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Leading Towards Engagement

How principals can support teachers’ intellectual engagement

This article is based on a design-based research study, wherein a group of principals worked together to answer the question, “What can we as principals do to support teachers’ intellectual engagement in the schools we work in?” By supporting teachers’ intellectual engagement, principals encourage the development of their teaching staff. Principals can do this by focusing on their leadership practices, creating conditions within the school that support engagement and taking specific actions that support teacher development. Principals also need to be able to respond to the needs of teachers as they arise throughout the school year.

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The role of the principal involves supporting both staff and students, and these tasks are not mutually exclusive. In fact, Robinson states that principals can have the greatest influence on student learning by focusing on teacher development.[1] As a principal myself, I recognize the challenge of helping teachers grow in ways that encourage them to develop their individual passion and engagement. We have many forms of development for systematic movements in schools, but few with the goal of fostering an actively engaged, passionate and innovative teaching staff. Two questions have emerged from my practice: How can I as a school principal support teachers’ intellectual engagement? How can I lead in a way that nurtures the passion of teachers in the school?

During the 2012-2013 school year, I worked with a group of principals on a design-based research project aimed at answering these questions.[2] Our group wanted to understand our role in the process of engagement. We wanted to help teachers to grow in deep and meaningful ways that brought them closer to their vision of great teaching. Our team met initially and set the goal of taking actions throughout the school year that we thought would support teachers’ intellectual engagement. Our understanding of intellectual engagement emerged from the work done by Willms, Friesen and Milton,[3] and we talked about helping teachers experience flow[4] in their work.

At the first meeting, we decided on the actions that would be taken in the schools and planned to meet a few weeks later to evaluate our work. The team took many different actions to meet the needs of the teachers in their schools. We actually could not decide on a single action that would work in every school. Principals were adamant that one size would not fit all; their actions had to suit their respective school. Our team was able to meet a number of times over the five months we carried out the study. Meeting in the midst of the busy school year was, however, one of the greatest challenges for our group of principals. To stay connected, principals wrote and submitted reflective journals throughout the process. The team and I also sent emails, talked on the phone, completed questionnaires and did interviews. Our goal was to continually evaluate how our actions were influencing the school by connecting our experiences. Our process was not only research, but also professional development. We searched for innovative actions that made a difference and shared our collective stories.

As I concluded the research and sorted through the messiness of the process, a number of insights emerged that formed the basis of an engaging leadership framework. I recognized that our personal characteristics, the culture of the schools and specific actions we took had an impact on teachers’ intellectual engagement. By forming a team of principals with the clear goal of supporting teachers through thoughtful and calculated actions, we made a difference. In this article, I share some of the things that worked for our team.

Walking the talk

Although our group of principals wanted to influence teachers, we quickly realized that we had to look in the mirror first. At our first meeting, while setting our direction, it became clear that there were a plethora of potential actions. Some of the actions suggested seemed comfortable for a few principals, but unnerving for the others. One principal suggested a book club would be great for her school, but not everyone felt comfortable with it. Another principal wanted to create a forum for discussion for teachers on staff, but not everyone was encouraged by this strategy. What we discovered quickly was that principals could only confidently support teachers’ intellectual engagement with strategies that they used themselves. For example, a principal who does a tremendous amount of professional reading would be able to support teachers in this area, but might not feel comfortable doing presentations at conventions. This doesn’t mean that principals need to master every form of development – rather that areas of strength for a principal relate to possible development for teachers.

What emerged for our team was the important role of the principal as a role model. One of the principals led a small team of teachers in a process of collaborative planning. The group set goals for the planning, tied them to student need, collected resources, co-taught the material and reflected regularly. The principal communicated values through the process and led the team in a deeply engaging process of designing a learning task.

Another principal identified a need for the school to develop strategies for classroom management. He led the staff in a presentation about effective classroom management, including tools that worked for him. He then invited teachers throughout the year to present their management tools to the staff. The result was not only improved management, but also a school strategy for mobilizing knowledge.

Walking the talk also meant demonstrating a sense of self-efficacy about the potential influence the principal could have for teachers. At the outset of the project, principals wondered how much influence they might have. But by our second meeting, it was evident that they had a great deal of influence. Their actions created change and built momentum that led to future actions. The catalyst for the actions throughout the process was the belief that principals could, indeed, make a difference.

The conditions for engagement

At heart, we were trying to create a culture of engagement in the school. Principals will not be directly involved in every experience of engagement for teachers, but they can work to create an atmosphere in which teachers are more likely to experience engagement and practise engaging teaching. During the study, we identified five key conditions for engagement.

1. Relationship building

Healthy relationships form the foundation of an engaging school culture. Teachers need to feel valued, respected and supported in their work as teachers and as individuals. Our group of principals found that relationship building was critical in their efforts to support intellectual engagement. Clearly teachers can experience engagement without the principal; however, the principal must have developed a relationship if he or she is going to offer any support. Our group of principals found the stronger their relationship with teachers, the greater impact they were able to have. Conversely, if the principal did not interact regularly with the teacher, there was very little direct influence. The value of relationship building came not only from the positive atmosphere in the school, but also from the opportunities to collaborate, have discussions and problem-solve together.

2. Opportunities for collaboration and professional dialogue

Our team quickly recognized the connection between the inherently social nature of many of the teachers we worked with and intellectual engagement. The social element of engagement became one of the cornerstones of our actions. One principal even wondered if the best action he could take was to bring teachers together and get out of the way. This dialogue instigated teacher collaboration, which was strongly connected with positive outcomes. It was often while discussing how to teach a literacy skill, co-planning a unit or debating the merit of a school program that teachers experienced intellectual engagement.

