New Leaders Develops Great Principals to Create Great Schools

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. New Leaders believes principals play in creating a great place for teachers to work, grow, and advance in their careers. 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.

New Leaders is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring high academic achievement for all children, especially students in poverty and students of color. We advance this mission by working hand in hand with districts to deliver tailored, evidence-based training to build dedicated, skilled leaders at every level of the education system. To amplify our impact, we also promote the policies and practices that allow great leaders to succeed. 

Since 2000, we have trained 3,200 outstanding school leaders who annually reach approximately 500,000 students, in partnership with more than 30 districts and 150 charter schools. Our leaders overwhelmingly work on behalf of historically under-served students: Seventy-eight percent come from low-income households, and 87 percent are children of color. Further, our alumni community is remarkably diverse: Sixty-four percent of New Leaders are people of color, compared with just 20 percent of school leaders nationally. To learn more about New Leaders, please visit

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

All of our programming is based on the Transformational Leadership Framework (TM), which distills the actions high-performing principals take to build school structures, systems, and practices that promote teacher effectiveness and accelerate student achievement. Of note, there is an entire strand of work around school culture—highlighting the important role principals play in creating a great place for teachers to work, grow, and advance in their careers. Further, under the talent management strand leaders are taught how to identify teachers for leadership roles and how to build instructional leadership teams focused on organizing teacher collaboration and professional development. Finally, we spend a significant amount of time pushing program participants to reflect on and strengthen their personal leadership skills so they can model the equity-focused, adaptive, resilient leadership that supports an environment of trust, strategic risk-taking, and sustained collaboration amongst teachers.

For example, Aspiring Principals prepares tomorrow’s principals to deliver breakthrough results by equipping them with knowledge, skills, and real-world practice to build schools where teachers grow and students excel. The heart of Aspiring Principals is a yearlong residency, during which program participants learn as a cohort over the summer and through evening classes while serving as a full-time member of a school’s instructional
leadership team during the school year. Throughout training, expert facilitators help residents practice, refine, and master key skills as they guide and coach a team of teachers to work together to achieve success for their students.

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

Children need access to teachers who can help them learn to think flexibly, creatively, and critically, mastering essential knowledge as well as the skills to apply that knowledge wherever their studies and aspirations take them. And we know that more than 97 percent of teachers list school leadership as essential or very important for their career decisions — more than any other factor.

To get and keep great teachers in every classroom, across an entire school, we need great school leaders. And while transformational principals often seem like one-of-a-kind superheroes, the reality is that the success of such leaders derives from a surprisingly uniform set of high-impact leadership practices. When these practices are carried out with fidelity, our research has shown they consistently result in strong, sustained improvements for teachers and students.

How? Highly effective principals are, first and foremost, instructional leaders. They observe and coach teachers and facilitate in-school learning to help educators continuously improve their practice. They are also relentlessly focused on recruiting, developing, and retaining outstanding teachers, including by helping them grow, take on leadership roles, and advance in their careers.

And they create a great place to work. Successful principals make sure teachers know they are valued, including by deeply respecting and maximizing their time, and they foster a strong community among colleagues. Further, they delegate leadership and responsibility, and in doing so, give teachers ownership over school decisions and initiatives.

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

The most crucial aspects of our programming are:

- Skills for success. We cultivate all the skills leaders need for success, such as building a team capable of enacting ambitious improvement plans and delivering feedback that propels teacher growth.
- Learning by doing. Program participants study and immediately apply the leadership skills that matter most as they lead a team of teachers in a real school and grapple with the unpredictable challenges leaders encounter every day.
- Expert coaching. Our expert facilitators have a record of distinguished success and use their deep knowledge and honed skills to provide participants with authentic, actionable, job-embedded coaching, feedback, and insight.
- Meaningful assessment. Because past performance is the best predictor of future success, we continuously evaluate program participants during the training year. Only those who lead measurable increases in teacher performance and student achievement earn endorsement for the principalship.

Q: Can you give 1-2 specific examples of what this looks like in practice?
When Tiffany Etheridge became principal at Belmont Elementary in Baltimore, MD, she wanted to fix everything at once: more than half of students were reading below grade level, the halls were unsafe, and 28 percent of students were chronically absent. She immediately set new expectations, including requiring teachers to engage in regular data analysis and consistently enforce behavior expectations. Though her actions were sound, she immediately encountered challenges: teachers were resentful, and some parents were actively hostile.

At a New Leaders training session, Etheridge’s advisor, who had observed her closely at school, asked key questions about steps she could take to build buy-in, helping her recognize the importance of balancing her sense of urgency with the need to engage staff and the larger school community to build a shared vision. Etheridge used skills developed during her training to create a leadership team including respected staff who, having helped informed the new approaches, spread enthusiasm for change. She supported teachers and other staff to assume leadership roles and she created sustainable structures for teachers to work together to address student needs and grow as professionals. 

As a result of these efforts, positive change is underway. Chronic truancy dropped dramatically, the percentage of students reading at grade level jumped by double digits, and enrollment is climbing.

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?

Our alumni get results where it matters most: in schools, for kids. An independent study by the RAND Corporation found that students who attend New Leader schools outperform their peers by statistically significant margins specifically because of the strong leadership of their New Leader principal. And a review of school leadership interventions cited New Leaders as the principal preparation program with the strongest evidence of positive impact on student achievement. 

When principals intentionally cultivate a strong, positive professional culture, teachers can thrive and do their best work for kids.

New Leader David O’Hara eloquently summarized this work: “I have seen firsthand that when teachers have time to work together, drive their own learning, and craft shared plans to support our students, they are happier and more fulfilled. They are also more effective.” Further, he explains, “By making this time part of the regular school day, rather than something teachers must do above and beyond their already grueling hours, collaboration becomes a sustainable, recurring, energizing part of the job.”

For example, at Acorn Woodland Elementary School in East Oakland, California, led by New Leader Leroy Gaines, all teachers hold multiple roles, serving on the school site, instruction, or culture teams, and providing coaching and feedback to their colleagues. By supporting teacher learning, collaboration, and leadership, Principal Gaines has created a flourishing school where adults love to work. And in a district where 70 percent of teachers leave within five years, Acorn’s educators tend to depart only when moving to principal positions.

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 know that leadership matters greatly for teachers, students, and families. And we are seeing early evidence that when crucial leadership practices are shared and supported by leaders at all levels of the system— teacher leaders, school leadership teams, principals, and principal supervisors—there is a powerful multiplier effect, and students and schools do even better.

Why? When principals are supported by leadership teams that shoulder leadership responsibilities and by supervisors focused on coaching rather than compliance, their job becomes more manageable and sustainable — and they are more effective. 

When we began seeing how effective shared, aligned leadership models were in our most successful schools and networks, we knew we had to update our approach. In recent years, we’ve expanded beyond our evidence-based principal preparation program to deliver programming that meets the distinct needs of teacher leaders, instructional coaches, assistant principals, principals, and principal supervisors, helping them grow as individual leaders and together as leadership teams. Now partners can come to us with the identified learning gaps of their educational workforce, and we can provide specific leadership content and tailored delivery methods to help them reach their goals. 

This shift has been challenging, yet necessary — and we still have much to learn. Happily, we are not alone in this work. There is growing interest across the field in shared leadership models, and emerging research confirms that aligning and dispersing strong leadership practices at all levels of the education system can help us more rapidly advance our goals for school and student success.