Internationals Network Prioritizes Leadership Development to Drive Success

Our report "Teachers at Work: Designing Schools Where Teachers and Students Thrive," identified several organizations and models to learn from as we aim to nurture positive work environment in schools. Internationals Network for Public Schools creates a collaborative working environment for teachers to support and learn from each other. School leaders work to create this by providing teachers with professional development during the school day designed around teacher-needs. We want to spotlight this for the field to consider and watch when contemplating broader action to address these issues.

Q: For readers who may not be familiar with your organization and its work, please provide a brief description of your organization.

Internationals Network for Public Schools works to provide quality education for recently arrived immigrants who are English language learners (ELLs). We do this by growing and sustaining a strong national network of innovative International High Schools, while broadening our impact by sharing proven best practices and influencing policy for English language learners. To learn more about Internationals Network, please visit

Q: In what ways is your organization supporting principals to build a positive work environment specifically for teachers?

Recognizing the importance of school leaders in making the Internationals model a reality in our schools, Internationals Network works intensively with new and existing school leaders, both at the teacher level as well as the administrator level, through frequent meetings, professional development, Critical Friends Groups for school leaders, and national leadership retreats. Internationals provides ongoing support to school leadership to strengthen the structures and instruction of interdisciplinary teams, develop teacher leaders, and support teacher professional development through collaborative team structures. Leadership mentoring focuses on building the school leader’s capacity to support the instructional and structural elements of the Internationals model, namely that:

- Heterogeneous groups of teachers should collaborate on behalf of a specific cohort of students.
- Experiential learning should be a part of the work environment for both adults and students in our
- Groups of adults should have localized autonomy to implement solutions that make sense at the team and school level.
- There should be “one learning model for all” where all adults — teachers and staff, as well as administrators — should be organized to learn from joint inquiry.

Internationals serves schools by developing and sustaining schools with internal collaborative structures that create an ongoing professional learning community. Internationals staff makes a significant ongoing investment through all phases of school development. Specifically, we implement collaborative learning structures that enable all network schools to develop, engage in, and model best practices; provide structures to support continuous learning that refine and improve the Internationals model; and facilitate partnerships with community organizations, businesses, and foundations to support a strong platform for our schools’ success.

Q: How do you think about the school leader’s role in building and supporting a positive work environment?

We believe that school success rests on the principal as a collaborative leader of his or her faculty, and that effective teaching in the classroom is the result of structured collaboration focused on  student success. Not surprisingly, in several outside measures, including low teacher turnover and “learning environment surveys,” the staff in Internationals schools often highlight the importance of a positive work environment created by these collaborative structures led by our principals. In fact, more than half of our school leaders have lived this model of distributive leadership as prior teachers in our schools.

School leaders develop close-knit, nurturing communities that support students who may be feeling
displaced as newcomers to our country. Differences among students and staff are cherished, and students are continually encouraged to celebrate their cultural and linguistic individuality while embracing their new home. The role of the school leader, in addition to their instructional leadership, is to create a collaborative working environment for teachers to support and learn
from each other, so that they are continually improving their pedagogy and leadership toward improved student success. As an example, in many of our schools, time slots that are intended for whole-staff “outside” workshops are instead given over to teacher-selected activities and collaborations that enhance the work environment for our staff.

Internationals Network believes that professional development is leadership development — that all opportunities for professional learning are in fact opportunities for educators to develop capacity to lead group efforts, and to learn and grow in the classroom, across the school, and across the network of schools. Therefore, at Internationals, professional and leadership development are not separate initiatives; they are built into all Network and school components to ensure that educators are equipped with the skills and content knowledge to help students succeed in school, college,
and career. From our network-wide committees convening teacher leaders from our schools (Student Portfolio/Assessment Committee, Professional Development Committee, SLIFE-Supports Working Group, CTE Working Group, etc.) to our annual professional-development institutes in summer and fall, to our workshops delivered to specific network schools, our network constantly provides opportunities for school-based staff to grow in their capacities, constantly leveraging the power of the network and our model to ensure that we’re supporting the school leaders in creating a positive work environment where staff members can thrive, develop, and feel valued, both inside their school and across the network.

