Helping New Leaders Survive and Thrive:
Why it’s Critical for School Districts to Re-Think Support and Mentoring
by Wayne Ogden
“In the midst of a massive demographic exodus in school leadership, new candidates for leadership who care about leading, want to lead, and feel able to lead in current circumstances are as rare as mosquitoes in the snow.”
-A. Hargreaves, 2002
In the decade since Professor Hargreaves penned this description, one could say that the recruitment and retention of new school leaders has almost become “mission impossible.” Many large districts report turning over as many as one third of their administrative hires within five years. Although some graduate schools of education have demonstrated considerable success at teaching future leaders much about educational and leadership theory, few of our nation’s school principals credit their graduate programs with actually teaching them how to do well at the job.
Most principals readily admit that they learned the most about that role through on-the-job training. In a report from the Education Alliance at Brown University the authors observed, ‘the fact is, principals have traditionally been thrown into their jobs without a lifejacket, and they are expected to sink or swim. Unfortunately, far too many principals in the early years of their career go directly to the bottom.”
In her 2004 article in the AASA Journal, Suzette Lovely described the dilemma of rookie principals as follows,
“Prospective leaders are expected to conquer the motorway without any behind-the-wheel experience. The dilemma can be framed this way: In the university you spend extended periods of time reflecting about a problem and posing solutions. In the principalship, problem resolution is expected yesterday. In a university class, you might read a case study on searching a school locker for drugs and debate with classmates whether the search should be conducted. As a principal, you hear about possible drugs in a locker 10 minutes before dismissal and you need to act quickly. Principals manage complex organizations with unpredictable demands. No matter how ready candidates think they are, it is always a shock to their system when they finally get buckled into the driver's seat.”
In an effort to counter decreasing numbers of principal candidates at a time when the job is becoming ever more complex, school districts are turning to mentoring or coaching programs to provide both a lifeline and a structured induction period for educational leaders starting out in new principal positions.
So, how can mentoring and/or coaching programs designed to counter new principal’s limited readiness? To begin with, mentoring and coaching programs are actually designed quite differently.
Mentoring programs typically assign a currently working, experienced principal from inside the new principal’s school district. This senior, “expert” colleague is usually a volunteer and may or may not receive a stipend for her/his work. Such programs are most often informal, involve little or no training of the mentor and depend to a large degree on the notion of mentoring on one’s spare time to share or learn tricks of the trade. And often these mentor/mentee matches are more matters of convenience, regardless of the pair’s styles, listening and advising skills, and personality characteristics that can make or break this kind of relationship.
In the real world of school leadership mentors rarely have the luxury of time to give generously to their protégés. More often than not, mentors find themselves needing to react to the many new and unexpected situations in which new principals find themselves on a day-to-day basis. Demands of the work for both partners doom many of these relationships from the outset.
In some circumstances, superintendents declare themselves as mentors to their new building leaders and many school boards expect that from their highly compensated district leader. Yet, two things suggest that superintendents will have the same limited success as colleague mentors do. First, superintendents, even in the smallest school districts, rarely have adequate time to sit attentively with their principals. Managing their boards, the budget, the political context, the media, state departments of education, parent groups, and the union leave superintendents little time to nurture beginning administrators. And, even in the unlikely situation where the district leader can make time, there is an inherent conflict between the role of confidential mentor and “the boss”, who evaluates the principal’s performance and often performs that work in a political domain where issues of power and perception undermine genuine critical friendship. How can we expect an inexperienced principal to candidly share their weaknesses, needs, confusions and challenges with the person who will write their summative evaluation?
In-district mentoring for beginning school leaders may be better than nothing, but dedicated, confidential coaching provided by a skilled coach from outside the school district has proven to have a far better likelihood of helping a new principal to survive and thrive in the challenging and hectic world of leading a school.
A coaching relationship typically has several different characteristics. Again, coaches should come from outside of the school district to provide both experience and perspective. The coach should be expected to provide ongoing, structured, support that must be confidential, nurturing, and rooted in “best practice.” Collaboration between the new principal and coach should be based not only on the coach’s knowledge and past experiences, but also in readings, case studies and text-based discussions rich in connoisseurial insights. As the Brown study suggests, “What (principals) value most from their coaches is the opportunity for reflective conversations, emotional and moral support, and the affirmation that they are doing a good job.” When possible, expert coaches will supplement their one-to-one work with new principals by convening role-alike groups for small groups of new principals often sharing experiences and frustrations in their jobs. These peer relationships frequently provide enduring support networks long after the coach as moved on.
Coaching programs generally come with a higher cost than do in-district, quasi-volunteer mentoring programs that we commonly see. However, as principal candidates become scarcer driving up the costs of searches, the length of principal contracts and the salaries that they are paid, the relative costs of true coaching programs seem small. In addition, dedicated coaching programs seem better matched to a new generation of school leaders and the challenging conditions they encounter in their work.