The Development of School Leadership Teams

“Getting the ‘C’ in Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) Going”

A crucial factor for the success and growth of PBIS in PUSD has been the strategic building, development, and support of school leadership teams. For a long time, a key challenge for PUSD had been to build shared leadership across different stakeholder groups, especially in developing transformational, shared leadership that develops an organization’s capacity to innovate.1 According to Morillo-Shone, “A key challenge for us was how to engage, place trust, and encourage other teachers and stakeholders that are not taking on those leadership roles.” Additionally, when educators took leadership roles, they tended to be the same ones. Sarai Costley, Program Administrator of Professional Learning & California State Standards, Equity and Professional Learning, discussed some of the challenges of fostering and building shared leadership:

The same folks were tech leads, they were the PBIS leads, they were the ones coming to the curriculum committee, and there is only so much they can do and they were always the same ones. So how do we, as a district, continue to build the capacity of others, to build in that intrinsic motivation that says: Yes, I want to step up and be a part of that work.

In 2013, during the first discussions about becoming a PBIS district, district leadership, mindful of this challenge, decided to implement a team approach to PBIS. Each school would have a PBIS coach and a select group of teachers, administrator(s), and stakeholders as part of the site PBIS team. As described by district leaders: “These were intentionally put together with a PBIS coach and created a team or a Community of Practice (CoP) with one of our teacher specialists supporting them from the beginning to build capacity and confidence. The goal was that if you get the C within PLCs (Community) functioning, teams begin to believe they can absolutely change the culture of schools.”

For many others, time, trust, and support were the most important factors. The PBIS teams, initially funded as part of the response to “significant disproportionality,” were given weekly time and space to come together and develop leadership and trust, along with structures, expectations, supports, and data. Susan Newton, PBIS coach at Arroyo Elementary, stated that while she was happy to step forward, “I was initially scared to death…as time progressed, I’m feeling more confident and I feel confident on the team.” Roderick Reynoso, PBIS coach at Simons Middle School, found “it was different from instruction, different from what I am used to as a teacher. I am challenged and stretched in ways I have never been stretched before.”

The development of teams has also contributed to fostering a collaborative culture in schools. Principal Cristine Goens, referring to teacher teams, explained: “PBIS has really changed teacher collaboration. We all know we’ve been protective of our practice, both instructional and behavior, and now it is more like saying, ‘Hey I’m having issues here; the data is showing up here; let’s have that conversation of how we can support each other.’” During the PBIS meetings, educators progressively stopped asking what was wrong with individuals and instead asked, “What can we do?” Principal Cynthia Sanchez, talking about the PBIS team meetings with other principals, argued that “having those meetings for PBIS has also changed accountability. Educators holding each other accountable and supporting each other at the site has been invaluable, because you’re preaching to the choir. We’re the choir here, and it’s always a choir up in front preaching to everyone. When it starts to become community pressure, supportive pressure, that’s when movement happens.” Consequently, responsibility for leadership has moved beyond the individual leaders and into the relationships and interactions between multiple stakeholders, a shift consistent with distributed leadership models that have been shown to have a profound impact on student learning.2

Additionally, as explained by Morillo-Shone, strong learning communities and distributed leadership need to recognize that it is okay for schools and educators to be at different places:

You see more collaboration, versus before it was “let me shut my door, and leave me alone, and I’m gonna do my thing, you do your thing.” Schools and educators are at different places and even then, all sites are intentionally trying to navigate what does strong collaboration look like and sound like for us? And having those internal struggles, site leadership teams, and they’re trying to redefine what leadership is, not just the ones appointed by the principals, but really teacher leaders in the real sense of the word. Our role as a district is to support this, not only to expect this.

Alongside community accountability, distributed leadership, and a supportive environment, Morillo-Shone also points out another key layer to changing practices in PUSD: Difficult Conversations. “Often neglected conversations, centered on students, on the needs of the whole child, happening at every level, have had implications for everyone’s practice.” These, while challenging, are becoming common practice, less difficult, and more productive. Paula Richards, at Armstrong Elementary, speaking among her peers at a focus group said, “We all have gotten more comfortable taking instructional risks and talking about where we fail, because we are there to help each other. If one of you falls down, the other’s right there to pick you up.”

Cristine Goens echoed this thought as she explained how the way her school looks at data has changed. Both the trust that had been built and the sense of accountability towards impact have changed the way educators ask questions of the data: “When it comes to the data, it is about asking some very hard questions and grappling with them together.” Responding to a question from the district’s head PBIS coach about the relationship between PBIS and equity as a whole, a coach explained, “Just not being afraid to ask those questions, to recognize that race and culture really do matter in this society…talking about it so you can just sort of change the paradigm of things, and I really like that part of the awareness, and looking at the data I think allows that, allows us to just take that road, that track.”

Superintendent Martinez added, “It sounds counterintuitive, but good intentions were a difficult challenge. We needed to have hard conversations and to say good intentions are not enough; mediocre can actually create lots of equity gaps.”

