Lord, What Do I Do Now?

Prepping new principals goes well beyond a set of new keys and well wishes by Thomas S. Mawhinney

He arrived at his new school on the first day of July and found the building locked. If he was expecting a welcoming committee, he was in for a major disappointment. Once he gained entrance, he had to convince the custod ian to let him into the principal's office. There on the desk, he discovered a set of keys and a note from his predecessor. It read simply, “Good luck!” He sat down in the chair, put his feet on the desk and muttered out loud, “Lord, what do I do now?”


His name was Curtis Wells and he was describing his first day as the headmaster of Hyde Park High School. I chuckled to myself as I listened intently to his 1995 presentation at the Harvard Principals Center. I laughed because my induction had been strikingly similar.

I started my first job as principal at the beginning of August. When I arrived at the school, I was the only adult there. Two students were painting my office, but everyone else was on vacation, including the superintendent and my two secretaries. The director of buildings and grounds sought me out the following day and gave me a quick indoctrination, but I learned more from the two teen-aged painters. Thanks to Curtis, I realized that my welcome, or lack of one, was a tradition widely observed at high schools across the country.

In preparation for my principalship, I had been an assistant principal in two high schools—one in Massachusetts and the other a two-hour drive from New York City. Neither of my bosses had the time nor inclination to mentor me. Like many principals in dealing with their assistant principals, they were content that I competently handled discipline and performed an occasional teacher observation. It wasn’t until I sat in the back of a classroom observing a teacher for the first time that I realized I did not have a clue what I was doing. I needed help in a big way: I was a mentee in desperate need of a mentor.

I believe my first-year experience in the principalship is the rule rather than the exception. I agree with Warren Bennis, the esteemed management consultant, when he suggests, “The first leadership experience is an agonizing education, in that nothing else in life prepares you.”

None of my colleagues who had been appointed to the principalship following a stint as an assistant had a mentoring relationship with their boss. Most had paid their dues by doling out discipline to students or by being a successful sports coach. In many cases, they were chosen by default—their boss retired and they were next in the line of succession. Is it any wonder that school leaders begin their journey without the tools to be effective?

More Than Keys

I read a fascinating story in Principal Leadership about Ben Hix, who as a high school principal had mentored 15 administrators in his own building. Ben's story is unusual because it's rare you hear of a principal mentoring even one individual. In my own 10-year career, I had the pleasure of this kind of relationship twice. Most school districts now insist that teachers have a trained mentor during their beginning years, yet we allow first-time principals to run schools with little more than a set of keys and good wishes.

During my first tour as an assistant principal, I became involved in a leadership training program sponsored by the Massachusetts Department of Education known as the Commonwealth Leadership Academy. The goal was to expose school administrators to corporate-like leadership training and provide long-term follow up.

We were taught by a professional staff developer who used effective teaching methods to help us explore cutting-edge organizational theory. We had a cohort group that continued to meet voluntarily with the consultant for 10 years after the initial five-day workshop. This experience changed my life and set me on a career-long quest to learn what it takes to be an effective principal.

With this training under my belt, I entered my first principalship feeling confident. Yet in looking back, I can admit, “I didn’t know what I didn’t know.” No amount of bookwork prepares one for the job. My superintendent assigned me a mentor, but there was little time for us to process. My mentor was a busy middle school principal who met with me only when I had major problems. I did not feel comfortable calling her. I naively felt it would have been perceived as a sign of weakness. So I struggled in silence, feeling my way in the darkness, learning from my mistakes and many times not knowing I was committing them until it was too late.

Thrills of Mentoring

My opportunity to mentor someone else happened by chance, not by design. As a high school principal, I hired an assistant principal who had spent the first 15 years of his professional life in the corporate world. He had come to me after quitting his first job as a novice educational leader—he was an assistant high school principal in a district more interested in politics than teaching and learning. He was not happy with his initial experience and without prospects of another job he resigned at the end of that first year.

I find it fascinating that unlike other occupations, in education we consider an unsuccessful experience at one’s last job akin to having an incurable disease. Fortunately for Bill Belichik, the professional football coach, his failure in Cleveland did not preclude Bob Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, from hiring him as coach of the now three-time Super Bowl champions. In his last year as coach of the Cleveland Browns, Belichik won five games out of 16. Can you imagine trying to land another principal’s job after getting fired for having a success rate of 30 percent?

