly all the principals (23/25) explicitly mentioned that they found reading to be a source of self-renewal. Reading independently provided a respite and kept them up to date with new ideas. As Jack Thompson, former head of Palm Beach Day School in Florida, shared, I try to read every piece of school literature that comes into the school, because theres an idea or two there that might be applicable here. Book club membership, in particular, was an important source of self-renewal for close to a third of the sample, and interestingly, the book clubs tended to be with colleagues of the same gender.

Principals valued book clubs not only for the intellectual benefits but also because the social interactions were renewing. For instance, Dr. Dan White, leader of Seabury Hall in Maui, Hawaii, explained how reading Tuesdays With Morrie with colleagues was an extraordinary event because he appreciated

talking about our relationships with our fathers. . . . It was just unlike any other experience of my life. And for three of us, including me, our fathers had just died within the last year, and Jimmys dad wasnt dead, but he had been kind of alienated from him, and so, oh, it was just this powerful thing. Well, thats the personal growth.

Carving out time for reflection and retreats

Nearly every participant (22/25) explained that carving out precious time for private reflection was an important way to restore oneself, and most desired more time for private and collaborative reflection. Some made reflection a daily practice, whereas others, such as all but one of the Catholic school principals, took regular retreats (in addition to daily prayer). Daily reflection and attending retreats were the most common form of self-renewal for the Catholic school principals in this sample. For example, John Clarke of Cardinal Newman High School in West Palm Beach, Florida, made a habit of visiting the school chapel for daily deliberation, a meditation from Radical Grace. His spiritual angle enabled him to center [him]self which, in turn, fortified him for his work as a principal. Like other Catholic school principals in the study, he valued retreats (two per year for him) as a time for reflection and personal renewal.

Sr. Judith Brady, former principal of St. Barnabas High School in the Bronx, New York, also took several retreats during the academic year and the summer. She referred to retreats as a way to keep [her] sanity because they enabled her to get completely away and clear [her] mind of the responsibilities and things here [at school]. The retreats also created a space for her to relate to God. Although she could not always devote time to prayer at school, she knew that somehow God can operate through me. Im certainly looking for Gods help.

Mary Newman also emphasized that reflection was important to have perspective and be able to look at an institution from some distance and not be buried in the sort of everydayness of it. She further explained, Thats really what vision is about, when youre really looking at where you want to be 3 years from now, where you want to be 5 years from now and thinking strategically about how to get there.  

Securing time away from school for oneself: Recharging

Well for the first 7 years here [at school], 8 years, I guess, I didnt take more than 2 or 3 days vacation. And then one year I thought, You know, this is crazy. Its really insane. So I really try to set aside much of July [as possible]. . . . So in July I try to read and sit at the beach if I can. . . . Those things are restorative. (Sr. Barbara Rogers)

Across school type and school financial resource level, all these principals discussed the importance of needing time away from school during the summer or school holidays (or even for a long weekend) to recharge and reinvigorate themselves. What follows describes how most of these principals found that stepping outside of work supported their renewal because it gave them time to reflect and recharge. As Larry Myatt, former principal of Fenway High School, explained, time is needed to get your batteries back up and to remember who you really are and what your real priorities are. Jim Cavanaugh of Watertown High School in Massachusetts also secured periods of time away from school, which he felt was essential: I always keep the February vacation for my wife and I. We always go away. And thats refreshing for me. I love to do it. Similarly, Sue David explained that having uninterrupted weeks and doing something mentally intense, such as learning a new sport or craft, was her way of relaxing. She enjoyed the freer schedule of an extended period away and remarked that these are the best types of spaces for restoration because she can do exactly what pleases [her] at any given moment. And that has been the best vacation [she] could possibly give [her]self.

Attending conferences: Delivering talks and talking with other principals

Almost all the principals (22/25) explained that membership in professional organizations and attendance at conferencesespecially those where they talked through challenges with colleaguessupported their development. In general, principals from schools with greater financial resources were able to attend more conferences and did so more often. In addition, close to half of these principals (12/25)across school typefound that delivering presentations on topics that mattered deeply to them was rejuvenating. Jack Thompson of Palm Beach Day School, for instance, described how his own professional development needs and preferences have changed over the years. Initially, he attended conferences to learn new ideas, but after 40 years in education, he preferred to talk with other heads of school or teachers and administrators in his own school. Talking with fellow principals was both a social and an intellectual activity, Jack explained, and one that created a safe context for leaders to share concerns and offer advice. In his words,

The heads conference in the fall always has a 2-hour session in the morning where [heads of school] can stand up and ask any question they want about anybody. You can stand up and say, Ive got a board chairman whos just really giving me a hard time. . . . Have you guys had any experience with this? And no one will quote anybody.

Jack, like many others in this study across school type, valued the informal opportunities that conferences present and the understanding that these conversations would be kept private.

