Professional Development Opinion

Advice For Aspiring Principals: “Shadow, Connect & Dream”

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 21, 2013 12 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

(This is the final post in a three-part series providing advice to aspiring principals. You can see Part One here and Part Two here)

Last week’s question was:

What advice would you give someone who is interested in becoming a principal?

In Part One of this series, Lyn Hilt, Joe Mazza, and Cheryl James-Ward posted their responses -- and I threw-in a few ideas of my own. Earlier this week, Justin Baeder, Allan R. Bonilla and Josh Stumpenhorst are shared their reflections. Scott McLeod, Kelly Young (who I consider a mentor and from whom I’ve learned more about teaching than anyone else), John Gabriel and Paul Farmer all offer their advice. In addition, I’ve included comments from readers. It’s a long post, but one worth reading!

Response From Scott McLeod

Scott McLeod, J.D., Ph.D., is the Director of Innovation for the Prairie Lakes AEA in Iowa and the Founding Director of CASTLE, the nation’s only academic center dedicated to the technology needs of school leaders. He blogs regularly at dangerouslyirrelevant.org and can be found on Twitter at @mcleod:

What advice would I give someone interested in being a principal? Shadow some principals, get connected, and dream bigger.

Shadow some principals. As teachers, we think we know what our principals’ jobs are like. Every Educational Leadership student that’s ever done their administrative internship, however, is surprised at the depth, complexity, and difficulty of the principalship. If you’re thinking of being a principal yourself, walk side-by-side with some building-level leaders. Be sure to accompany principals who work in different schools and locations. You’ll not only see the differences between elementary and secondary, affluent and struggling, urban and rural, and so on, you’ll also begin to see the commonalities of the job that cut across settings.

Get connected. Hagel, Brown, and Davison, in their seminal book, The Power of Pull, note that innovations don’t come from the organizational core but instead come from people on the edges of their institutions bumping up against others who are similarly resident. Likewise, Steven Johnson, in his book, Where Good Ideas Come From, reinforces the notion that fertile cross-pollination of ideas only occurs in environments where ideas are bouncing off each other in fluid (and often challenging) ways. It’s easy to succumb to groupthink when the only ideas to which one is exposed are those within a small, local area. Setting up a robust online network that exposes her to new ideas, new practices, and other new ways of thinking, doing, and being is one of the best things a prospective principal can do for herself and is an excellent solution for getting beyond ‘that’s how we’ve always done things here.’

Dream bigger. Right now most educators, policymakers, and administrator preparation programs are dreaming small. Although the rhetoric may seem to be about ‘transformation,’ in reality most of what is being pushed are tweaks to our current system. Project- and inquiry-based learning environments that emphasize greater student agency, competency-based educational efforts, alternative credentialing mechanisms, and other educational movements - particularly when combined with powerful digital technologies and online access - allow us to re-envision what is possible instead of simply reifying existing practices. In a rapidly-changing world, simply ‘doing what we’ve always done but a little better’ isn’t going to cut it.

Being an excellent principal is incredibly difficult but also amazingly rewarding. We need better leaders in almost every organization. Are you up for the challenge?

Response From Kelly Young

Kelly Young is founder and executive director of Pebble Creek Labs, a training and curriculum consulting company focused on instruction, literacy and leadership development. Since 1998 Pebble Creek Labs has partnered with schools and districts to promote student achievement and develop educators. Kelly can be reached at kelly@kellyjyoung.com:

Obvious and important considerations concerning one’s readiness for the principalship center around skill sets in planning, relationship building, personal organization, communication abilities, and leadership.

Critical for consideration and not deliberated on enough are one’s motivation in seeking the principalship as well as the presence/absence of a grounded belief system regarding effective schooling.

While possessing a sound and broad set of managerial/leadership skills is important, I think first one has to seriously examine your motivation-- Why do you want to be a principal?

For some, I suspect if honest, there are varying degrees of a) wanting greater pay, b) desiring more prestige or authority, and/or c) not really liking teaching.

Depending on the degree to which these are at play, I posit all are problematic reasons and it should raise red flags for the candidate or anyone considering employing them.

I have always felt the financial gap between teachers and administrators is too great. This is particularly true in the early years in the profession when teachers are considering leaving the classroom for administration. Yet if you love teaching, are happy and successful as a teacher, and the motivation is about money (no shame in wanting to live more comfortably) I would counsel you to be patient and creative. In general, once eight to ten years into the profession, the income gap narrows and a more respectable, albeit modest standard of living is available to teachers. In addition there are often a myriad of “extra duty” opportunities in which to generate additional income-- summer school teaching, curriculum writing, new teacher mentoring, club/activity sponsorships, extended class loads.

Desiring more income is not an irresponsible “want”, but teachers do not have to become principals to actualize that. I have known far too many principals unhappy and ill fit for their new role, responsibilities and hours simply because they desired extra income.

Other people might find appealing the greater authority, respect, and prestige that presumably comes with the principalship. As a long time principal myself, I learned early to “lead as if you had no power at all.” Respect and authority is accrued not through positional or institutional power, in fact in education there is little of that, but rather through your commitment, skills and integrity. Just having the title of principal does not buy you followers, only a broad skill set of leadership qualities does.

And lastly, are you considering the principalship because you just don’t like teaching anymore? In all professions people get tired of the same job or desire new challenges. This is normal, even potentially healthy. Yet, it should be noted the principalship is really one of “head teacher.” Many of the tasks and interactions are the same, just more of them --- more kids, more parents, more paperwork. If it’s a wholly different set of tasks and working conditions you are after, consider Central Office jobs with a lot of specificity and definition. It may be odd to approach this question from the consideration of motivation, yet I think it’s often at the core of who is a successful principal and who isn’t.