One of the most successful actions was taken early in the project by a principal who created an opportunity for a group of teachers to come together and discuss a new school intervention program. The teachers produced so much energy at the meeting, along with a lot of good ideas, that the group ended up meeting regularly for the entirety of the project. The team was invested in the process and their ideas and collaborative efforts created meaningful change in the school. The principal simply brought the team together and let the process unfold. A core belief of our group was that when a group of teachers have the opportunity to share ideas with others, the growth, development and engagement is remarkable.

3. Time

Our group also found that when a culture of collaboration is realized, it requires formal support – with the most important support being time. It is more difficult for teachers to experience deep engagement at the end of a long day, during the evening or when coming back on the weekend. Teachers spend many extra hours preparing, but our team tried to build time into the school day to collaborate and work on individual passions. We created this support by providing prep time, using administration time to cover for teachers, scheduling professional learning communities during the school day, creating time for discussion at staff meetings and using portions of professional development days to bring teachers together. It was clear to the team that if we wanted to encourage teachers’ intellectual engagement, we should try to support them with the time to do it.

4. Resources

Directing resources to specific areas became a requirement for the group of principals. Although budgets are limited and needs are great, there are ways of using resources in a strategic manner that can make a difference. Principals found it was very effective to allocate a portion of their budget for needs that arose through the year. As they recognized passion and areas of growth, they would provide funding to buy professional books on the topic, send the teacher to a conference, buy the teaching material for the new idea or help individuals gain access to the tools or personnel they needed. Resources were seen partially as responsive to the needs of the school at a specific time.

5. A climate of growth and innovation

It became apparent to us that intellectual engagement tended to thrive in spaces where teachers were excited about possibilities, able to be creative and willing to try something new. This was coupled with a culture of growth that encouraged teachers to strive to better themselves and the school. An inspiring example of this came when a teacher came to the principal with the innovative idea of transforming the outdoor education program at the school. The teacher had a personal passion, a vision of change and a plan to get there. The school principal embraced the opportunity and the two created a proposal to be taken to the superintendent and potentially the board of education. The process of developing the proposal was one of the deepest experiences of engagement that occurred. The teacher wanted to grow and be innovative and the principal nurtured the experience. Although not every engaging experience went to the board level, many of the experiences were rooted in the goal of improving and innovating.

The actions taken by the principals were beneficial for both teachers and principals. Principals reported that teachers in the schools they worked in were having engaging experiences. They saw teachers planning collaboratively, reading professional literature in book clubs, considering graduate work, discussing literacy strategies, presenting to the staff and designing innovative learning experiences for students. What is notable about these experiences is that they were connected with the actions of the principals in creating conditions for engagement in the school. They emerged from the principals trying to lead in an engaging way. Principals found that by carrying out a thoughtful plan, they could support teachers.

The principals also found the research process to be a tremendous professional development experience for themselves. They had the opportunity to be self-reflective while working with a group of other leaders. They were able to work closely with teachers and analyze the influence they had. Perhaps the most welcome result was being able to focus on creating engaging conditions for teachers in school. Making school a wonderful place to work is surely a goal that resonates with many leaders as a worthwhile pursuit. 


Characteristics of Effective Actions

As principals planned and implemented specific strategies aimed at leading teachers toward engaging experiences, the group identified a number of characteristics that increased success.

Effective engaging leadership is:

PERSONALIZED: Leaders take actions that respond to the needs of teachers in the school and match their skill set. A variety of tools are necessary for principals to connect with teachers in the school.

RESEARCH-BASED: Leaders take actions that are based in research and tied to a body of literature. The research basis provides a common language and focus to the actions.

LONG TERM: Leaders take actions that are carried out over a period of time. Time enables the action to fully develop and allows teachers to enter deeply into the process.

RELEVANT: Leaders take actions that address the needs and experience of teachers at the given time. Matching actions with the cycle of the school year ensures the action supports the current needs of the teacher.

TIMELY: Leaders take actions in response to opportunities that are presented. There are key times when a principal can respond to teachers’ needs that are neither planned nor predictable.


First published in Education Canada, September 2013


EN BREF - Lors d’une étude réalisée selon l’approche de la recherche-design, un groupe de directions d’école a voulu répondre à la question suivante : « Que pouvons-nous faire, en tant que directions d’école, pour appuyer l’engagement intellectuel du personnel enseignant des écoles où nous travaillons? » En soutenant l’engagement intellectuel des enseignants, les directions d’école favorisent leur développement. Pour ce faire, les directions peuvent mettre l’accent sur leurs pratiques de leadership, engendrer dans l’école des conditions favorisant l’engagement et prendre des mesures soutenant le perfectionnement des enseignants. Les directions doivent également savoir combler les besoins des enseignants au fur et à mesure qu’ils se manifestent pendant l’année scolaire.


[1] Viviane Robinson, Student-Centered Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011).

[2] Davin Hildebrand, “The Influence of Interventions Used by Principals on Teachers’ Intellectual Engagement” (doctoral dissertation in progress, Calgary, AB: University of Calgary, 2013).

[3] J. D. Willms, S. Friesen and P. Milton, What did you do in school today? Transforming classrooms through social, academic, and intellectual engagement (First national report, Toronto: Canadian Education Association, 2009).

[4] M. Cskiszentmihalyi, Flow: The psychology of optimal experience (New York: HarperCollins, 1990).