Gary LeFave, principal of Matignon High School, attended conferences, took courses, and served as a member of various committees. In addition, he emphasized having a faculty capable of functioning independently in his absence. He commented that in his absence, the school is still a productive place because [teachers] are not looking to [him] for answers all the time. Theyre providing their own answers and theyre doing their own thinking.

In addition to professional conferences, many of these principals (16/25) participated in local associations that, they explained, served a source of renewal. For example, Sr. Barbara Rogers served as a board member in school and valued her participation in nonschool association work. She maintained her connection to business as the regional director of Bank Boston. Of her experience working with business people, Sr. Rogers said, I love that kind of exposure to a different world. I find that . . . again, restorative and all of those things, but mostly great fun.

Learning and renewal through formal programs and fellowships

Ive always been interested in my own learning, said Dr. Jim Scott, leader of the Punahou School in Oahu, Hawaii. Like Jim, the majority of the principals in this study (18/25) sought out formal learning experiences. Some enrolled in graduate-level courses or doctoral programs, whereas others enjoyed fellowship work. Although this was true for principals across school type and financial resource level, principals in the lower resourced schools paid for these kinds of learning opportunities themselves.

For instance, at the time of the study, Muriel Leonard was a relatively new principal at her public middle school (after serving as a principal for 18 years elsewhere), and she was also in a doctoral program. Similarly, John Clarke of Cardinal Newman High School collaborated with other principals who were also concurrently earning degrees in educational leadership. As hard as it was to attend night school while working during the day, he felt it was definitely worth it. He explained, As difficult as it was, it was so helpful to be with other educators, to talk, to learn together, to read together, to study together, to sometimes commiserate together. I found . . . it very helpful to be studying and working at the same time. As John indicates, it was challenging for him to carve out the time to attend night school after leading all day at his school. He also stressed that it was worth it to him. Having regular, ongoing opportunities to talk with fellow leaders about the challenges of leadership work and to learn from and with each other was an important support to his learning and renewal.

Talking with students and observing them

Like many other principals (21/25) who served in different school types and with different financial resource levels, Jim Cavanaugh emphasized how his students refresh him. Jim focused on how he felt refreshed by attending their performances and helping them with math. Other principals voiced how attending sports events and plays and visiting classrooms was a source of renewal. Jim explained,

I love being where the kids are. . . . Its really refreshing to me to be at a play or to watch them do what they do, I [saw] the drama group compete in the semifinals. And I just loved it. It was . . . just magnificent. Kids always make you proud cause you give them support and you give them room to do it. And they always take off and they do a much better job than you could ever imagine.

As Blaydes (2002) emphasized, one way to maintain resiliency in the principalship is to surround oneself with positive people and experiences that remind a person of the joys of principalship. Similarly, Coleman and Perkins (2004) highlighted the importance of seeking out the good in ones work as an effective renewal strategy. This research extends prior work by illuminating how many of the principals in the study experienced being in the presence of students as a source of renewal.

Writing to renew oneself

In total, 11 principals specifically mentioned writing as an important source of self-renewal. Some wrote in private journals, whereas others preferred writing for a public audience. Dan White, for example, described writing a book as one of the ways that he continued feeding himself. Others explained that publishing rejuvenated and inspired them, and several found comfort in other forms of writing (e.g., writing to friends, colleagues, and staff). Kathleen Perry of Lake Worth Community High School discussed how writing with other administrators and delivering presentations about her schools programs was a valuable way to share ideas.

I think you must put it down [in writing] to see where you are, how you got where you are and then pull together your ideas for a time frame to be able to say in an hour what works, what problems youve encountered, what would be the best advice you give or what is one thing you wouldnt do over again.

Kathleen also wrote privately so that she could examine what we do on a day-to-day basis and look at what our practices are. Writing was a way to grow, she explained, because it requires a real examination of oneself and what is important.

Mentoring: Sharing lessons with current and aspiring principals.

Im trying to . . . pass along to a new generation of principals some of the lessons that Ive learned, and give them a roadmap for how, as I put it, how they can get to the heart of the matter sooner than I did. You know, how they can skip over some of the stupid stuff that I did and how they can kind of get right down . . . into the process of improving learning. (Kim Marshall)

Kim, like 15 other principals across different school contexts, wanted to share his wisdom.  Barbara Chase, leader of Andover Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, also loved mentoring teachers and administrators. She explained that mentoring is like teaching . . . its learning more about yourself by working with other people. Similar to three fifths of these principals, Barbara had been a mentor to aspiring principals and newer teachers at her school and administered summer workshops for both groups.

Taking sabbaticals

Barbara Chase, like several of the principals in independent (5/11) schools and two in the higher resourced Catholic schools, wanted to take a sabbatical after 20 years without one. In her 6 months away, she wanted to spend time with children in a developing world or low-income area. Focusing on these children and learning from them, Barbara explained, would be a really helpful and great way for me to learn about something thats really important.

Although difficult for Barbara and most of the other principals, some did take sabbaticals. Having this kind of time for reflection and searching for innovationsas in Joes case (discussed next)was renewing and energizing.

