Leaders need professional learning too

By Megan Peterson on August 30, 2023 in Leadership

Megan shares her insights about why and how leaders should make time for their own development as they plan their strategy for the year ahead.

When I was but a few years into my first school leadership role, the first of the best evidence syntheses (BES) was published. I knew them by their colours – the purple one on social science, the yellow one on professional learning, the blue one on educational leadership. At one point, I was convinced I’d end up with the whole ROYGBIV rainbow. I pored over them – in fact, they are still on my bookshelf of key readings. What made them key reading for me is in the name – they are a synthesis of best practice. They explain what research tells us about what makes a difference to improve ākonga outcomes. They have frameworks and practical examples.

This week, I’ve been reflecting on School Leadership and Student Outcomes: Identifying What Works and Why (the blue BES). I worked with a senior leadership team earlier in the week to support them to prepare an application for Ministry-funded PLD. They are a highly evaluative team and were reflecting on the evidence they had that would inform their application – ākonga voice, whānau voice, student achievement data, staff professional growth cycle information, their strategic plan. But there was one gaping hole.

Me: What about your professional needs as leaders?

Deputy principal: Hang on, isn’t this PLD for teachers?

Principal: Can we do that? Can we get support for us as leaders? Leadership isn’t an MOE PLD priority though.

Me: Not only can you, but you should build in time to develop your leadership capabilities so that you can make sure that what has been learned in the PLD is embedded in your school’s kaupapa.

This conversation got me thinking about how easy it can be to overlook senior leaders’ professional learning needs. You can look at the Ministry PLD priorities and interpret them as classroom-focused or focused on teachers and kaiako. However, assessment for learning, cultural capability, digital fluency, local curriculum design, aromatawai, marau ā-kura, and mātauranga Māori and te reo Māori not only impact in the classroom but touch all areas of your school or kura. How can leaders ensure that the learning from PLD is not isolated in classrooms but instilled across the school for the benefit of all?

What does the best evidence synthesis tell us?

Honestly, it tells us a lot. I do recommend this as good reading for all leaders in schools and kura. Specifically, it identifies the research-informed practices that make a difference for ākonga. The authors have broken it into key dimensions and the knowledge, skills and dispositions needed to enact those dimensions.

1. Five dimensions of leadership that make a difference when improving student outcomes

  • Establishing goals and expectations

  • Resourcing strategically

  • Planning, coordinating, and evaluating teaching and the curriculum

  • Promoting and participating in teacher learning and development

  • Ensuring an orderly and supportive environment.

2. Key knowledge, skills, and dispositions that underpin the dimensions

  • Ensure administrative decisions are informed by knowledge and effective pedagogy

  • Analyse and solve complex problems

  • Build relational trust

  • Engage in learning-focused conversations.

Leading transformation in your school or kura requires more than good educational expertise. While it is necessary, you need more than that. “Leaders who are able to build trust relationships are in a position to foster the inquiry, risk taking, and collaborative effort that school improvement demands.” (Robinson, Hohepa, & Lloyd, 2009, p.206)

If the knowledge, skills, and dispositions are the practices you need to enact the dimensions, you need to build them. For example, if you’re focusing on implementing Te Mātaiaho using the local curriculum design priority, how skilful are you and your team at analysing and solving complex problems that may occur or may hinder your ability to implement? Giving practical effect to Te Tiriti o Waitangi requires a great deal of relational trust. As a leader, how confident are you to build that relational trust with ākonga, whānau, staff, your board, and your community?

So what might leadership professional learning look like? It can assist you to:

  • hold effective conversations that will move the learning forward

  • build relational trust in your teams and within your communities

  • develop a collaborative and collegial school culture

  • examine your kura or school-wide pedagogical practices through a leadership lens

  • create the systems and processes for learning to flourish

  • build the ability to analyse and interpret a range of information to inform progress

  • move observations of practice from a ‘done to’ to a ‘done with’ approach

  • consult with your community in ways that are empowering for all.

And where did the leadership team I was working with get to with their PLD plan? Their Ministry-PLD application outlines specific outcomes for student, teacher, and leader practice. They have identified how strengthening their leadership practice will positively impact on ākonga learning and wellbeing. They have some possible measures in place to monitor the improvement in their leadership practice. A commitment to prioritising leadership meeting time will enable them to collaboratively examine their knowledge, skills, and dispositions. The principal will set aside sufficient resourcing in the budget for this PLD.

This team will become one of those across the motu that we support to build these leadership skills. We’ve found that leaders who prioritise professional learning time and resources to develop their leadership capability can confidently continue the professional learning once they are no longer working with a consultant.

Remember, leaders need professional learning too. Make time for your development as a leader as you plan your strategy for the year ahead.


Robinson, V., Hohepa, M., & Lloyd, C. (2009). School Leadership and Student Outcomes: Identifying What Works and Why. Ministry of Education.

Read more about the Best Evidence Syntheses here: https://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/publications/series/2515

If you’re interested in a tool to help you evaluate your leadership knowledge, skills, and dispositions, use this matrix we developed with the University of Auckland. https://www.evaluate.co.nz/resources/leadership-dimensions-matrix

Contact Cath to discuss your professional learning needs

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