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The best way to increase student learning is to assist the adults who serve them

This article was written by Professor David McKay Boren and was originally published in The Leader Magazine in the summer of 2016.

There are many different approaches principals can take to build teacher capacity. Some approaches are good, some are better, and some are best. The purpose of this article is to review some good, better, and best approaches that principals can take to increase teacher capacity that contributes to student achievement.

A Good Approach: Observations and Coaching

In this approach principals seek to directly improve instruction through one-on-one teacher observations and coaching. School leaders spend time in classrooms ensuring that teachers’ instructional practices match with researched best practices of teaching. Ideally, when gaps exist between observed and ideal teaching practices, the principal then provides training, coaching, support, and other resources to help individual teachers improve. Ultimately, this approach assumes that as principals help teachers to improve their quality of instruction, student learning will improve as well.

Most of us were trained in this approach in our school leadership programs, and it has been, for many of us, the default approach for improving teaching and learning. One advantage of this approach is that principals can provide individualized support and coaching to teachers based on their specific needs. It forces school leaders to be in classrooms and, when done correctly, may lead to improved teaching. It can be gratifying to delve into deep reflections about instructional practices and see an individual teacher make substantive instructional improvements based on our direct work with that teacher.

As a new principal, this was my default approach, and I soon recognized some very real challenges that came with this approach. First, this approach dangerously assumes that principals have the necessary time to provide consistent, ongoing coaching to teachers. Of this approach, Michael Fullan explained, “It’s as if the system has unlimited supervisory capacity and that principals have all the time in the world to change teachers one at a time” (2014, 46).

Principals and teachers engaged in this approach sometimes forget to ask the critical question, “Are we here to teach, or are we here to ensure that our students learn?” (Buffum, Mattos, and Weber, 2012, 17). As a result, a teacher displaying all of the outlined best-practice behaviors on an observation tool may be deemed highly effective, yet still have many students learning at low levels. DuFour and Mattos warn, “Classroom observations can be meaningful and beneficial to some extent, but principals should not use them as their key strategy for improving their schools” (2013, 36).

Most of us love being in classrooms and coaching teachers, but we often struggle to find enough time to make it effective throughout school. As a new principal I knew I could not abandon this good approach, but I also knew there must be other better approaches that allowed me to reach a higher proportion of my teachers. This led me to a better approach.

A Better Approach: Building Team Capacity

This better approach was to improve teacher learning by increasing the capacity of my teachers to work on a collaborative team. DuFour and Marzano claim, “Time devoted to building the capacity of teachers to work in teams is far better spent than time devoted to observing individual teachers” (2011, 67). Educational researchers have found that “when teachers are given the time and tools to collaborate, they become lifelong learners, their instructional practice improves, and they are ultimately able to increase student achievement far beyond what any of them could accomplish alone” (Carroll, Fulton, and Doerr, 2010, 10).

This approach asks teachers to take ownership of their own learning, and it only works if teacher teams know how to effectively work together and actually do so consistently. Many of us provide consistent time for our teachers to work together as teams, yet we all know that “collaboration does not lead to improved results unless people are focused on the right issues” and have the capacity to effectively address those issues (DuFour et. al, 2010, 11).

So let’s return to my first year as a principal. While I still tried to spend significant time observing and coaching individual teachers, I became even more consistent in visiting and supporting teacher teams. My initial visits left me surprised at my teachers’ lack of understanding about the processes of working on a team. They were spending a lot of collaboration time on schedules, materials, copies, gossip, and griping. Our district had been using a teaming framework for years, so I assumed that my teachers were intentionally resisting what they knew to be the best practices of teaming. I was set straight a few weeks later during a leadership team meeting when one of my rock-star teachers bravely admitted, “Honestly, we don’t really know what we’re supposed to be doing during team time. We believe in the idea. We just don’t know how it’s supposed to work. If you’ll teach us, we’ll do it.” I realized that the energy and time I had been wasting on worrying about resistant teachers would have been better spent on building their capacity. Richard Elmore explains the importance of such reciprocal accountability, “For every increment of performance I demand of you, I have an equal responsibility to provide you with the capacity to meet that expectation” (2004, 93). If I wanted my teachers to collaborate effectively, I needed to teach them how.

My initial strategy for building team capacity was to provide training during professional development days, hold book study sessions, and try and make sure I visited every team every week during our team collaboration time. As teachers learned more about PLCs, they were more committed to the process and were collaborating more effectively. Unfortunately, some teams were not making much progress. I was unable to visit every team every week, and some teams just didn’t seem to accomplish much of value if I wasn’t sitting right there with them. Sure, they could fill out the collaboration accountability forms in order to jump through the administrative hoopla, but substantive, focused, effective collaboration that supported student learning was not happening consistently on each team. We were making some progress, but not enough to really make a big difference in student learning. I needed another approach that was not so dependent on my attendance at every team meeting every week. This led me to a best approach for building teacher capacity.

