Small Shifts, Big Dividends


I have been a principal for ten years. Among the many reasons why I transitioned from being a teacher to being a principal was a firm belief that I could lead differently (and better) and make significant change. Change leadership or leadership for change is a challenging path. Change in any organization can be difficult, as so many fear changes. Just the suggestion of change in a school is fraught with obstacles and potential roadblocks. The TTWWADI (That’s The Way We Always Did It) attitude that is so prevalent in schools that have developed traditions and existed in a comfort zone stands in the way of meaningful change. As a leader who strives to continuously improve myself and the organization, I have had to learn over time and adjust to what works and what does not when working towards a vision of improving a school. The lesson learned is that small shifts, when taken together, pay big dividends and move a school forward.

peerobservationsHow are these small shifts accomplished? It all comes down to relationships, listening, and trust. Open, honest discussions leading to a shared vision are key. Providing more focus to combat death by initiative is also a key. We simply cannot keep adding to the already full plates of teachers without taking something off the plate. Listen to teachers and they will report that they are not against improving; they are just overwhelmed with too many initiatives and not enough time to accomplish any of them well. Making suggestions, piloting ideas with volunteers, holding book studies to model life-long learning, and creating an environment where it is not only OK to take risks, it is safe to try, fail, and try again. Rather than worrying about the handful that will not take on something new, empower those that will and let their enthusiasm and leadership ripple through the staff. For example, when we went 1:1 with Chromebooks, there was no mandate for any teacher to use the technology; we simply took away all obstacles to this powerful classroom tool. The successful integration of technology has been contagious with teachers seeing colleagues do amazing things and replicating it in their own classrooms.

One of the most significant shifts a principal can make is toward more teacher-driven decisions about professional development. Teachers are constantly asked to differentiate their instruction to meet the needs of all students in their classrooms. Principals need to develop a structure where professional development is also differentiated. There are few, if any, professional development workshops or speakers that will meet the needs of all members of a faculty from teachers of all subject areas to teaching assistants, from paraprofessionals to nurses, library media specialists, and counselors the needs of a faculty are different. Effective professional development is relevant. We want our faculty members to walk away from each opportunity for professional development feeling valued and with ideas that will lead to action and impact student achievement, don’t we? If so, as principals, we need to give teachers a strong voice in developing a professional development model that will meet their needs.

What might this look like? At our school, we have one hour a week of an extended workday. Rather than dictate how each hour each week is used, we have developed what we call Instructional Cycles. The way it works is that teachers target an instructional strategy they want to learn more about and implement in their classroom. Each trimester, teachers find a small (3-6) group of colleagues who are also interested in the same instructional strategy. The groups meet and research the strategy, have discussions about implementation, and share lessons learned. In between meetings, the group members observe their peers implementing the strategy and debrief these observations at the next meeting. By the end of the year, all teachers will have worked on three instructional strategies that were not in their repertoire before. They will have collaborated with and observed many of their peers and the instructional bar will be raised for all.

All of this is possible with a small shift from top-down to teacher-driven. When a principal empowers teacher leaders and gives voice to these leaders, great things happen in schools. And it all starts with relationships and trust.

Peter Cohen


Peter is an educational leader whose mission is to use innovation, teamwork, and technology to do the right thing for all students, whatever it takes. His recent research focuses on the impact of leadership by school superintendents to bring large-scale technology initiatives to public schools.  Prior to learning and leading 30 miles out to sea as Principal of Cyrus Peirce Middle School on Nantucket, Peter served seven years as a middle school principal in Westford, MA and ten years as a history teacher in the Lexington, MA public school system. You can connect with Peter on Twitter @petercohen21 or by following his blog at

Are you interested in sharing your ideas, insights and questions? If so, click here to sign up for a post. Julie Vincentsen, Principal of Ruggles Lane School, will reach out with specifics. Are you interested but nervous because you’ve never blogged before and don’t know where to begin? Don’t worry – as long as you know how to use Microsoft Word you will be up to this challenge. We write for our communities all the time – this just changes your audience. You probably could even take a current newsletter you’ve written and repurpose it for your colleagues.

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