The best principals want to keep teaching, they just have a larger classroom of learners to develop, growth and shepard.

Another potentially “left field” consideration that isn’t examined enough is whether one possesses a grounded belief system.

By that I mean do you have a core value system and vision of what good teaching and learning is, what it looks like, how it is actualized. Any effective principal, or educational leader, is solid in their understanding and vision of what good schools look like. Even better they know how to communicate it and bring it to life.

I think at the core of this is having taught long enough to know what works and what doesn’t. Good teachers can often be recruited too early into principalship positions, and while they are skilled as young teachers they are often unaware of why they are successful or what they believe. They are intuitively effective, but haven’t the language to articulate how or why.

Successful principals understand and can communicate what kind of classrooms they desire, they know how students should be treated, how good teaching is transmitted. There is often room for varying interpersonal styles, but good schools are rooted in a common belief system about how students are treated, what good instruction looks like, what kind of curriculum motivates and engages. Principals who lack a core belief system are subject to the ever-constant whims of various programs, initiatives, reforms. Everything sounds good, and they often haven’t the ability to discriminate between quality and schlock, between what fits with their beliefs and what doesn’t. Successful principals know what they believe in, communicate it often, and stay focused.

I have worn most every hat in the profession, and for me the principalship was the most rewarding of all jobs to be had in our profession. But to view this position as rewarding, I think you have to be doing it with the “right” motivates, and own a solid vision of what constitutes a good school.

I wanted the multiplying effect of growing and influencing people, and when I assumed the principalship I was grounded in a belief system about good instruction that held me in good stead through all the changing political and institutional ebbs and flows, fads and current fashions, mandates and reforms. Such grounding is vital.

Response From John Gabriel and Paul Farmer

John G. Gabriel is a nationally known presenter, best-selling author, and principal of John Champe High School in Loudoun County, Virginia. Paul C. Farmer is a veteran educator and former school principal who provides consulting services nationally for schools and districts. Gabriel and Farmer are the authors of Dealing with the Tough Stuff: Practical Solutions for School Administrators:

Assuming one has already completed the formal steps such as completing a preparation program and internship, there is some helpful advice we can offer. But before doing so, it’s best to approach this from another angle: To be a successful principal, you must be willing to admit when you don’t know the answer, acknowledge mistakes, and be comfortable with apologizing to people. This might sound like strange advice, but we don’t know any effective or successful principals who are unable to do these things. Demonstrating this kind of vulnerability and humility will ultimately help you build trust, credibility, and rapport with students, staff, and parents, so the sooner you are able to master these traits, the sooner you will be ready for the principalship. You must also be comfortable with the notion that you won’t be able to do the job by yourself: no one has all the skills necessary to be a leader, so you must be comfortable asking for help. After all, the most effective school leaders demonstrate facilitative and distributed leadership.

That being said, there are more formal, strategic things that you should consider doing if you are interested in becoming a principal. For example, you need to develop your network to include administrators and, if possible, people who are well-networked and connected--ideally those who are in a position of deciding which applicants will be considered for principal positions. This is not for the purpose of getting inside information; rather, it is for gaining a better understanding of how to close the gap between your current position and principalship.

Next, don’t be shy about your aspiration to be a principal! It’s critical to get your ambitions known. The principalship is not for shy people, as you will need to be an ambassador for a school, school system, school board, etc., and this will be difficult if you are attempting your journey to a principal position in secrecy. Rather, you need to find ways to increase your visibility. For example, you might volunteer for a special task force, ask to serve on a district-level committee, or attend school board meetings. The purpose is to demonstrate that you have a vested interest in what happens in your district, that you are committed to your aspirations, and that you have the necessary leadership skills.

Lastly, you should let your administrator know that you are interested in pursuing a principalship. First of all, you don’t want her to be blindsided by this news, and you also want her support. But more importantly, you want her advice. You need your administrator to help put you in that position because he or she knows what it takes and whom to know to get there. Administrators can give you invaluable experiences and opportunities that can best prepare you for the principalship.

Once you’ve secured an interview, to best position yourself for the job you should know your audience. We mean this both literally and figuratively. For example, it is helpful to find out in advance who will be sitting on the interview panel; you might prepare and answer questions differently if you know a parent, student, or staff member will be present. And in a more abstract sense, it’s a good idea to get a feel for the school, community, and/or district. Be familiar with demographics of the school and school system, its school improvement plan, and its data. Lastly, it will be ideal if you can speak to how you have been able to improve student achievement and be able to tie that in to either the success of your school or a target of the school where you’re interviewing.

Responses From Readers

Doug Green:

I was a principal for 13 years so here is some of my thoughts. 1) Hire good people, support them, and stay out of their way. By that I mean don’t micro manage. Teachers don’t like that. 2) Relationships are vital. When it comes to students, you should have the strongest relationships with the most difficult students. If they know you love them, you will have more success dealing with undesirable behaviors.
[See Doug’s next four points here]

Many people offered their advice on Twitter, and I’ve used Storify to collect them:

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post (or in Parts One and Two).

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers. I’ll be highlighting one particular publisher every two months, and am starting off with Corwin.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe to this blog for free via RSS Reader or email....

And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first two years of this blog, you can see a categorized list of them here.

I’ll be posting the next “question-of-the-week” on Wednesday....

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.