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Q: What are the key elements of your work that best enable school leaders to successfully accomplish this?

Internationals’ schools are structured into interdisciplinary collaborative teams that are responsible for the academic and social/emotional supports of each individual student; they often include non-teachers and social/emotional specialists like social workers and guidance counselors, and take ownership for a specific cohort of students, often for more than one year with that same cohort. These teams promote high-quality teaching through embedded collaborative opportunities for learning and growth for educators. Providing structures in which diverse members of the school community can develop their perspectives, discuss, and make decisions strengthens the collective governance of a school and develops the individual capacity of the members of the community. The staff, who work most closely with the students, are not divorced from the decisions that affect them and their students. Finally, those who make decisions feel a collective sense of ownership over those decisions and responsibility for ensuring that the goals behind those decisions are realized.

In addition to that team collaboration inside each school, there is purposeful heterogeneity throughout the work of each school. From the way those teams are composed of staff members of different content area, approaches, and expertise, to the way that professional development is typically planned and delivered, to the way that student groups sit in the classrooms of our school buildings, heterogeneity in many different types of criteria is embraced at each of our schools.

Q: Can you give one or two specific examples of what this looks like in practice?

Leaders work with a heterogeneous group of teachers who have varying strengths and areas of support. The structured interdisciplinary team is a purposeful example of how leaders encourage collaboration as a form of professional development and support. In addition, leaders work with their staff to differentiate the professional development for teachers, listening to and meeting their specific needs.

One example is the manner in which school leaders support differentiated professional development for teachers in their school, ensuring that supports are tailored to the community and the individual simultaneously. An example of this is underway at Pan American International High School at Elmhurst, New York, where teachers are canvassed through a schoolbased PD committee about their concerns related to collaboration, so that the workshop can be tailored specifically to those concerns. Another example would be the work done at Crotona International High School in the Bronx, New York, where all teachers engaged in exploration of strategies for meaningful collaboration, but materials were personalized based on degrees of experience and expertise in this arena, with options for teachers to act as group leaders, cofacilitators, and envoys for new additions to suites of resources and strategies.

Q: What outcomes have you seen when school leaders are successful at building a positive work environment specifically for teachers? Can you give one or two specific examples?

There are numerous examples of outcomes from school leaders successfully building a positive work environment specifically for teachers. For example, as a result of building ample time, space, and autonomy into schedules for content department teams to meet, reflect, and analyze their curriculum, a trend of vertically-aligned and authentic project-based units has been established to support students in their journey toward presenting graduation portfolios that are rich, creative, and rigorous. Teachers are afforded the opportunity and authority to make meaningful decisions about their school community; this results in new initiatives and innovations. For example, as a result of such structural supports at Flushing International High School in Flushing, New York, teachers collaborated to establish new protocols, resources, and tools for deepening feedback, both from teacher to student and between students. To name one of many other examples, the localized autonomy supported by school leaders at Manhattan International in New York City, through the team structure and a committee system, has led to practitioner-led innovations in the use of technology in the classroom, ranging from new collaborative structures to the vehicle for student-led inquiry.

Among our New York City schools, we see in the yearly Learning Environment Survey that practically all International High Schools surpass the citywide averages in several key areas that account for positive work environments for teachers: collaborative teachers, supportive environment for students and staff, effective school leadership, and trust among different school constituencies.

Q: What are the next steps in your work? Meaning, what are you trying to figure out next in order to build on this work? Where do you see opportunities for further innovation, development, or learning?

We are looking to support schools both with yearly professional development planning processes that are differentiated for subgroups of teachers, as well as with newer modules and content for specific interests and new study-group formats. 

We are also increasing the variety of networking opportunities to meet the greater array of interest and needs expressed by leaders, faculty, and staff at our schools. 

We are looking to support school leaders and communities by offering new avenues for networking and professional development for instructional coaches; new workshop materials have been created and offered, and space for these practitioners to share, reflect, and grow is on the horizon via a new working group structure.