Local School Leadership and Professional Growth

Another key outcome of the Development of School Leadership Teams has been their role as an important driver for localized and relevant professional growth. An important part of PBIS team meetings is the continuous review of the research, which is often guided by analysis of student data and includes Tier I instruction. Cristina Herrejon-Rutte, Site Specialist at San Antonio Elementary, has found that the biggest impact of PBIS has come in the form of lessons and professional growth. According to the PBIS Implementation Blueprint, the tiered prevention logic conceptualizes three levels of support: Tier I, the universal, high quality learning environments necessary for all students and staff across all settings; Tier II, the more focused, intensive, and frequent small group-oriented responses; and Tier III, the most individualized responses and supports.3 As shared by Herrejon-Rutte, one of the biggest lessons for staff has been the recognition that Tier II and Tier III are very time consuming for staff. This has triggered an intentional focus on building a robust Tier I for all students.

In the first couple years we focused on getting Tier I really solid and strong, then being able to move into the Tier II and Tier III supports has made a big difference, because now we are seeing the bang for our buck. A better Tier I means we have less students on Tier II and Tier III, and for them we now have smaller groups that need a little more short-term interventions, again, tailored to them.

The gap between professional development and changes in practice is a common challenge for districts across the country. It is well documented that the majority of teacher professional development does not have measurable effects on student outcomes or teacher practices.4 Conversely, research shows that when professional development is created around meaningful topics in a collaborative format, a sense of collective efficacy is created; therefore educators are more likely to take risks and try new practices.5 According to the educators interviewed for this case study, it was precisely these conversations, occuring during the PBIS meetings, that have been useful in encouraging and spreading both innovation and new instructional practices.

Herrejon-Rutte echoed this thought while simultaneously illustrating another important lesson from PUSD: the potential for special education teachers to share knowledge and support teacher growth across schools:

Before it was just Special Education that got access to some of these tools. And now, expanding them and changing the mindset of all adults working with students, that if you don’t know something then you learn how. And you teach how. And I think that’s been really powerful because a lot of the adults that I’ve worked with in the past, if they didn’t know how, they wrote it back off on the student or the family and “that’s not my job.” But it is our job. And so how do we reach all students? We teach them what the expectation is and how to be successful in their environment. That allows them to be more focused learners, and teachers are actually a lot happier at our school site because as kids are getting what they need, social-emotionally, they’re checked in and they’re engaged and they’re learning.

Interviews and observations also revealed various examples of instructional innovation. These ranged from locally relevant professional development such as Capturing Kids’ Hearts,6 Trauma Informed Teaching,7 and Culturally Relevant Pedagogy;8 PLC structures with an instructional peer-to-peer focus to support planning, observing lessons, and analyzing data and student work; and school-wide efforts to build community, include parents in classrooms and decision-making, and to develop partnerships with their local communities to meet the needs of students and families.

Lacey Lemus, principal at Cortez Mathematics & Science Magnet School, shared, “I find that my teachers’ best professional developments actually occur organically, when they discuss what they try, look at their data, and are sharing things that they are loving.” Recognizing their potential, other principals have recognized the transformative power of teacher teams, whose work (Lemus says) “keeps getting larger and larger, especially with the transition towards MTSS.”

Teacher-Led Professional Learning

Also using the flexibility of LCFF and supported by the department of Equity and Professional Learning, a growing group of teachers are serving in a variety of hybrid and coaching roles as they support their colleagues in the use of PBIS framework, new teacher induction, math modeling, and developing and use of curriculum aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The district office, in a strategic effort to build teacher-led learning and professional growth, has created a total of 41 positions (including both new positions and special assignments for existing positions) where teachers are beginning to serve in multifaceted roles by supporting their colleagues in integrating SEL teaching strategies into the academic core; developing more sophisticated pedagogical approaches to teaching math and science through lesson study and teacher-led, team-based curriculum development; and taking a renewed, and far more collaborative, approach to teacher induction and evaluation.

Additionally, the district has begun to roll out more efforts for teachers to learn from each other and for them to find time to experiment—including a co-teaching model that is being piloted in three elementary schools where two teachers take responsibility for teaching the same students, creating more time for them to both teach and lead. This effort has also been crucial in unfolding and spearheading one of the instructional initiatives envisioned by the Office of Equity and Professional Learning: a blended learning environment initiative where teachers have literally “torn down walls” between classrooms to teach in project-based, flexible seating, student-led, technology-rich environments. Mr. Woods, grandfather at Armstrong Elementary, one of the three elementary schools piloting this initiative, enthusiastically shared:

The environment and the teacher element have changed completely. You would never think of nothing like this in our day. Seating, you would always be placed by names. I always sat in the back of the room because my last name is Woods…now all has changed to a free element; you are not studying the same thing at the same time. The child is pretty much independent, studying as they need and motivated by their questions, working together. To me that’s a method of learning as I need to learn, instead of a forced type learning atmosphere.