Joe Marchese of the Westtown School took a sabbatical to renew himself, reflect on his work, and set new goals for himself and the school. During his sabbatical, Joe engaged in a lot of reflective writing, guided by Roland Barths (1990) recommendation that educators journal their educational visions. Inspired by Barth, Joe traveled to Vermont to write [his] own vision and figure out what I stood for. The process rejuvenated Joe so much that on returning to school, he learned more about reflective writing and started a volunteer group to engage in that process.

Participating in reflective practice groups with fellow principals.

Its important to find people that you can talk with. . . . Its good to be able to talk and realize the commonalities that we face. And how to deal with difficulties within the faculty. . . you [need to] have colleagues that you can talk to. So belonging to [principal reflective practice groups]. . . [is] important [because we] have common experiences, and common set of issues and [that] can help. (Jim Cavanaugh)

Jim was one of three principals who participated in reflective practice groups with other principals. All three of these principals served in public schools. Like them, Jim found dialogue with his principal colleagues to be a valuable source of renewal and support. These groups met regularly for several hours each time throughout the academic year. In two of the three groups, the principals used protocols to guide and structure their conversations.  In all three groups, principals reported that they shared and validated colleagues experiences and discussed possibilities for managing complex situations (i.e., adaptive challenges).

Joe Shea participated in such a reflective practice group in which participants shared lessons they had learned, asked questions of one another, and engaged in collaborative problem-solving. Although attending his group meant leaving the school, he made it clear to teachers that when he left the building, he was doing work and not playing golf. Joe believed that the learning he and his colleagues experienced in these groups was a fabulous source of self-renewal.

Feeling similar to Jim and Joe, Larry Myatt of Fenway High School spoke about how, after having experienced the benefits of engaging in reflective practice groups with principal colleagues, he invited adults within his school to engage with him in reflective practice groups.

[Whats important is] just really looking at [and] being willing to be reflective about [practice]. . . . [Its] about challenging what we do here, and challenging the assumptions that we based our [thinking] on. So our professional development became around asking each other really good questions. And elevating our understanding, not by saying, Well, youre right and Im wrong, but each of us agreeing to elevate our understanding through [dialogue and reflecting on] texts. So it became a really nice way to do business.

As discussed earlier, professional development opportunities that allow time for shared reflection and dialogue about practice can support principal renewal. This kind of reflection can positively influence schools as principals begin to act differently (Byrne-Jiménez & Orr, 2007; Donaldson, 2008; Hoffman & Johnston, 2005). This research highlights the urgent call from a group of principals for ongoing, shared dialogue with colleagues. In these groups, principals can renew themselves, learn from each other, and discuss ways to improve their practice, examine their assumptions, and reflect on the challenges of leadership in the 21st century. These contexts can influence how principals manage leadership challenges, solve problems, decrease isolation, and renew themselves.

Seeking reflective practice groups

One of the important themes from the study was that principals who were not participating in reflective practice groups longed for them. Principals voiced this desire across school type and financial resource level (22/25). Kim Marshall expressed his sentiments in this way: I would love to be in a principals group because I am fairly isolated as a principal. Jerry Zank also hungered for a reflective practice group because his renewal occurred largely in isolation. Given the time restraints and demands of work, he had difficulty building a group. When I inquired about his renewal strategies, he shared, I dont think that Im very effective at [it]. . . . Ive got to do something about it. He explained, Theres a hunger that I have for these collegial contacts that are not just chitchat or over a scotch. But something thats a little bit more in depth. And I dont have that. I dont know very many people that do. Jerry emphasized his hungerhis deep needfor having ongoing opportunities to share experiences with colleagues, his desire to better manage the complexities of leadership, and his need to decrease feelings of isolation. This, he explained, would help him to renew himself.

For Dr. Sarah Levine, reflection with colleagues led to growth, something she described as  a rare and treasured opportunity. Other principals, across school type, reported that such conversations reduced their isolation, and almost all believed that these conversations would improve their leadership. In Sarahs view, reflecting helped her own development and fostered the development of other adults in the school. Her mission was to create a community of learners, a culture of collaboration, and a shared language for that collaboration. Reflection, Sarah explained, gave her a context to explore her own thinking with a partner. In some cases, Sarah altered her practices after a period of reflection. In other cases, the process of reflection helped Sarah understand her own thinking and practices in a new way.

After engaging in her own reflective practice for some time, Sarah gave faculty and staff more time to reflect. By not responding right away, she sought to give people more space to develop their own styles. As a result of her own regular opportunities for shared reflection on her practice with a colleague, Sarah invited and made room for more collegial inquiry with and among others, dialogue that invites adults to reflect on their assumptions and values as part of the learning process. As her thinking evolved, she developed new strategies to promote growth through reflection and thinking. She also sought out resolutions to conflict through collegial inquiry. Sarah and community members acclimated to her practices responded differently to their needs and interests. For example, in many cases, rather than assigning a leader to a group, she would allow the group to select its own leader from those who were interested in assuming this role.

