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Coaching: The New Leadership Skill
October 13, 2011 | Volume 7 | Issue 1
Table of Contents
What Kinds of Support Do New Principals Want?
Carrie Willer and Donna Recht
As Baby Boom principals retire, opportunities emerge for leadership within K–12 schools. Almost immediately, beginning principals must understand and respond to large amounts of information, build relationships, and work within the specific building's school culture as they address needed changes.
Few new principals go through a formal induction process or receive on-the-job training, and principals are often unsure about whom to approach for advice (Daresh, 2004). "Given the stakes, it is surprising how little good guidance is available to new leaders about how to transition more effectively and efficiently into new roles," says Michael Watkins (2003, p. 3) in his book The First 90 Days.
Those who take on the role report challenges maintaining student achievement, feelings of isolation and inadequacy, conflicting belief systems, stress, and long hours. Many end up leaving the profession altogether (Villani, 2006). Unfortunately, coaching or mentoring programs for new principals have seen slower growth than teacher-oriented programs.
To provide practical, useful support, we need to start by asking what beginning principals need and want. The Principal Induction Program, established in 2008 at Cardinal Stritch University, did just that by surveying and interviewing participants on their experiences in their first few years as principals. Fourteen respondents, from all levels of K–12 and with no prior administrative experience, describe what new teachers need, based on actual experiences, and provide insight into which mentoring and coaching supports would most benefit new principals. Here's what they said.
All of the beginning principals understood both the importance of building relationships and how to do it. In fall and spring surveys, winter interviews, and focus groups, 100 percent of respondents reported success in being visible; communicating effectively; and making personal connections with students, staff, and parents.
Although it was difficult to create spaces in his calendar, one elementary school principal felt visibility was so important that he scheduled time in halls and classrooms, and he was faithful to that schedule despite other task challenges. "I make a point to be in the classrooms every day, and every Wednesday I go in and teach in every classroom," he said.
Despite confidence in their ability to connect with their community, the process of just how to create, support, and enact a shared vision was more challenging. New principals were clear that this area was important, but they were less certain about how to enact the change needed in their buildings.
There was a difference between their views in the fall and their views in the spring: In the fall, there was a high degree of agreement about the importance of vision and effective use of data to influence change. However, by spring new principals were aware of how difficult enacting change is operationally. The three areas judged most challenging were how to build trust, how to create support for the vision, and how to lead the change process.
"Balancing when people are ready or when we as a school can move forward with needed change is tough," one principal said. "Getting the right people involved and having support ... I would like to know more about how you move the staff forward and helping people understand the situation we're in."
Another added, "I need help understanding how to gain support for the change process with staff. We need to find ways to respond to student misbehavior that isn't punitive, but the staff refuses to consider it."
In the spring focus group, beginning principals were surprised at the confidence they'd shown in the fall about their ability to give feedback to staff and use student data. There was consensus that feedback to staff to improve teaching and learning and using student data are important to the success of new principals.
Growing as a Manager
New principals felt less knowledgeable and skilled in school management than in the areas of culture building or leadership. Their concerns ranged from legal issues to budgeting to how to get things done.
"We have so much to learn about the policies and procedures in our district," said one high school principal. "Everything is new, and it's exhausting to have to think so hard all day long and then redo some things the following day after you find out you did them wrong." Instead of having the benefit of planning, preparation, and guidance, beginning principals found that they had to tackle managerial issues as they happened.
Complicating the principals' emerging roles as managers was a perceived lack of support from the central office. Principals felt that central administration played a key role in their effectiveness, yet it was vexing to deal with. When the central office gave out too many directives, principals felt caught in the middle of making directives work within their buildings, taking on additional responsibilities to an already complex list of tasks and helping their staff understand and support new changes.
"Central administration adds too much to our plates," said a principal who felt that the central office was out of touch with what goes on in the building. He felt frustrated when directives came from the central office, and he questioned why that office could not deliver the directives to staff themselves and why he was left adding to his managerial job duties, which took away from his time as a leader.
"Everything is a juggling act and compromise," he said. "If I take on an additional responsibility because it has to get done, then I delegate it to people who want nothing to do with it or won't do a good job, I get in trouble or pick up the pieces."
One high school first-year principal felt that the central office had no patience or empathy. "When I don't understand something, I first try to figure it out with the other administrators in my building or call other district administrators that I can trust," the principal said. "It takes so much time to find an answer when something isn't clear. No one wants to call the central office because it appears that we cannot do our jobs and everyone is afraid they will be fired. It's crazy—sometimes I just need to talk things through with a superior, but I'm afraid to do it."
Seeking Collegial Collaboration and Support
The support, understanding, and collegiality that the principals received from the university induction program was perceived as invaluable by 100 percent of interview participants. The principals reported that they felt safe and comfortable in sharing concerns, ideas, and the collective experience of being new in a very difficult job. Further, they valued being away from the demands of their building and having a confidential space to talk, question, get advice, and laugh.
Participants were keenly concerned with being viewed by their district supervisors as incompetent, and 100 percent reported being reluctant to ask questions or call their supervisors for assistance. In striking contrast, 100 percent reported being at ease and encouraged to ask questions of faculty, other mentors, and other new principals in a confidential atmosphere.
One principal reflected on the value of a mentor in his first year. "I really didn't know what I was doing. There were days I just needed someone to talk to, to listen to me, to give me advice, and to let me know that I would pull through the situation that I was dealing with," he said.
Respondents had a desire to collaborate with peers. "We need to talk and share ideas," one participant said. "We are so isolated, either at our own schools or within our districts. When we ask for help, it sometimes appears as a weakness."
Another participant quickly agreed that collaboration time was too limited: "I would love more time to talk with colleagues that are in my district and out of my district."
Our research suggests that beginning principals need an experienced nonsupervisory person who can alternately mentor when expertise is needed, as in the case of the managerial concerns, and coach with probing questions as principals explore ways to develop school vision. Coursework is insufficient preparation for dealing with the varied and abstract nature of complex organizations.
Daresh, J. C. (2004). Mentoring school leaders: Professional promise or predictable problems? Educational Administration Quarterly, 40, 495–517.
Villani, S. (2006). Mentoring and induction programs that support new principals. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Watkins, M. (2003). The first 90 days: Critical success strategies for new leaders at all levels. Boston: Harvard Business Press.
Donna Recht is an associate professor in Educational Leadership at Cardinal Stritch University, in Glendale, Wis., and Carrie Willer is the principal at Franklin Elementary School in Appleton, Wis.
ASCD Express, Vol. 7, No. 1. Copyright 2011 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
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