Krista, a mother of four and a teacher at one of the schools, shared the experience of her son: “My sixth grade son has never liked school, never wanted to come. This year, he enjoys coming. He loves the flexible seating, the technology; they’re really connecting with the kids. So, he’s really benefited this year.” Other parents and students resonated with this idea, mentioning changes in classroom culture; relationships between students; and the teachers’ ability to support different students, meeting their needs and leveraging their strengths. Sabrina, who has twins in the same classroom, explained: “Both my children learn at very different paces, different things. One is better in certain subjects and the other is better at others. Here, if I walk in the class, one is working on one subject and the other on another at the opposite side of the class, learning at their own pace. Also, I like the fact that there’s two teachers and they have more time to work with each individual and each group.” When talking about the changes in culture with other parents, Sabrina jokingly added, “My kids aren’t looking for an excuse to stay home anymore.”

Students in co-teaching classrooms actively made decisions about their own learning, asking questions and working on teams to independently inquire, research, and solve problems. During our classroom observations, students readily and confidently answered questions that are often hard for third and sixth graders in classrooms across the country. When asked, they happily shared what they were learning, why it was important for them, and how they knew whether they were making progress. Additionally, students were enthused about taking leadership in their own learning, being able “to use technology whenever you want,” and to “work together even when we are at home.” (The students can take computers home as part of a district program.) Lastly, in an effort to capture impact data to directly inform their teaching, teachers themselves have begun to utilize a wide array of work samples and portfolios, which show demonstrative gains on both cognitive and noncognitive measures often not captured by state achievement tests used on the California Dashboard. This kind of teacher leadership is spreading, where teachers are learning from each other and incubating and executing their own ideas. For example, we learned how teachers, on their own accord with no administrative directive, developed a set of scaffolded lessons so third graders “can already learn to use critical thinking skills with DBQs (Document Based Questions) in science so they can meet the sixth grade academic standards.”

Teachers also shared clear examples of “learning happens” when they had access to “more authentic collaboration” in school- or cluster-level efforts. A teacher of 18 years teaching in a high collaboration school told us:

When you learn from other teachers, and you hear their ideas, and you get to share with one another, I think that’s the best way that I learn because I’m not just taking in information from one person, I’m getting ideas that teachers are actually using in their classrooms. So it’s not just a “try this strategy,” but actually, we have a teacher who’s using this strategy…and we are working together, or they’re trying this and we’re seeing results from it.

As one Armstrong teacher noted on the influence of the co-teaching model in his or her school, “And as a teacher, it excites the rest of us, because now we have to keep up with them.” Principals, especially those who have been supported by the district in new forms of distributed leadership, seemed more comfortable with teachers leading more of the work of school improvement. These principals also embraced teachers leading each other, instead of of relying just on their (the principals’) instructional leadership. As one principal from a high achieving, Title I elementary school noted:

When it starts to become peer pressure…that’s when movement happens. It’s when people begin to learn from each other…. But I can say that today I see my staff at that cusp where we’ve began to just take off, and part of it has been those opportunities to be pulled out of the classroom and be working with the other teachers, which again, without being a Title I school, we would’ve never had the resources and opportunity to do.

And a teacher in her school who is serving in an LCFF-funded hybrid role (focusing on the support of the NGSS rollout), pending a new science adoption in the system, told us, “So this job opportunity really attracted me because I’m really interested in building that system of how to give teachers the confidence and telling them it’s okay, you don’t have to have a curriculum in front of you.”

From Implementation to Innovation

Currently in PUSD, the value of shared leadership and the work of teacher teams and teacher leaders in schools along with the support and guidance from the district cannot be overstated. There are 27 PBIS school teams that, with the support of the district, are now beginning to move from implementation to innovation.


  1. Hallinger, P. (2003). Leading Educational Change: Reflections on the practice of instructional and transformational leadership. Cambridge Journal of Education, 33(3), 329–352.
  2. Aller, E. W., Irons, E. J., & Carlson, N. L. (2008). Instructional leadership and changing school cultures: Voices of principals. National School Science Journal, 31(2), 4–10. Retrieved February 11, 2010, from journals/2009-31-2/2009-31-2-02.htm.
  3. OSEP Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (May 2017). Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) Implementation Blueprint: Part 2 – Self-Assessment and Action Planning. Eugene, OR: University of Oregon. Retrieved from
  4. Blank, R. K., De las Alas, N., Smith, C., & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2008). Does teacher professional development have effects on teaching and learning?: Analysis of evaluation findings from programs for mathematics and science teachers in 14 states. Washington, DC: Council of Chief State School Officers.
  5. Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W. H. Freeman.
  6. The Flippen Group (2019) Capturing Kids Hearts.
  7. Crosby, S. D. (2015). An ecological perspective on emerging trauma-informed teaching practices. Children & Schools, 37(4), 223-230.
  8. Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). But that’s just good teaching! The case for culturally relevant pedagogy. Theory Into Practice, 34(3), 159–165.