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Always Strive to Be a Better You

Mentoring and the
Three Golden Rules


I read a startling statistic the other day about the future of school administration: In the next five years, nearly 50 percent of our nation's public school administrators will retire, leaving quite a void in one of the most critical leadership roles in American society. The folks who will fill those positions are likely to share characteristics I had a mere four years ago: young, relatively inexperienced, thin-necked, and totally, blissfully, unequivocally unprepared for the avalanche we call the principalship.

New principals have no idea what they're about to encounter when they walk from their newly decorated parking spots into the offices of their new schools. This is not their districts' fault for hiring incompetent leaders, nor does the blame sit on the shoulders of their internship supervisors, their university professors, the state licensing board, or their own selves for accepting the positions. The principalship is simply a beast that cannot be understood until one has wrangled with it.

[content block] Those statements speak not to new principals' character, leadership style, personality, knowledge, integrity, intelligence, communication abilities, or genetic makeup. Rather, they are simple observations about preparation, and they send sparks flying about the importance of providing quality mentorship programs for our rookie administrators.

Our newbie leaders are in desperate need of someone to guide them, listen to them, offer advice, encourage them, and reassure them that all the strange events that happen in and around the principal's office are, well, normal, and that there are reasonable ways to handle every bizarre and unorthodox circumstance.

One cannot possibly prepare oneself to simultaneously receive a phone call from the superintendent requesting a copy of a lost report, settle a dispute between two students engaged in a fistfight, pacify a rabid parent, locate a teacher who did not report to collect her students from the library, drink sufficient water to maintain adequate levels of hydration, and raise test scores significantlyuntil one has found oneself in such a position.

We have self-help books. By definition, however, those preclude mentorships. Jim Collins, in Good to Great, mentions several times that the grooming of future leaders helped ease transitions between CEOs for organizations that built substantial, long-term success. Leadership is generally noted as a requirement for school improvement and a requisite for increasing student achievement, but there is very little literature outlining the severe need for the development of leadership capacity at the school level.


Alas, lacking that connection with an effective mentor, here is a triad of guidelines we affectionately refer to as the Three Golden Rules. I suggest all principals, in particular those new to the profession who have yet to establish their niche and position within the school community, refer to them in the significant likelihood that you are expected to make a decision. If ever in doubt, in a bind, or in it up to your neck, follow these rules to make each and every decision:

  1. Stay true to the shared vision. We principals make literally hundreds of decisions in a typical week, and it's important to understand the motivation within ourselves that guides our decision-making process. Every decision, every mandate, every statement, every prioritized list, and every comment must be justifiable to anybody and everybody involved. If the school has a clear, established, and embraced vision, put the decision in question up to this standard: Is this aligned with our shared vision? If your school has not yet ironed out an agreed-upon vision, a safe support vehicle might be the answer to this question: Is this in the best interest of the school as a whole, or in the best interest of our students? If you can show a strong relationship between the decision and the school's vision, even moves that go dreadfully wrong can be justified and your motives will never be questioned.

  2. Be aware of the goings-on. Information is a premium, and there is truly no substitute for knowing the routines, characteristics, idiosyncrasies, and practices that populate your school community. As the leader, it is your responsibility, obligation, and duty to know the behaviors of the humans under your care, the schedules followed by students and staff, the interactions and relationships on board, the contents of every bulletin board, the teaching styles and discipline procedures of every teacher, and any special circumstance that might set today apart from the rest of your lives. So use those eyes and ears for all they're worth -- listen, observe, listen more, and continue to observe. Walk the grounds tirelessly. Get in every classroom, every day. Get to know the personnel as people, know what to expect, and identify if and when your expectations aren't being met. After all, if you do not know what is going on in your own school, how can you lead it to the shared vision?

  3. Conduct yourself professionally. This seems like common sense, but it's amazing how many conversations, debates, interpersonal interactions, and working relationships are ruined beyond repair due to a lack of professionalism. As the school figurehead, you are fully expected to provide a beacon of righteousness, a pillar of appropriateness, and a steaming heap of polite political correctness. Though it's tempting to tell off a hostile parent drenched in irrationality, or to guffaw when a teacher whines about her scheduled library time, or to bellow at a student who is misbehaving again, the immediate explosions are destructive and demoralizing to everyone who later hears about the transmission. So, rather than allowing yourself to be suckered into an argument or saying what you really probably want to say, phrase your thoughts delicately with the big picture in mind. Take the proverbial high road, and shun the frustrations, shackles, and irritations; rather, be pleasant, maintain focus, listen, then let it go. After all, you are a professional, so act like one.

If you can follow those three golden rules, you can survive the tsunami that we call the principalship, at least until some wayward administrator from a neighboring school throws you a rope and tugs you out of the grime.

Always strive to be a better you,

Article by Pete Hall
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World