School & District Management

3 Benefits of Superintendent Mentoring Programs

By Evie Blad — June 21, 2023 3 min read
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School superintendents may feel isolated as they navigate the political, fiscal, and interpersonal decisions that come with leading a district, which can make for a tough transition for those who are new to the role.

That’s why some state and national organizations have developed mentoring programs for superintendents, working to refine and formalize the supportive relationships that can help beginner leaders grow and thrive in the role.

The Alaska Superintendents Association, for example, works with school districts to include participation as a condition in rookie leaders’ contracts. As Education Week reported recently, that program relies on paid, retired superintendents to help leaders who are new to the role or new to their district with the transition.

Here are three key benefits of professional mentoring for superintendents.

Mentoring programs can help address superintendent turnover

For school districts, a new superintendent can mean new staff, new strategies, and an adjustment period for everyone from senior leaders to classroom teachers. For students, that lag can lead to lost opportunities for learning, said Sean Dusek, who helps lead the Alaska program.

Turnover has accelerated in the nation’s largest districts: 38 percent of them changed leaders between September 2020 and September 2022, according to the ILO Group, an education strategy firm. That’s an increase from 28 percent between September 2018 and August 2020, the group’s analysis found.

States like Florida, Missouri, and Wisconsin have also reported high turnover rates in recent years. When districts in those states, or any other high-turnover state, change leaders, a significant number of the new superintendents have never held the position before, local news reports indicate, and that adds to the learning curve.

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Mentoring helps new superintendents weather the challenges that can make it difficult to stay on the job, Dusek said.

That’s also the aim of programs like the Urban Executive Leadership Institute for Aspiring Superintendents. Launched by the Council of Great City Schools in January, that program aims to help districts strengthen future superintendents—assistant administrators and central office staff who may one day step into the role—by preparing them for challenges like school board relations and budgeting.

“We are trying to build their capacity so they have a fighting chance when they get these jobs,” Michael Hinojosa, a superintendent in residence at the Council of the Great City Schools told Education Week when the program started.

Mentoring strengthens superintendents’ peer networks

In addition to providing connections with veteran and retired administrators, mentoring programs have increasingly emphasized the importance of peer networks for superintendents who are new to the job.

In Washington state, new superintendents who participate in a mentoring academy meet as a cohort separate from their mentors, said Kim Fry, professional learning coordinator for the Washington Association of School Administrators.

That time gives district leaders the space to move beyond nuts-and-bolts logistical questions to provide emotional support, she said.

In Alaska, new leaders participate in fly-ins and additional breakout sessions at conferences to help them build connections with each other.

Mentoring provides fresh ideas for veteran superintendents

Collaboration with younger peers also gives veteran superintendents, like those who serve as mentors in Washington’s program, opportunities to challenge assumptions and learn new things, Fry said.

Washington’s mentorship model follows the framework for teacher mentoring designed by Laura Lipton and Bruce Wellman, authors of Mentoring Matters, which focuses on consultation, coaching, and collaboration. Mentees may consult with mentors by asking for specific, sometimes technical advice. Or they may have coaching discussions where mentors ask thoughtful questions to help mentees identify a path forward in a particular area.

Through collaboration, newer leaders benefit from their mentors’ on-the-ground experience, and more seasoned administrators benefit from the more recent training and education experiences of their mentees, Fry said. Together, the pairs can address emerging issues and chart a path for strategies that may apply in both of their school systems, she said.

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