Preparing Principals to Lead: 3 Areas of Focus

Preparing Principals to Lead

Any principal can tell you the secret to a well-run school is the hardworking educators who work tirelessly for their students. Smart principals know that school success depends on supporting and empowering their team of educators, providing services such as professional development opportunities and mentoring programs that allow new teachers to succeed and help veterans continue to grow. When educators have the backing of a supportive school environment, students benefit in turn from having skilled and motivated teachers.

Although principals put a lot into supporting their staff, they often short-change themselves in the process, leading to burnout and high turnover rates. A 2014 report by the School Leaders Network revealed that one-quarter of principals in the United States leave their schools each year, while half of new principals quit during their third year. As principals devote themselves to motivating and encouraging educators, it's imperative for school systems to give principals the professional support they need.

But how can we help principals stay—and succeed—in their roles? Just like educators, principals thrive when they have relevant and timely professional development, one-on-one mentoring, and the opportunity to build long-term relationships with their school communities.


Professional development

Although principals go through their own certification and recruitment programs before taking on a leadership role, they still have a steep learning curve—especially in their first year on the job. In an Education Week series titled Shaping Strong School Leaders, education experts agreed that professional development for new principals was often pushed to the back burner in favor of supporting teachers' and students' immediate needs. However, ensuring quality professional development can help principals get off to a strong start and reduce the high turnover rate.

The same article noted the importance of continuing professional development for more established principals.Mentoring newer recruits is one way to help veteran principals examine their own practices, but personalized, relevant professional development is critical throughout a principal's career. Educational leadership experts recommend long-term professional development, taking place over weeks or months rather than one-day seminars. Similarly, training should be job-embedded, with each new skill related in practical terms to the principal's job. Relevant, practical, and consistent professional development seems to be the key to success for principals and educators alike.

Mentoring partnerships

While principals function as the final authority in each school's infrastructure, they can still look to more experienced colleagues and local organizations for guidance and advice. Providing supportive connections for principals is at the heart of a new initiative in the state of Tennessee: the Principal Pipeline Partnership, which connects school districts, universities, and nonprofit organizations to create and improve training programs. Since 45% of Tennessee principals are in their first four years of the job, this initiative aims to provide needed support to new school leaders, but will also assist more established principals. According to Chalkbeat, "partnerships will include principal residencies, in which candidates train under experienced school leaders, as well as ways to support principals once they've graduated from programs."

Since 2010, one Tennessee program has demonstrated how effective established partnerships and mentor relationships can be in preparing principals to lead. The University of Tennessee at Knoxville's intense 15-month Leadership Academy trains future principals by allowing them to spend a full four days a week working with a mentor principal in a school, and only one day a week in class at the university. Letting future principals spend most of their time with veterans in the field shows them the real-life complexities of a principal's role, while also allowing them to form bonds with their future colleagues.


Building long-term relationships

In addition to establishing supportive relationships with mentors and colleagues, it's also important to form long-lasting relationships with school communities. In her article titled The Real Impact of Principal Turnover, Victoria Van Cleef of The New Teacher Project (TNTP) noted, "It takes principals an average of five years to put a vision in place for a school. … Schools that don't retain principals beyond this point will inevitably struggle to get a foothold on meaningful change." When principals leave sooner than that, the school community, staff, and students all feel the effects.


Retaining principals over the long-term has many benefits. It reduces the cost of hiring new leadership, allows principals to keep building on positive momentum, and lets students thrive under stable, established leadership. Most importantly, it gives principals enough time to do what they do best: create a school environment where everyone can succeed.

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