A Best Approach: Building Team Leader Capacity

In this approach, principals seek to indirectly improve teacher learning by increasing the capacity of team leaders to lead the PLC process on their collaborative teams. Eaker and Keating explain, “Team leaders should be viewed by principals as the key link between administration and faculty” (Eaker and Keating, 2009, 52). DuFour and Marzano further elaborate, “Effective principals will not attempt to do it alone. They will foster shared leadership by identifying and developing educators to lead their collaborative teams because without effective leadership at the team level, the collaborative process is likely to drift away from the issues most critical to student learning” (2011, 57).

If we have strong team leaders consistently guiding the collaborative process, we don’t need to be at every collaboration meeting every week. We will have a strong cadre of team leaders guiding, directing, and focusing the work.

My initial strategy for building the capacity of my team leaders was to model for them how to lead the teaming process during my visits to collaborative teams. A common team visit consisted of me coming to visit a team, listening for a few minutes, and then taking charge of the meeting, only to abruptly leave to visit another team. I was trying to model for team leaders how to better run their collaboration meetings. I soon realized that this approach was ineffective. By rudely interrupting team meetings, I was eclipsing and undermining team leaders and making it harder for them to keep team meetings focused on the right work.

My focus turned to modeling how to lead team processes in our team leader meetings. The content of these monthly team leader meetings drastically changed from discussions about "administrivia" to real collaboration about how to lead the teaming process in each grade level team. As a leadership team, we set norms, studied team processes together, visited other schools, attended conferences, and supported each other in the work of teams. Our progress was accelerated when the leadership team requested that leadership team meetings be held weekly rather than monthly. As the capacity of team leaders increased, weekly teacher team meetings improved, which carried over to improved teaching and learning in every classroom. While my attendance at weekly collaboration remained an important priority, team leaders truly began to lead the teaming process, whether or not I was in attendance.

Clearly, building the capacity of our leadership teams must be an absolute priority. Do we take the extra time and effort to prepare high quality, capacity-building team leader meetings? Do we place those meetings as a high priority on our schedules? Do we find additional outside opportunities to expand team leaders’ vision, knowledge, skills, and motivation? Building the capacity of team leaders is a very high-yield approach that requires comparatively little time from principals.

The Very Best Approach: Combining Approaches

Each of the three approaches has value and must be a priority. Principals cannot simply focus on team leaders and hope that the rest of the process will just take care of itself. In considering these three approaches, we should be careful to not fall for what Collins and Porras call the “Tyranny of the Or,” which suggests that we have to adopt a single strategy or approach at the exclusion of all others (2002). These are not mutually exclusive, competing approaches. Harvey and Holland explain that “the research shows that most school variables, considered separately, have at most small effects on learning. The real payoff comes when individual variables combine to reach critical mass. Creating the conditions under which that can occur is the job of the principal” (2013, 3). The very best approach is to embrace the “Genius of the And” (Collins and Porras, 2002), and use the strengths of each of these approaches in concert to build teacher capacity that will ultimately lead to the highest levels of teacher and student learning.


Buffum, A., M. Mattos, and C. Weber. Simplifying Response to Intervention: Four Essential Guiding Principles. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press, 2012.

Carroll, T., K. Fulton, and H. Doerr. “Team Up for 21st Century Teaching and Learning: What Research and Practice Reveal about Professional Learning.” Paper presented at the meeting of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, Washington, DC, 2010. Retrieved from

Collins, J., and S. Porras. Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.

DuFour, R., R. DuFour, and Eaker, R. Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work: New Insights for Improving Schools. Bloomington, Indiana: Solution Tree, 2008.

DuFour, R., R. DuFour, R. Eaker, and Many, T. Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Communities at Work. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press, 2010.

DuFour, R., and R. J. Marzano. Leaders of Learning: How District, School, and Classroom Leaders Improve Student Achievement. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press, 2011.

DuFour, R., and M. Mattos. “How Do Principals Really Improve Schools?” Educational Leadership, 70(7), 34-40, 2013.

Eaker, R., and J. Keating. “Deeply Embedded, Fully Committed.” National Staff Development Council, 30(5), 50-55, 2009.

Elmore, R. F. School Reform from the Inside Out: Policy, Practice, and Performance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2004.

Fullan, M. The Principal: Three Keys to Maximizing Impact. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014.

Harvey, J., and H. Holland. “The School Principal as Leader: Guiding Schools to Better Teaching and Learning.” The Wallace Foundation. 3, January 2013.

Oaks, D. H. “Good, Better, Best.” Ensign (November 2007).