What my assistant needed and wanted desperately was to learn his new craft. But after quitting his last position, no one would take a chance on him. This opportunity was so refreshing that it rejuvenated what had otherwise been a dismal beginning to my career as a school leader. He was hungry and wanted to know what I knew—and I was happy to teach him.

When I was sitting in that classroom as a first-year assistant principal, I knew I needed help so I learned how to observe and analyze teaching. Most school administrators start as experienced classroom teachers, later moving into leadership positions, but they do not instinctively know how to observe and coach their teachers. That is why many principals are averse to being in classrooms. They do not feel comfortable in that role.

It was this knowledge that I shared with my new assistant. We conducted joint observations, processed and debriefed together, and we both grew as a result. I knew I was grooming him to move on and after a short two years, he was hired as an assistant superintendent—quite a professional leap from being the dean of students at a small high school. Like our own children, good assistants should only be on loan to us.

Grooming Leaders

Dennis Sparks, the executive director of the National Staff Development Council, states that effective teacher leadership “requires that teachers overcome barriers and benefit from professional development similar to that of principals who serve as instructional leaders.” No greater thrill exists for a principal than mentoring a teacher and watching that individual evolve into a skilled educational leader. Warren Bennis, writing in the Harvard Business Review, calls mentoring “one of the great joys of a mature career, the professional equivalent to having grandchildren." That certainly was the case for me in working with one of my teachers.

In our school, teachers were not standing in line to become leaders. Most felt if they shared leadership, they could not complain when something went wrong. Therefore I was pleasantly surprised when a veteran social studies teacher asked that I observe her class several more times than was called for in the union contract. It was the start of a 10-year mentoring relationship that would culminate in her being unanimously chosen by a large selection committee for a middle school principalship—without any prior school leadership experience.

It began with her desire simply to be a better teacher. She had never been supervised by a principal who knew much about coaching and she was a sponge, wanting to soak up everything I knew. Eventually, she became an adjunct in the teacher training program at a local college and asked me to conduct joint observations of her student-teachers. I would highly recommend this process for not only improving the neophyte supervisor's skill but honing the veteran's as well.

In the years that followed, we jointly facilitated workshops, formed a professional development partnership with a local university and created after-school training sessions for school district staff.

When the time came for her to do the 600-hour internship for administrative certification, she could have opted to continue teaching and perform her administrative work during prep periods—a common route for many aspiring leaders. She might have fulfilled her time commitment, but she would have received a less-than-authentic experience. Instead, she courageously gave up her salary for five months and became a full-time intern.

Because she was on the job all day every day, she was able to experience a complete array of administrative tasks. She collaborated with me and the middle school principal (we acted as co-mentors) in student discipline, parent meetings, assisting new teachers, designing the master schedule and developing the yearly budget.

Being available full-time allowed us to process what Stephen Covey calls quadrant II activities—things that are important but not urgent. We examined the topics of developing mission, vision, values and goals; the collaborative study of testing data; mental models, systems thinking and team learning; how to build positive school culture; and the critical skill of dealing with negative teachers. When she was done, she was ready to be the principal of the middle school where she taught.

Our mentor-mentee relationship lasted over her first two years as a principal as well. I was a tad jealous because she was able to avoid many of my first-year pitfalls. As with most beginning principals, she received little mentoring support from our busy superintendent. Yet because we shared the same building, we were able to process daily. These daily meetings helped her avoid many of the smoke screens and landmines that lay in wait for most unseasoned administrators.

As school leaders, we need to create structures and career ladders that will encourage teachers to take this risky step without the financial sacrifice that my friend made. In my last school district, veteran teachers are paid as much or more than a beginning principal. Therefore we need to create a tiered structure that will give teachers added leadership responsibility as well as the financial incentive to take on the role of teacher-leader. I was fortunate that one teacher was motivated to learn about school leadership. We cannot afford to leave this process to chance—the odds are definitely stacked against us.

Making It So

Robert Marzano and his team of researchers at the McREL Institute have provided us with empirical evidence that leadership matters, yet I am continually perplexed how little attention we give to its cultivation in education. Schools will not improve until we do a better job of enhancing the quality of our principals.

To do that, we need to enlist a cadre of mentors who have been trained and who are readily accessible when the new leader most needs the help. And we need superintendents and school boards that will encourage it to happen.

Thomas Mawhinney, a former high school principal, is president of Leadership for Learning, 35 North Grand Ave., Poughkeepsie NY 12603. E-mail: tmawhinney@leading4learning.com