“I haven’t had your job, but I imagine it’s like standing at a busy intersection—and everyone thinks it’s their turn to go,” Governor Bill Haslam shared these words with public school principals from across the state, and the school leaders nodded their heads and laughed at the strikingly accurate metaphor.

Despite standing at that busy intersection every day, more than 100 principals gave their time and came together in Nashville for SCORE’s inaugural Institute for Principals. They spent the day learning about state policy, current research, and courageous school leadership, all while connecting with peers from across the state.

As a state, and within our own organization, we’ve begun to pay closer attention to the critical role of school leaders. We know from research that principals are the second most important in-school factor on student achievement after teachers. Research also shows that they are key to retaining our highest-performing teachers.

However, we haven’t done enough as a state to engage school leaders. Tennessee is a state known for its plentiful opportunities for teacher leadership and educator voice in policy conversations, and I proudly lead one of those opportunities—the Tennessee Educator Fellowship. There are, however, fewer opportunities for principals to wrestle with the nuances of state policies or to dive deeply into current education research.

With this in mind, we decided to create an opportunity exclusively for principals. We were honored that so many principals decided to share their wisdom—more than 425 years of combined experience—and their day with us. While we hope that participants took away some key learnings from our presenters, we certainly took away a great deal from them. Here are just a few reflections:

  • Principals deserve more opportunities to connect with one another. When we planned this event, we knew that an important outcome would be tough to fully capture—principals would reconnect with colleagues, make new connections, and have the opportunity to commiserate, share ideas, and support one another. We intentionally left seating assignments open at the institute, and there were no forced networking opportunities or icebreakers. Principals simply needed the space, time, and a little bit of coffee—the energy was palpable. There were conversations about personnel challenges, athletics, amazing teachers, and, of course, student success stories. The principalship can be a lonely job, but we hope that providing an opportunity for principals to step out of their daily routine and learn with peers made it a little less so.
  • Principals value the opportunity to engage in policy conversations, and their voices are critical to these conversations. One participant noted that she joined the institute with about six other principals from her large district. She learned that while they didn’t all have the same experiences or perspectives on policy, they benefitted from the opportunity to share with one another and push each other’s thinking in a supportive, collegial environment. And just as principals might need the opportunities to have these conversations; these conversations also need them. Courageous school leaders, especially those who lead with students at the center of the conversation, know what’s working—and what might need refining. Their voices are critical as we work to improve outcomes for all students in Tennessee.
  • Principals are the ultimate lifelong learners. When we first conceived of the idea of a principal’s institute focused on policy and research, we wondered if it would be practical enough. After all, standing at the busy intersection, as the governor described it, day after day is fast-paced, and principals are often in problem-solving mode. There isn’t always the time to dive into research briefs or consider how the research connects to policy and practice. But this is exactly why our time together at the institute was so incredibly valuable. One principal shared with us that engaging with researchers first-hand and discussing the implications with colleagues was far more valuable than reading a report on his own. Principals are the best lifelong learners—we just have to carve out the time and provide the structure and support.

As we reflect on our first institute with principals, we hope our participants know how much we value their time and how grateful we are that they spent the day with us. We also hope they know that we recognize there is more work to do, and at SCORE, we are dedicated to improving the ways we engage principals because, to once again borrow the words of Governor Haslam: “You’re at the heart of what matters.”

Leigh Cooksey is the educator engagement associate at SCORE.