This post is a part of the ASCD Forum conversation “how do we define and measure teacher and principal effectiveness?” To learn more about the ASCD Forum, go to www.ascd.org/ascdforum.
I became a principal in a rather untraditional way. In the retirement of our school’s long standing co-principals, two other colleagues and I decide to apply as a leadership team. We had advanced degrees in education, but neither of us had formal administrative experience, although we had plenty of leadership roles in our professional work. My principal preparation was on the job and mentor supported. I am currently in the process of taking further coursework which combines educational leadership theory and practice, particularly through an additional leadership practicum at a local school. Having the opportunity to connect my work so far with this theory has provided me with further opportunity for reflection on my role and skills as a leader. The practicum has been a wonderful opportunity to also see how other schools are meeting the every day challenges we share as administrators.
In having this varied set of experiences, I offer some considerations for administration training and continued support throughout an administrator’s journey.
- Foster leadership within a school’s faculty now. As I write this, the future administrators of our schools and boards are practicing in our classrooms. Much of what I learned in my previous leadership roles was transferrable to my work as a principal. I know many principals currently work to build leadership capacity in their schools. This said, in conjunction with various faculties of education, formalizing ways to invest in both our current formal and informal faculty leaders would be an ideal way to cultivate future administrators. Most importantly, much of the current dialogue on education reform notes the absence of teachers to the table; this process ensures that we are at the forefront of decision-making about the change in our schools.
- Making connections to leadership theory and an administrator’s day-to-day work early on in is a must in principal preparation programs. Some faculties of education have chosen to do this by having candidates participate in administration practicums in local schools. This is a great start in allowing administration candidates to see the realities and challenges of putting what the research says into daily practice. Another component of connecting theory to practice for prospective candidates is allowing them the opportunity to experience how each school community is unique and that application of their learning changes in these various contexts. Finally, administration preparation programs that have course instructors who are practicing principals can further solidify the course experiences to the work addressed daily in schools.
- Mentorship programs are critical for new principals. No matter how superb the preparation program, it is impossible to prepare an administrator for every possible scenario they will encounter. Having a mentor for at least the first two years can be an invaluable resource for leaders. I was very fortunate to have many mentors throughout the course of my time as a new administrator. A few were gracious enough to mentor me for an extended period of time, others provided support on a more short-term basis for specific challenges that I encountered. Being able to have access to individuals who were knowledgeable, supportive and truly invested in the success of the school was hugely important to my learning as a leader. These individuals were also leaders in their respective fields, so it helped to alleviate the isolation that is sometimes felt by administrators.
- Find creative ways to support continued learning for principals. Every principal I know loves to learn and does so because they want to. We are also all human and there is no such thing as a perfect principal, so continued learning is key for what we can offer to our schools. Just as I know many of my administrator colleagues work constantly to free teachers from their classes so they may engage in professional learning, principals need this time set aside too. In today’s climate where there is so much demanded of a principal, it is especially important for this time to be formalized. Doing so places emphasis on the importance of continued learning for all and the school community benefits from the growth of their leader.
- Leverage the potential of technology to connect administrators within a school board or association. Since every educator is strapped for time, another option is the possibility of creating board or association on-line learning networks. Many principals already participate in on-line communities or have developed their own global personal learning networks. While this global perspective is essential, a district or association focused Ning or Wiki could be another means to support both new and experienced administrators. The on-line component gives administrators the opportunity to connect when it works best for them and also with individuals who may be working on similar initiatives shared within a board or association. For those who are newer to this kind of learning, this would be an excellent way to practice and dive into the new technology before branching out to other networks.
Investing in effective training AND providing continued support to administrators are key to a school’s success. Our classrooms highlight future leadership potential, now it remains the responsibility of the educational community on all levels to foster and sustain these leaders.