The end of the school year is quickly approaching, and for those who support school leaders, it’s time to figure out what kind of professional learning you will offer this summer and next year. With so much to do now, it might be tempting to put off that planning until the summer, but we’ve found school leader meetings are most meaningful when they revolve around specific needs identified during the year. Planning now, while your observations and ideas are fresh, will make for the best learning and help ensure that every moment school leaders are pulled out of their buildings is worthwhile.

As you consider your own observations of school leaders’ strengths and gaps in performance, ask the leaders what they think they need. Challenge them to think not about the skill or expertise they want to develop, but rather the skill or expertise their school needs them to develop.

Also, reflect on the professional learning you put in place for your leaders this past year—did it have an impact, and how do you know?

From there you can start to prioritize, weight, and sequence the content of the sessions you will convene. It’s important to strike a balance between creating opportunities for professional learning—such as developing skills and practices around instruction and school culture – and providing information on compliance issues, like state and federal guidelines.

Artful meeting design also ensures that the content is inter-connected and inter-dependent.

Good professional learning is about both what is taught and how it is delivered. By taking the time to plan in advance, meetings will be better designed to meet the unique needs of leaders.  

Tip 1: Brainstorm beliefs around adult learning

It is important to dig into beliefs before you jump into practice. At the NYC Leadership Academy, we use five research-based principles of adult learning to guide our work:

  1. Adults learn most deeply from experience and reflection.
  2. Learning to be a leader must be a social process.
  3. Discomfort is inherent in transformative learning.
  4. Adults rely on stories to make meaning.
  5. Adults learn best in an environment of structured freedom.

Feel free to use these beliefs to jumpstart conversations with your colleagues about how the school leaders in your local context learn best. What do you agree with, argue with, and what do you propose your team adopt to guide the work?

Tip 2: Calibrate thinking around what effective and ineffective professional learning looks like

How do you create professional learning opportunities that will stick?

Consider the best and worst professional learning you’ve ever experienced. What were the characteristics of those sessions? In a recent working group I facilitated, leaders said they valued opportunities for self-assessment and reflection, access to new ideas, and to practice what they had learned. They groaned about workshops that lacked an objective, showed a lack of knowledge of participants’ needs, and, overloaded them with the “fire hose effect” when the presenter or facilitator talked at them for hours.

Figure out what hasn’t worked for you and your colleagues, and don’t do it to others.

Tip 3: Break role-aligned standards and expectations into KBADs

Once your team has a common understanding and agreement around your beliefs about effective adult learning, use your locally adopted leadership standards to define what principals need to know and be able to do (KBAD). At NYC Leadership Academy, we use the following design process, inspired by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design framework for backward mapping, which makes sure each step aligns with the next:

It is important to consider this process from start to finish. Too often, designers of professional learning mistakenly start with the last step–creating session activities. Even if an agenda looks good and the team building activities are fun, starting your planning with session activities doesn’t allow you to assess whether or not school leaders are walking out with concrete and applicable learning. For it to matter and stick, avoid creating learning experiences in the moment or session-by-session.

To create KBADs, break each standard into observable behaviors. What do you want the principals to be able to do at the end of each session, and at the end of the year?  

Here’s an example of an aligned standard-KBAD-assessment:

PSEL Standard 3 Equity & Cultural Responsiveness: Effective educational leaders strive for equity of educational opportunity and culturally responsive practices to promote each student’s academic success and well-being.

Sample KBAD (note: a standard can break down into several KBADs): Facilitate staff meetings that include open discussions about the impact of race on adult perceptions of student ability. 

Sample Assessment: Determine what you will look for to assess whether the school leader has met the KBAD. Assessment can happen before, during, or after your session with school leaders:

Designing effective professional learning can be done systematically and does not need to be daunting, but it does require a thoughtful process that starts with the end in mind and focuses on depth of learning over breadth of information.

The most important place a school leader can be throughout the day is in the school building with students and teachers. If you plan to remove them from that setting, it better be worth it.


Nancy B. Gutiérrez, Ed.L.D.

President & CEO

Dr. Nancy B. Gutiérrez is President & CEO of The Leadership Academy. Nancy joined The Leadership Academy in 2014 and has served as National Leadership Designer and Facilitator, Vice President of District Leadership, and Chief Strategy Officer. She was named President & CEO in July 2018 and continues to serve as an executive leadership coach and facilitator for school systems across the country. She was a Fall 2019 Pahara-Aspen Education Fellow, and in February 2020 was named among the 100 most powerful education leaders in New York by City & State New York. Nancy is a frequent keynote speaker for local and national education organizations and has authored numerous pieces on education leadership and equity for national publications including Education Week, Kappan, The74, and Hechinger Report. Nancy began her career as a teacher and principal in her home community of East San Jose, CA, where she was the founding principal of Renaissance Academy, the highest performing middle school in the district and a California Distinguished School. Nancy also led the successful effort to turn around the district’s lowest performing middle school. She was named the UC Davis Rising Star and Association of California School Administrator’s Region 8 Middle School Principal of the Year in 2010. Prior to her tenure with The Leadership Academy, Nancy launched a program for executive leadership advancement for the New York City Department of Education that led to superintendent certification. Nancy is a graduate of the inaugural cohort of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Doctor of Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) program and is a graduate of the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (ALAS) Aspiring Superintendents Academy. She served on the national board of the Coalition of Essential Schools for more than a decade. She is an instructor at NYU and frequently teaches at the Harvard Principals’ Center institutes for School Turnaround Leaders, Urban School Leaders, and Race, Equity, Access, and Leadership. Nancy is a member of the Board of Directors at The Hunt Institute, Brightbeam, and Education Leaders of Color (EdLoC) and serves on the Latinos for Education teaching team. Find Nancy on Twitter @nancybgutierrez or LinkedIn.