Over a 4-year period of regular reflection, Sarahs leadership in support of adult learning evolved from a shared and inclusive to a collaborative to a participatory vision. In other words, Sarahs vision shifted from sharing her ideas for change and improvement to focusing more on her school communitys ideas for change, improvement, and growth. The context of shared reflection provided a holding environment for her growth. Reflecting with a partner, Sarah explained, enabled her to freely probe her own thinking and assumptions and test new ideas.

Like Sarah, many of the principals believed that participating in a reflective practice group with colleagues would support their learning, help them to manage the complexities of leadership, decrease their isolation, and help them to sustain themselves. Importantly, although the principals in this study reported a range of ways in which they strived for renewal, 7 have since left their principal positions, citing a variety of reasons. Three of these principals retired. Four of them told me that because of the complexities of their work and the high level of stress, they decided to leave their positions as principals and serve as leaders in other educational contexts (e.g., as consultants to practicing principals and other school leaders and, in one case, as a university teacher).


Todays leadership challenges can strain the energy and commitment of even the most dedicated leaders. This investigation offers insight into ways to accomplish an important educational leadership goalsupporting and retaining principals. It also points to specific strategies that a group of principals use to renew themselves. In particular, the study shows the importance of reflection and collegial support as renewal practices for school leaders. This research illuminates a persistent desire on the part of principals (regardless of school type and school financial resource level) to engage in reflective practice with fellow school leaders.   

These findings have important policy implications as well. Whereas federal policies such as No Child Left Behind focus on providing technical assistance to struggling schools, this research suggests the need for ongoing assistance that focuses on supporting principals renewal. If it can be shown that improvements in student achievement or teacher retention and morale can be linked closely to principals use of reflective practice and renewal techniques, then perhaps school districts will include these processes in their job expectations for school administrators. Future research should address this question with a true experimental design. The greater attention to accountability in schools that has come from standards-based reform is important and has resulted in increased pressure on principals. These increased burdens and responsibilities have caused principals to have even less time for renewal. All of this combines to make this topic even more important to consider in todays complex educational world. It also points to an urgent need to develop policies to support principal renewal. District leaders need to create conditions for principals to learn from each other and focus less on accountability for specific targets. Districts that must fill vacancies with strong instructional leaders should heed Elmores (2000) reciprocal accountability: For every unit increase that the district holds principals accountable, it has an equal responsibility for providing support.

In addition, Burch and Spillanes (2004) distinction between district leaders authoritative orientation and a collaborative orientation merits consideration. Although these authors focus more on districtschool interactions, principals may be better served if districts move away from demands and focus more on support. This collaborative orientation goes against the grain of heightened accountability and cannot come in the form of memos, as these scholars noted. Specifically, it will take time and resources to relieve principals from other responsibilities so that they can benefit from reflective practice with colleagues. For principals to renew themselves and keep learning, they must maintain their quality of life through self-renewing practices (Blaydes, 2002; Byrne-Jiménez & Orr, 2007; Donaldson, 2008). While Richard Ackerman, Roland Barth, and Gordon Donaldson, among others (Normore, 2007), have brought principals together for renewal in a number of Principal Centers domestically and internationally, principals in this research voiced their need for additional types of contexts for renewal. My research indicates that principals themselvesacross school type and financial resource leveldesire regular and ongoing reflective practice with colleagues. They expressed that this practice would serve as an essential source of self-renewal and one that will enable them to improve their leadership.

As discussed, adult learning theories help us understand how reflective practice with colleagues can support principal renewal and sustain school leaders. These theories can help us consider the kinds of professional development opportunities (i.e., reflective practice) and the conditions that are likely to support principals and their learning needs.

We need to create ongoing contexts in which principals have the opportunity to reflect on their leadership and the inherent and complex challenges they face. This type of self-reflection can be helpful in two ways. First, district leaders can support the creation of these groups in which principals purposefully reflect on their leadership challenges (Knowles, 1984). This context, over time and in the company of colleagues, can help principalsand all adults for that matterto renew themselves and to develop a new relationship to their own thinking and assumptions (Brookfield, 1995; Kegan 1982, 1994, 2000; Mezirow 2000). Second, this context is one in which principals can support and challenge (i.e., by asking questions that help with considering alternative perspectives) each other as they strive to renew and sustain themselves so that they can meet the demands of 21st-century leadership. Creating these opportunities will enhance possibilities for them and their schools.

As noted earlier, most of the supports these principals discussed were strategies they employed to support themselves, and not supports provided by others. Future research could focus on understanding the kinds of supports that principals desire from superintendents as well as other district leaders. In addition, future research directed toward developing a deeper understanding of how, if at all, the process of becoming a principal might influence principals sense of empowerment, sustainability, and renewal strategies. Research centering on these sorts of critical questions has important implications for practice and policy.

New policies need to be created to support implementation of more effective supports for principal renewal and learning. These policies would create and financially support ongoing opportunities for principals to engage in reflective practice and perhaps to develop an understanding of how adult learning theories inform these contexts.

