Making Principal Preparation a Priority

As a newly minted school leader, one of the first challenges Mark Anderson faced didn’t involve teaching strategies or staff issues. Instead, students spilled water on the gym floor during a pep rally.

“My principal preparation was about teaching and learning, not how to deal with a warped gym floor,” said Anderson, now principal at Marshall Fundamental Secondary School in Pasadena, CA, and the 2019 California Principal of the Year. “Sometimes, you just need to experience life and figure it out.”

Obstacles to the kinds of professional learning opportunities that prepare school leaders for these kinds of unforeseen situations remains one of the most significant factors contributing to high rates of principal turnover, according to Supporting a Strong, Stable Principal Workforce: What Matters and What Can Be Done, the fourth and final report from a research initiative conducted by NASSP and the Learning Policy Institute (LPI).

“The better prepared principals are and the more professional development they receive, the more likely they are to stay in the profession because they feel more efficacious and they have more knowledge of how to handle the many challenges they face,” LPI president and CEO Linda Darling-Hammond said during a May webinar discussing the report’s findings.

In fact, through surveys and focus groups, researchers found that all of the top challenges school leaders cited revolved around working conditions. Along with professional training, challenges included other district supports, compensation, high-stakes accountability and evaluation practices, and a lack of decision-making authority. Principals serving in high-poverty schools and in cities were more likely to cite these issues.

Providing mentoring and on-the-job training has been the focus of many efforts to identify and prepare school leaders, including the six-year, $85 million effort to build pipelines in six large school districts sponsored by the Wallace Foundation. In other places, policies focused on internships and other on-the-job preparation can help intentionally prepare new school leaders. That was the experience of Gloria Woods-Weeks, principal of J.D. Clement Early College High School in Durham, NC, in a state with policies supporting internships for new leaders.

“When I was trying to figure out where I would do an internship, I decided I’d focus my energies on looking for a great and effective principal, not so much the school,” Woods-Weeks said. “I needed to find a principal who had the reputation of really building a collaborative culture and getting the students to the level where they could achieve at the highest level. And I was fortunate to find that principal.” So fortunate, in fact, that Woods-Weeks remained at that school after completing the internship.

In Washington state, the Yakima School District has principal mentors who support new leaders, said Superintendent Trevor Greene. The district also has an onboarding session for incoming administrators and is emphasizing ongoing coaching.

“That personal touch makes a tremendous difference,” Greene said.

“I personally believe in the coaching model,” agreed Woods-Weeks. “You need a process that’s going to give you immediate feedback. That relational trust with someone is very important.”

Relationships are a critical part of preparing and supporting new leaders. It was an assistant principal who suggested that Anderson look into becoming an administrator, and a principal who helped prepare him over the following five years.

“When I became an assistant principal, I was very fortunate that I worked with a fantastic principal, and I got a lot of great training as an assistant principal,” Anderson said. “She gave me responsibility, but let me do it. If I made a mistake, she let me make that mistake and figure it out and keep on moving forward.”

To read all the reports in the NASSP/LPI Understanding and Addressing Principal Turnover series, click here.

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