The distance from the classroom or assistant principals office to the principals office could be very short, but the expectations grow with every step toward that door.
Suddenly, you are responsible for all the decisions you watched your principal handle -- and you wonder how he or she did it.
"The buck stops with you," said Kimsherion Reid, a second-year principal at Georgetown Elementary School in the Savannah-Chatham County (Georgia) Public School System. "No matter what goes on in a building, it reflects on you. Its the same as being a parent when the kids leave the house."
Recognizing that the burdens on principals have increased over the years and wanting to ensure that promising young administrators dont become overwhelmed and quit, the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System this year began a mentoring program for new principals and assistant principals.
Mentors may guide, instruct, watch, or just listen. Several new principals said having that reassuring presence or voice on the phone is making all the difference as they start their careers as administrators.
The planning for the mentoring program for first- and second-year principals began in the spring, and kicked off in the fall with 20 new administrators, according to Jackie Chavis, chief academic officer for the school district. Four mentors, who are retired administrators, work with the new principals and three with the new assistant principals.
"We wanted the principals to know that the mentors were there to help them," said Lillie Ellis, the districts executive director of elementary schools, who works with some of the mentors. "Many of the principals know the mentors or know of them."
The programs mission is "to create a model for new principal and assistant principal training that is consistent with professional standards, addresses the specific needs of newly hired principals, and ensures effective future leaders," according to information about the program.
The districts superintendent, Dr. Thomas B. Lockamy Jr., was behind the development of the mentoring program. He came to Savannah-Chatham from a district with principal mentors, saw that it had a positive impact on new administrators, and wanted to institute a program, Ellis said.
Some of the principals have more than one mentor. They can call on a principal at a "partner" school for advice. That additional mentor gives them multiple levels of support.
"They are giving us a good foundation; we are not out on an island by ourselves," said James Heater, who is in his first year as principal of Heard Elementary Academy. "We have some life rafts."
Many of the new principals find it hardest to adjust to "the volumes and volumes of having to think-on-your-feet opportunities," said Dr. Freddie Gilyard, a former elementary and high school principal who mentors five principals. "Many new principals are so caught up in the perceived charm of being a principal that they are blind-sided with the realities of the position and its responsibilities."
Several of the new principals and mentors added that learning to prioritize tasks and manage their time effectively also is a major challenge. The districts mentoring team, in fact, was planning a focus group session on time management for all new principals.
"The balancing act is the most difficult adjustment they must make," said Lillian Atkins, a mentor who is a former elementary and high school principal. "It doesn't take long for them to feel overwhelmed by things coming at them from all directions."
Heater agreed. "Time management is the hardest thing -- you want to prioritize your time to make the best opportunities for students," he told Education World. "You dont know exactly whats expected of you until you are in the position; there is no way to comprehend how busy and how many decisions you make in a second. My mentor has done it -- she can give me hints and tips."
"Im always looking for ways to do things smarter, not harder," added Reid. "Some things that I ironed out may not have been wrinkled before."
Dr. Tangela Madge, a first-year principal at Southwest Middle School, said that while the first few months on the job have gone pretty much as expected, she has sought her mentors advice for issues such as time management, discipline, interactions with parents, and the curriculum.
"I knew from day one that I had to be committed to assisting teachers in preparing students for academic success," Madge told Education World. "Also, I knew that I would be responsible for the overall operation of the school. With these things in mind, my first few months as a principal have been exactly what I expected."
Still, adjusting to all the responsibility that comes with being the final say in the building can take some getting used to.
"You have to live with the decisions you make," Reid said. "I slept much better as an assistant principal."
"Its just nice to have that extra person [to talk to]," Heater added "All the accountability comes on me. Until you are in this position, you dont realize how much it is."
Mentors try to visit their mentees about once a week, in the form of one-on-one visits, walk-arounds, or observations.
"The beauty of the mentoring program is that we can talk about anything that is of concern to [the principals in the program]," said Atkins. "In the beginning, I had to engage them in dialogue; now, the dialogue is open with both principal and mentor sharing and learning from each other."
Reid said her mentor -- retired principal Beverly Oliver -- stops by the school at least once a week -- but she really doesnt expect to find Reid in the office that much.
"I get from her the time to address the needs that surface," added Reid. "She pretty much lets me lead how she helps me -- we review ideas and strategies."
Most also are available even when they are not at school. "She [the mentor] has helped me with reassurance; I cant tell you how much e-mailing weve done," added Heater.
Dr. Madge said she spent time with her mentor discussing parental involvement and curriculum issues. "The majority of my questions have focused on getting parents and the community members involved in the overall educational process."
Dr. Gilyard said she often works with her mentees on balancing people and processes, personnel issues, curriculum and standards, classroom visitations, focus walks, and reminding them that they should maintain a family and personal life as well as a school life.
Atkins tries to spend one or two hours per week with each of her five principals. "We discuss all aspects of the principalship, including personnel issues, internal and external communities, staffing needs, budgetary problems, teacher/staff evaluations, time constraints, and anything that they wish to bring to my attention," she said. "Sometimes I give them a heads up on what will be coming up soon or remind them of deadlines they need to think about and I may point out some shortcuts that they may find beneficial."
Reids mentor, Oliver, sometimes walks around the building or meets with her. "She sees me interacting with teachers and kids," Reid said. In one instance, the two discussed how Reid dealt with students in the cafeteria. "She suggested that I dont correct the kids to the point that I relieve the people in the cafeteria of their responsibilities," Reid told Education World. "I need to be clear what they are responsible for."
For the mentors, shepherding new principals is a way to share what they learned on the job and provide the support they may have wished they had.
"Even though I am retired, I am not so tired that I cannot share some of the things that I learned while I was a principal," Dr. Gilyard told Education World. "I enjoy working with the neophytes. I believe that I can add a sense of reality to their principalship experience. What I enjoy most is reassuring the new principals that they are not expected to be perfect, just excellent at what they do."
"I have enjoyed a wonderful and rewarding career as a teacher and administrator, and I wanted to be able to give something back," added Atkins. "I am proud of the system from which I retired and mentoring is a means of sharing experiences and ideas that new principals may find helpful. Mentoring benefits everyone -- system, principal, and mentor."
Besides, being a principal is more challenging now than when she was an administrator, Dr. Gilyard noted.
"It is definitely more difficult now," Dr. Gilyard said. "The national and international attention being given to standards-based results really holds a principal accountable to the world. A local system, or state, is not able to set an achievement chart for excellence without having to incorporate requirements of a world-class education expectation. I saw the change coming, was intimidated by it, but believe it is best for America if we are going to remain competitive."
Mentoring programs like the one at Savannah-Chatham are crucial to increase the flow of quality educators into those tough administrative positions -- and keep them there, added Atkins.
"Success breeds success," she told Education World. "I believe that the best way to encourage talented educators to enter the principalship is to provide them a support system that will not allow them to fail. There is some degree of risk in stepping into administration. Successful teachers who take that step move out of their comfort zones only to find themselves low on the totem pole while, at the same time, trying to exercise leadership roles.
"There are too many issues facing principals to ignore the value of internships," Atkins continued. "Training at the elbow of a successful principal would increase the probability of success of the future administrator as well as provide an easier transition into administration. When principals succeed, they inspire others."