If we want to better support and sustain principals as they engage in their important leadership work, then we must ask: How can we support their renewal? How can we implement programs that are dedicated to supporting principal development? Reflective practice groups for principals are one promising path. To implement these nationwide, however, resources are needed. The decision to allocate resources to make these changes holds the potential to positively impact the lives of many.

Still, more than financial resources are needed to make these changes part of the fabric of our educational system. For this kind of systemic change to occur, policies and structures are essential. For example, educators need policy that financially supports reflective practice groups for principals. Time needs to be allocated for this kind of professional learning as well. Doing so will lead to new insights and better ways of supporting principals and our schools.

Policies that encourage critical reflection can support principal renewal and help school leaders meet adaptive challenges. Reflective practice, as discussed, is a powerful tool for supporting principals professional development and renewal. It also assists transformational learning, which helps adults develop greater cognitive, affective, intrapersonal, and interpersonal capacities to better manage the complexities of leadership and life (Brookfield, 1995; Drago-Severson, 2004a, 2004b, 2009; Kegan, 1982, 1994, 2000; Schön, 1983, 1987). Reflective practice can support adult growth by reflecting on and challenging ones own contradictions and assumptions.

For example, a principals reflective practice group holds the potential to serve as a dynamic holding environment (Kegan, 1982, p. 115) or growing space (Drago-Severson, in press)a context that can support and challenge leaders to become more capable of managing their work and leadership. Specifically, as principals learn to acknowledge their own assumptions, they will be better able to establish forums for teachers to engage in reflective inquiry around their assumptions and student achievement challenges. This is important for many reasons, among them because we know that supporting adult learning has a direct and positive effect on student achievement (Guskey, 2000; Youngs & King, 2002).

Figure 1. Potential Influences of Supporting Principal Development


There are three key components to the model presented in Figure 1, which I developed based on learnings from research (Drago-Severson, 2004b), and research since then (Drago-Severson, 2009, in press), that supports renewal, growth, enhanced leadership, and principal retention. First, the model includes a leadership learning community focused on reflective discussion about the challenges of principals work through structured exercises and protocols. Second, the model calls for a forum for reflective practice with colleagues, thus promoting renewal, self-development, and improved practice while reducing the inherent isolation of the position and avoiding burnout. Finally, principals should have opportunities to learn from each other about practices supportive of teacher learning, which in turn can improve student achievement. Table 2 illustrates ways that reflective groups can support growth.

Table 2. Opportunities for Development in Reflective Practice Groups: Supports and Challenges

Reflective practice groups provide developmental opportunities to:

Articulate thinking through writing, acting, or speaking.

Learn about and consider alternative points of view.

Support leaders as they integrate multiple perspectives.

Increase perspective-taking abilities.

Take risks.

Develop a deeper awareness of and have opportunities to discuss personal ambiguities, contradictions, faulty reasoning, leadership challenges, ideas, and values.

Increase awareness of ethical, practical, professional, or personal convictions.

Develop deeper awareness of ones own and others motivations, actions, or justifications.

Increase awareness of how ones own assumptions guide thinking and behaviors.

Identify and question internal assumptions in a supportive context.

Recognize internal assumptions that guide actions and share them publicly.

Challenge and support own and another persons assumptions that inform actions.

Envision alternative ways of thinking and behaving.

Test new ideas in a supportive context.

Challenge individual and organizational norms, values, and envision alternatives.

Develop greater self-authorship and self-ownership.

Support growth (i.e., transformational learning).

We need to better help principals renew themselves and cultivate their capacities to handle the complexities of their work. This research emphasizes specific programs and promising practices that can support principal renewaland that are likely also to facilitate improvements in teaching, leadership, and student and adult learning.


This research was partially supported by a Spencer Research Grant. Portions of this paper were presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, April 2007, Chicago.


1. Additional examples appear in Drago-Severson, 2004b, 2009.


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Youngs, P., & King, M. B. (2002). Principal leadership for professional development to build school capacity. Educational Administration Quarterly, 38, 643670.




Duration of Interview:

Place of Interview:



General Demographics, History, Important Experiences Related to Thinking About How to Support Teacher Learning

a) How long you have been school leader here?  (History?)  Number of years? (Confirm earlier information)

"  Have you held other leadership positions?

"  Prior work experiences?

b) Can you tell me a little about your leadership work here at the school?  




Administrative structure?


Teaching structure?  


How do you work with teachers in general?  


How do teachers work together?   


Parents?  Students?


Do you teach? Advise students?  Other?

(Check in and confirm or adjust earlier information)

c) Context:  


Student characteristics (number, diversity in terms of race, ethnicity? percent receiving financial aid)


Teacher characteristics


Parent involvement


Types of curriculum


% of annual budget devoted to professional development?



(Check in and confirm or adjust earlier information)

d) Important Experiences Related to Thinking About How to Support Teacher Learning: Im hoping that you will be able to tell me about some of the important experiences you have had in your career [personal and professional life] that have contributed to the ways in which you think about supporting teacher learning and development.



