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Tennessee Rural Principals Network

The University of Tennessee’s Center for Educational Leadership coordinates and facilitates the Tennessee Rural Principals Network (TRPN) on behalf of the Tennessee Department of Education.  The TRPN is a state-wide initiative to connect school leaders in the rural setting from across the Volunteer State and to provide collaborative professional learning experiences to build the capacity and effectiveness of rural school principals across Tennessee.  The first cohort of the Tennessee Rural Principals Network began in the fall of 2018, and continues today. The second TRPN cohort starts their journey together in January, 2020.

The Center for Educational Leadership has developed a detailed instructional leadership model to support the Tennessee Rural Principals Network (in conjunction with its research and support partner the American Institutes for Research), called the Principal Leading + Learning Framework.

The exhibit below illustrates the Theory of Action for our Principal Leading + Learning instructional leadership model, which integrates what we know about adult learning and leadership and organizational development and assumes that leaders improve practice best by solving real problems in their schools. Principal Leading + Learning provides blended professional learning activities coupled with frequent networking opportunities—through in-person professional learning, virtual one-on-one coaching, and mastermind small groupings—strengthening principals’ competencies and skills through application and simultaneously addressing a problem of practice in their schools. This framework facilitates the development of strong leadership practices at the individual and collective level, which will significantly improve student outcomes.

Exhibit 1. Principal Leading + Learning Theory of Action

The Principal Leading + Learning approach leverages the strengths of the University of Tennessee’s Center for Educational Leadership and the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and translates into practice what we know from research and what is represented in standards. This approach will be used by the professional development team, including representatives from UTK and AIR. Our theory is that student performance, school culture, and relational trust will improve in schools when leaders engage others in transparent, continuous improvement processes and that leaders will grow through networked and job-embedded learning experiences. Through the TRPN, principals will meet the following project objectives:

  • Identify an instructionally focused problem of practice based on data: Rural school principals will gather, analyze, and reflect on school data with others to identify a strategic, “adaptive” problem within the school that will be addressed through continuous improvement. An adaptive problem is one that requires organizational/cultural changes to reach an important goal (Heifetz, 1998). An instructionally focused problem is one concerning teaching and learning. This is the principals’ problem of practice that will guide their engagement in the improvement cycle.
  • Engage in improvement cycles: Rural school principals will engage with colleagues, coaches, and school-level staff in an improvement cycle to narrow the problem of practice, identify its causes, make plans, implement plans, and test results. The continuous improvement cycle will be supported through in-person convenings and virtual coaching. The Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) cycle will be used during Network activities, but the PDSA cycle will be adapted so that principals revisit aspects of the problem and cycle during its implementation (i.e., a nonlinear approach to continuous improvement).
  • Build leadership skills within the TEAM administrative rubric: Through professional learning, networked dialogue, leadership coaching and scaffolded implementation, rural principals can expect to learn about and build skills in areas defined by the TEAM rubric, and their coaching plans will be organized around TEAM rubric skills: capacity building (A1), data analysis and use (A2), leveraging educator’s strengths (B1), and ownership (B4).
  • Distribute leadership to provide instructionally focused support: Rural principals will distribute leadership strategically to begin solving the problem of practice by considering staff motivation, learning needs, time allocations, and politics; organizational and community capacities and policies/procedures; and their own capacities for change.

The following conceptual framework visually illustrates the interconnected professional growth strategies between and among three delivery structures and two related learning strands:

Exhibit 2. Principal Leading + Learning Conceptual Framework

This framework recognizes the need for the development of critical leadership skills and capabilities, while also acknowledging that the best way to develop and hone those skills in in the context of leading. Therefore, the Principal Leading + Learning Model purposefully emphasizes application of leadership skills toward addressing specific problems of practice and executing against very clear school improvement goals.

Utilizing the Principal Leading + Learning model, with its synergistic combination of three levels of interaction (individual, small communities, and whole network) coupled with two complementary learning strands (leadership capacity building and school improvement activities) allows for targeted, measurable, and impactful learning for all Tennessee Rural Principals Network participants to enhance and grow their instructional leadership competencies and increase student academic success at their school.

The original news release regarding the Tennessee Rural Principals Network can be viewed at the Tennessee Department of Education’s website: