What if future principals spent a year or two working as a principal-in-training, learning the nuts and bolts of school leadership under the tutelage of a mentor principal before taking the reins at their own schools?
While that may make sense, those programs are rare for school leaders. But that’s exactly what Columbus City Schools in Ohio has been doing for about 15 years, giving 20 teachers annually an opportunity to immerse themselves in the life, duties, responsibilities—and challenges—of being a principal.
Would-be principals get the chance to see if school leadership is really for them before they ditch the training wheels.
About 80 percent of those who go through the Columbus leadership internship program become principals in the district, and of those who do become school leaders, 90 percent stay in their buildings beyond three years, said Kathryn Moser, the executive director of leadership and school programs at Columbus City Schools, who also worked as a former principal and completed the leadership intern program.
That’s a higher average than national numbers, where annual principal turnover is 18 percent, and where about 50 percent of principals leave their buildings after three years.
“In a large urban district the demands on principals are many,” Moser said. “It’s a very complex and ever-evolving role…. And what we’ve found is that it takes time for people to develop those skills to become really effective leaders.”
Teachers who want to participate in the program undergo a rigorous application and selection process. They must have at least five years of teaching experience and two letters of recommendation. They’re also interviewed by a panel of district principals and complete two performance tasks, which can include reviewing a school’s sample data and then planning a staff meeting in response to the data and watching a snippet of classroom instruction and giving feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of what they had observed.
“We do that because we want to understand where the candidates are in terms of their aptitude to use data to make decisions to inform staff progress, and where they are in terms of their ability to understand and articulate effective teaching practices,” Moser said.
Immersion vs. task completion
The New York City, Los Angeles, and Dallas school systems all have leadership pipeline programs in partnerships with local universities that feature an internship component. But while preparation programs generally include a component where aspiring school leaders work in a school with a mentor principal, those opportunities are not as intense or as long as the Columbus program.
What also sets the Columbus program apart is that it’s all internal.
Katina Perry, who worked as a teacher and instructional coach in the district, always knew she wanted to be a principal, but she was waiting on the right opportunity.
As a teacher-candidate, she interned in Akron Public Schools, where the experience was akin to completing a leadership project and hitting a set number of program-required hours.
To become a principal, “I knew I needed more so that I could be really equipped and ready for the challenges that would come along,” Perry said. In the Columbus program, “it was every single day, all day long. Monday through Friday, you are shadowing, and being mentored by, and guided by a mentor principal. Basically, everything they are doing, you are doing; everything they see, you are seeing—every interaction with the staff, how you deal with different personalities, how you deal with the parents.”
While the program is two years long, Perry was promoted to principal of Fairmoor Elementary School after one year.
But that year—the 2019-2020 academic year—was a consequential one for school districts nationwide as they shifted from in-person learning to remote instruction to hybrid instruction over the course of a few months because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Everything is virtual … I remember just being scared out of my mind,” she recalled.
But having the hands-on experience and working with her mentor-coach, Sarah Foster, the principal of North Linden Elementary School, put Perry on much firmer footing to start the principal’s job during the pandemic, Perry said.
“I already have the answers, because a lot of the questions that were asked are things like that we dealt with last year,” she said. “I can’t even imagine if I would have had to come back this year, first year as a principal, and not have had that whole year to basically practice.”
Perry learned important lessons about school leadership, including forging strong community partnerships and communicating effectively with parents and communities amid a public health crisis. She has used some of those lessons to establish community support networks for students at Fairmoor.
But one of the things she treasures was that although Foster was shadowing her, critiquing her performance, and offering her feedback, she wasn’t trying to mold Perry into a facsimile of herself. Instead, she was encouraging Perry to be the leader she wanted to be.
“If she is trying to be me, that’s not her authentic self,” said Foster, who is now in her sixth year as a principal and participated in the internship seven years ago. “And in order for her to be successful, she needs to build her own leadership style.”
Principals in training
Principal-interns spend the first few months shadowing their mentor principals.
As the principal-interns’ aptitude increases, they shoulder more responsibilities and special projects. That can include facilitating grade-level or content-level meetings, overseeing student orientation, and reviewing and updating the school’s safety protocols.
Foster describes it as “on-the-job training, where you gain real knowledge of all of the moving parts” of school leadership.
“You can never really imagine what all of those parts are until you’re the the one making the decisions about all of them,” she said.
Goals over the first few months include understanding how the principal makes decisions, what to consider before responding to an issue in the buildings, observing classroom teaching through the eyes of a principal, and learning how to provide verbal and written feedback to teachers to help them improve.
During the second half of the semester the program interns learn about having difficult conversations, how to de-escalate situations with students and adults, and how to use school and district data to make informed decisions.
On a typical day, the interns often arrive at the school before the mentor principal, consult with the mentor on the day’s priorities, review staff absences and school activities, and provide support to the principal where needed.
And like the world of school leadership, every day holds something different for principal-interns.
“Every day, there is a new situation they don’t teach you in school,” Matthew Holmes, an assistant principal at Columbus Scioto 6-12 high school who spent a year in the program, said about the difference between standard principal-prep training and the hands-on work during the leadership internship.
“This program allows you to talk to somebody every day, bounce ideas, replay situations with them, and also just talk about what your goals are and where your weaknesses are,” he said.
Interns are floored by the constant movement, Foster said.
“They always laugh at my to-do list because I have the most enormous Whiteboard, and as soon as everything is crossed off [the list], I start a new one,” she said. “Every year, there’s probably been a conversation about, ‘How do you know how to do that, instead of that?’”
Real-world experience meets professional development
The program is also geared at helping future principals develop competency around management and communication.
That can include knowing whom to call when there’s a problem with facilities, human resources, and safety and security— the kinds of things Moser describes as the “how-to of the principalship” that teachers don’t think about in the classrooms.
Even the district’s legal counsel runs a session for principal-interns, reinforcing what they may have learned in their principal-licensure program. That can include, for example, the legal and procedural policies related to students who are being served in special education. Principals also learn about identifying students for gifted and talented programs.
The district was “able to tailor the PD [sessions], so they were meaningful and relevant to what we all needed at that specific time in our lives,” Perry said.
Learning to make use of data
The sessions on disaggregating data were extremely beneficial to Holmes, who works in a school that serves only students with emotional challenges and where every student has an individualized education program.
It’s an environment that’s heavy on data use, so being able to give teachers a quick synopsis of students’ data, what they know, and where gaps exist to ensure they are placed in the correct classes is important, he said.
The sessions on teacher evaluations also helped Holmes shore up an area of weakness.
“I have been certified to be able to do it, but I’ve never ever actually had to give somebody their teacher rating,” he said. “I feel the PD really focused on that; so we were prepared to be able to give accurate information to staff ... rather than going in there and without any idea— just kind of thrown to the wolves.”
Principal-interns spend the first year in one school, and the second year in another school, and they also get to serve as substitute principals when a principal is out.
“We do give them a chance to experience standing on their own,” Moser said. “It gives them a great view of the district as a whole. As a teacher, they may have served in only one neighborhood in the city…[A] substitute gets them into all six regions of the city…and to serve at different levels.”
Moser said she believes that time spent as an intern was instrumental to her success and the difference between principals who succeeded and those who struggled in the district.
“When someone didn’t have the same opportunity, but rather moved quickly from a classroom position into the role of principal, they struggled, and the outcomes were not as strong,” she said.
Despite the success in Columbus, the program may not be replicable in every district because of the staffing required to back up teachers taking leave from their classrooms, Moser said. For example, teachers who participate are relieved from their classroom assignments and placed in another school during their internships. Smaller districts and cash-strapped systems may not have the funds to hire another teacher to cover the classroom duties of the principal-in-training. There’s also a small outlay to cover the cost of professional development.
But Moser sees the investment as worth it.
“We retain about 90 percent of our leaders,” she said. “So, while there is a cost and [investment of] time, we continue to believe that this is making a tremendous impact on the quality of our leaders.”
Former interns report that they continue to draw on what they learned and rely on their mentor principals and coaches.
Foster’s mentor is one of her best friends years later, and Foster continues to be a resource for Perry, providing guidance and assistance that can help save the new principal valuable time. One recent example was sharing with Perry the template Foster uses for scheduling and organizing her teacher evaluations—something she developed with her mentor and has tweaked over the years.
“There’s no reason for you to be out there on an island by yourself,” she said.
Holmes also said the program helped ready him for one of the biggest challenges any school leader has had to face: the pandemic.
Holmes said he would have been “spending all night just going over stuff, just running myself in circles,” without the year in training.
“Now I am able to act, and I am not spending all night sitting there second-guessing. I can knock it out,” he said. “If I don’t have the answers, I know whom to contact now.”
Coverage of principals and school leadership is supported in part by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/programs/education-economic. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the January 19, 2022 edition of Education Week as This Intensive Internship Helps Principals Get Ready For the Job