What do you see as your role in terms of supporting teacher learning and development in your school?

Explore: Feelings about role, challenges, joys, and changes in thinking about role.

"  What does supporting adult growth mean to you?

Probe:  What does support mean to you? (Example?)

 What does challenge mean to you? (Example?)

Probe:  Ask about supporting other adultsfocus in on how person thinks about supporting parents & teachers? (Examples?)


What are the kinds of practices or initiatives you employ to support teachers professional development?  [Ask about practice to support parents too]


Examples of Initiatives That Work Well And Why?

Examples of those that do not work well? Why?

For Each Story or Type of Initiative:


Why do you think this practice or these practices are effective?  


How are they working?  How can you tell they are working?


How do you think these practices are experienced by the teachers? [By the parents, if discussed?]


Have they changed over time? If so, how? (Ask for specific examples and reason for changes)


Can you help me understand how, if at all, you may be supporting the development of your teachers in terms of creating opportunities for adults to work and think together.  [Ask about parents too]


Ask for examples of other forms of adult collaboration


How are these practices implemented?


Why do you think practices work?    


What challenges do you face in implementing them?

Exploreif these kinds of practices are not mentioned, ask about them:  

a) Creating opportunities for them to share their expertise and/or provide and exercise


b) Are there other opportunities for teachers to talk and think together about work?  

[Say somethinginquire about time issueif its not mentioned.  

Ask about faculty meetings? What happens in these?  Whats discussed?

Same for Parent forums]

c) Teaming?


How do you think others in the school understand and/or experience your effortsand the specific practices aimed at

supporting their growth and development?   

[teachers, parents, other adults?]

Explore personal thinking and feelings

Ask for examples


If you could institute other programs or ideas concerning supporting other peoples development at the school, what additional supports/programs would you like to put into place? Why? Wish list? What kinds of practices would support your own development? Wish list?    

Explore: Why and how changes would be helpful & forms of supports that would help?


In what ways do you think the practices youre using support teachers as being effective practices/strategies?  [If not fully explained when examples were presented] How can you tell?


Why do you think supporting teacher learning and development is important?  What are you trying to accomplish?  What are your goals (hopes)?  


What stands out for you as being some of the important challenges to supporting teachers professional development?  What do you see as being some of the rewards of supporting teachers professional development?  

[If this has not been discussed, probe here.  If person has mentioned some of these, ask if she or he would like to add anything.]

III. Principals/ Heads Development/Growth: Supports for Own Growth


Some principals find it beneficial to find ways to support their own growth and developmentin order to restore and revitalize themselves. Ive learned that school leaders have a variety of ways of doing this.  For example, some principals participate in reading groups, while others prefer to spend some time in solitude reading, writing, or reflecting.  Im hoping that you will be willing to help me understand a little about how you support your own development.    

What are some of the things you do to support your own development, professional and personal, as a school leader?  

Ask for elaboration/examples of both personal and professional

If not mentioned, ask about opportunities for reflective practice, writing, and reflection.


Do you experience the different practices you implement for teachers professional development (and parent development, if discussed) as being conducive to your growth and development, personal or professional?  How so?

Explore: Are there any practices/programs that stand out for you as being particularly important to your own development?  

How so?

Explore: What it is like for you to participate?  Benefits?  Challenges? Likes/dislikes?


How do you experience support for your learning? For your growth?  

Who/what are your supports?

Explore:  Feelings and Supports within and outside of the school context


Do you have any other personal or professional development/learninggrowth goalsfor yourself or for your teachersthat you feel comfortable sharing with me, or that you could tell me about?


For self? Ask why important? How would achieving them be valuable? Meaningful? Helpful?


For Teachers?

IV. Changes and Reflections on Connection to Childrens and Adolescent Growth


Are there any ways in which your thinking about supporting teacher learning has changed over time? If yes, how so? [Only ask these questions if they have not been discussed.]  Ask for examples/stories.


Are there ways in which your practices have changed? If yes, how so? [Only ask these questions if they have not been discussed.]  Ask for examples/stories.


Are there ways in which you see supporting teacher and adult development as connected to the students in your school? If yes, how so?  Can you share your thinking about this with me?


Explore: relationship


How person thinks about it / connections

V. Closing and Final Reflections


Is there anything you would like to ask me about?  


Is there anything that I have not asked you about that you think is important for me to know, or that youd like to share?


Anything youd like to say more about?

Thank you!

"  Ask for demographic/background information on school and budget if I did not receive it yet.


Code list 8/00, 9/00

Spencer Research

Code List: Codes that were modified after initial analysis of a few transcripts and discussion with one other researcher are noted in bold font (8/2000).

Background of principal (Bio)  

P Bckgrnd

Demo of principal

P Demo

Principals philosophy  

P Phil

Principals previous experiences

leading to thinking about supporting

teacher learning =

P Prev. exp. TL

Principals thinking about own role

in terms of supporting teacher


P role TL

Principals personal mission

P Pers. Mission

School mission

Sch. mission

School demo =

Sch. Demo

Test scores

Sch. Test scores

School initiatives

Sch. Init.

