How learning from my fellow principals pushed my leadership to new levels

As a principal, I frequently push and challenge my teachers to stretch themselves. They continue to learn and grow as professionals, not only for themselves, but also for the students they serve.

Two years ago, I decided it was my turn to push my professional learning in order for our school to continue to grow. It’s not enough for Casals to be a Level 1+ school when we still have students who struggle academically; I want all of our students on-track to be college and career ready when they leave in eighth grade.

As a school, we pride ourselves on having a growth mindset, and I wanted to model that for my staff; I wanted to learn and be a better leader for them and our students. The Chicago Principals Fellowship was exactly what I needed to intentionally grow my leadership skills and learn from my colleagues, Chicago Public Schools CEO Dr. Janice Jackson, and the professors at Northwestern University.

As a Fellow, I worked with other principals across the city to shape districtwide policy. Our aim was to find ways to retain teachers in the city’s highest-need schools through teacher leadership development and recognition. I was particularly interested in this project because of the challenge it presented; keeping highly qualified, highly motivated teachers in our underserved communities can have a powerful impact on our children.

Through our teacher retention project, surveys and research, our group discovered that money is not the driving force behind teacher retention in the highest-need schools. What teachers need are opportunities to grow and develop within the teaching profession — and to do that, they need the support of their administrator.

This project encouraged me to reflect on how I was intentionally building opportunities for Casals teachers to grow and develop in order to retain them and support their morale.  Because of the fellowship, I initiated independent study sessions for veteran, high-performing teachers. The teachers developed and led the sessions with clear, targeted outcomes, rather than attending principal-directed meetings. This supported their interests as a group and allowed them to learn from one another in a setting that was similar to my fellowship experience.  

Additionally, Casals became an Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) training site for resident teachers. Four Casals teachers currently serve as mentor teachers to seven resident teachers. Our hope is to continue to grow the program within our school, with the support of the AUSL network, so teachers are able to gain experience in coaching and mentoring without leaving the classroom.   

Thanks to the fellowship, I recognize how important it is to create time and space to learn from my colleagues and “experts” within the leadership field. Being a highly effective principal can be all-consuming when you’re trying to meet the needs of your staff, students, parents and community. The thought of taking time to learn can seem like a luxury I can’t afford. But by investing the time once a month to learn from my colleagues and Northwestern professors, I was able to slow down, reflect and refuel in order to give more to the Casals community.  In this space, I was able to nurture creative ideas, goals and next steps for myself and my school.

Chicago principals are some of the hardest working people I know, and it’s rare for us to be given an opportunity to nourish our minds and spirits.  It was an honor to learn from my colleagues, the faculty at Northwestern, Dr. Jackson and her staff.

Kristie Langbehn is in her seventh year as principal of Casals School of Excellence, an elementary school serving more than 400 students in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. She was a member of the 2017-18 Chicago Principals Fellowship cohort.