(e.g., literacy)

School size

Sch. Size

Student demo =

St. Demo

Faculty demo =

Fac. Demo

Parent Demo

Prnt Demo

Parent involvement in school

Prnt Involmnt

Supporting parent learning

Suppting Prnt L

Ps view of the challenges of

supporting teacher learning

Chall. TL

Ps view of the rewards of

supporting teacher learning

Rewards TL

Changes in Ps thinking about how to

support teacher learning

∆’s in thkg TL

Changes in P’s practices to

support teacher learning

∆’s in prcts TL

Principal’s view about why TL

practices are effective (general)

P/why TLP eff.

Principal’s view about why supporting

TL is important (general)

P/why TL import.

Providing opportunities for

teacher leadership


Principals views about why practices that

provide opportunities for teacher

leadership (or shared leadership)

are effective


Collegial inquirycreating opportunities

for teachers, administrators, & staff

to talk and think about their practices


Principals views about why practices

that support collegial inquiry are effective


Reflective practice


(Teachers reflecting on practices)

Ps view about why RP is effective




Team teaching

Tm Tching

Cross-functional teams

C-F Teams

Principals views about why teaming

practices are effective


Developmental underpinnings

of Ps practices

Devl Underpinnings

Developmental implications

Devl Implix

Developmental demands

Devl demands

Hoped for changes (wish list of ways

that P would like to change or

alter practices in support of teacher


Hoped for ∆ or Wish list for T’s

Principal’s views on the connection

between supporting teacher learning

and children’s development or

classroom practices

P Conn. 2 stud./classrm

Staff development




aimed at community building,

faculty and school rejuvenation/growth

SD- HE (holding environment)

Developing new code see below

Staff development in its traditional



visiting other schools

Trad. SD Visits

inviting experts from outside

Trad. SD Inservice/Experts

Climate (taking care of emotional

Climate (G)

needs of school people, nurturing)

Climate: practices

Climate (P)  

Goodness of Fit

G of F

Supports (goodness of fit)

Support: G of F

Challenges (goodness of fit)

Challenges: G of F

Holding Environment:

Mark as aspects of holding



HE (holding environment)

Food, informal meetings

HE - SD - climate

Community building

HE - SD - Community building

(e.g., teachers getting excited)

Principal focus on relationship


HE - SD - P Rel. Building

General supports for teachers

HE - Supports 4 tchrs.


(new, put with demo?)

Structure of school

Sch. Structure

Size of school

Sch. Size (here or demo)

Forms of Adult Collaboration

Adult Collab. (use this code if P mentions a new practice or if were not sure where to place type of initiative)

Teacher reading groups


Teacher research groups

TRschG = CI


Mentoring (could be e.g. of teaming, PLR,  or CI)

Grad. stud. With experienced teacher =

Mentoring, Apprenticeship

Decision Making

DM (Teaming or Collegial inquiry)

Practices for self-renewal

P Renewal

Thinking about how principal supports self

P supports


P personal. supports


P Prof. Supports

Principals need for support

P need 4 support

Principal isolation

P isolation

Principal reflective practice

P-RP (or need)

Hoped for changes (wish list/how

P would like to change or

alter practice to support self

renewal, growth)

P hopes for ∆ or Wish list for Slf

Principal engagement in practices

With teachers

P engage w/teachers

$ Resources

$ Resources

Teachers’ salaries

$ Resource: T sal

Per pupil expenditure

$ Resource: PPE

Human Resources


New Codes: Second round of coding 9/00

External Connections:

Ext. Conn.

Grant writing


School/university partnerships

S-U partner

Professional development schools

Prof. Dev. Sch.

School partnering with businesses

S-B partner

School missions influence on

principals thinking and actions

Sch. Missions Inf. P

(principals perspective on this)

School systems influence on

principals thinking and actions

Sch. Sys. Inf. P

(principals perspective on this)

Hiring (track metaphors.)

Hiring (Code separately, could also go under decision making, which could be an example of teaming or collegial inquiry.)

Knowledge of professional development resource

Know-How Resource

Time as resource


Ways in which Ps conception of role and work

parallels how they think about supporting others

Mirror P exp., role, actions


Principals Name:


Summary Analytic Questions Memo

1) Teaming

One plan MJZ has (that was implemented in his previous school) is to set up a professional development committee, comprised of faculty members.  This committee will jointly solicit and evaluate faculty requests for financial support of their professional development (pp. 45).  

I think he might also think about his shared leadership with the board president as potentially a form of teaming (p. 20).  

2) Leadership for Adult Development (Leadership Roles)

Teachers lead workshops and conduct discussions within their departments or divisions around current topics (p. 2).

Instead of bringing in outside speakers to train teachers in technology, he allowed teachers within the school to present the things that they were doing to their colleagues (p. 3).  

He encourages teachers to present their work at conventions (p. 4).  

The faculty development committee provides leadership roles for teachers because this committee must decide which projects are priorities and should be funded, giving control and power over their own professional development (pp. 5, 6).  

He provides financial support to encourage teachers to develop new courses (p. 5).

The leaders of committees play a very large role in the success of those committees, not just in the work they do that is specific to the committee, but in terms of the leadership they show in the classroom, in being able to see beyond their own department or field, and in avoiding being seen as having an explicit political agenda (pp. 67).  

3) Reflective Practice/Collegial Inquiry

Seems to define his beliefs about teacher learning: Theres nothing like putting together good educators and having them talk with each other about what theyre doing (p. 2).  He talks a lot about the reflection that is promoted when teachers engage in learning that is very specific to their classrooms and goals, and when they direct these experiences (p. 2). Mentions that videotaping themselves may be the most effective way they learn, not from hearing experts tell them what to do (p. 2).

The faculty development committee would also encourage teachers to reflect because they would have to carefully consider and explain their reasons for requesting this development experience and describe the potential benefits to their students and the school (p. 5).  

Wants to give faculty more opportunities for reflection (pp. 1214) and considers spending a large amount of time during a faculty meeting to just have people write as a way to reflect on their work.

Reflection supports his own development, and he deliberately spends driving time reflecting on his work (p. 17).  

4) Mentoring (Note: during this initial phase, this was placed with teaming or collegial inquiry)

5a) Rewards of Supporting Teacher Learning

Rewards:  Like others, he sees these techniques as providing their own rewards and tells the story of the teachers presenting at the conference, and how their learning enable them to grow (p. 4).  These kinds of things dont require much money (p. 4).  In general, he sees them as giving people more energy and enthusiasm, which in turn creates better teaching (p. 14).  

The school pays for many professional development experiences, which is a type of reward.  The faculty development committee would bring recognition to the teachers who receive funding for their proposals, which would give them visibility and acknowledgement (p. 5). Even if a professional development experience doesnt work out, the benefits of reflecting on priorities and expectations will still be there (p. 9).  

When faculty have greater leadership roles, they feel they have control, power (p. 6), and visibility (p. 8).

If teachers are able to design their own development classes and get credit from universities, they can reap the benefits of cross pollination of teachers from other schools, too (p. 11).  

5b) Challenges of Supporting Teacher Learning

Challenges:  It is difficult to find many faculty who have the qualities of good committee leaders, and so the same 23 people get asked over and over (pp. 67).   None of these practices are cures for teachers who are resistant or apathetic (p. 15).  

5c) Supports for Self, Self-Renewal, Needs

In his own professional development, he has found very little community among upper school heads (p. 16), and doesnt often have the time or opportunity for reflection (p. 18).  He also talks in depth about how isolating and lonely the position can be (pp. 1820). In terms of how he supports his own development: my own reading, my own personal contacts and doing a workshop or two and thats . . . and that is about it. Though I hate to say it (p. 20). In terms of what he names as supports: he finds associations with colleagues helpful (p. 19)and he has a long time colleague and friend (also in education) who he calls frequently, and feels that he can be very open with him (p. 19).

He is hungry for collegial contactsmost of the ways he supports his growth are in ISOLATION. He talks about feeling isolation and needing additional supportand takes responsibility for not doing enough for himself in that area.  In response to my question about how he supports and renews himself, he says, This is an area I dont think that Im very effective at (p. 19).  He knows that he has no one to blame but [himself] as a result Ive got to do something about it (p. 19).  

He has a deep yearning for engaging in reflective practice group with colleagues; voiced spontaneously (p. 20, 21, 22). But Id love to find something more programmatic, cause I feel its always in isolation and I. . . theres a little hunger that I have for these collegial contacts that are not just chit chat or over a scotch. But something thats a little bit more in depth. And I dont have that. I dont know very many people that do (p. 22).

Note: The page numbers are from the interview transcript.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 114 Number 12, 2012, p. 1-56
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16717, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 7:31:34 AM

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About the Author
  • Eleanor Drago-Severson
    Columbia University, Teachers College
    E-mail Author
    ELLIE DRAGO-SEVERSON is an associate professor of Education Leadership and Adult Learning & Leadership at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Her research interests include school leadership for adult learning, principal and faculty development, leadership preparation and development, supporting adult development and learning in K–12 schools, ABE/ESOL and university contexts, and qualitative research. Ellie has authored three recent books, Leading Adult Learning (Corwin/Sage, 2009), Becoming Adult Learners (Teachers College Press, 2004), and Helping Teachers Learn (Corwin Press, 2004), which offer a new learning-oriented model for supporting adult growth in K–12 schools and other educational contexts. Helping Teachers Learn was awarded the 2004 National Staff Development Council’s Book of the Year Award, and Leading Adult Learning was selected as NSDC book of fall 2009. Drago-Severson is currently writing Creating Spaces That Nurture Leadership Development (Harvard Education Press, forthcoming, 2012) and Learning and Leading for Growth (Corwin/Sage Press, forthcoming, 2012).
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