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Paul Young's Young @ Heart

Landing Your
First Principalship

When it comes to being interviewed for that first principalship, all principals-to-be can benefit from the experience of a mentor. Mentors help their mentees focus on what must be said rather on what not to say. Included: Tips for aspiring principals.

Most aspiring principals spend months or even years in study, practice, and strategic planning in preparation for the final test -- the interview -- before being selected for their first principalship. For many, that interview process is the first truly daunting and anxiety-provoking encounter with the realities of school leadership. In some instances, the experience is overwhelming, even demoralizing. For some, rejection leads to dejection and doubts about further advancement and career opportunities. The most discouraged might even find themselves unsuited for the challenges and forego their dream of becoming a principal.

It is very likely that those individuals did not learn from the wisdom and experience of a mentor.

Getting a job as a principal requires more than reading books and writing papers for college classes, completing an internship, preparing a resume, writing cover letters, and developing a portfolio. The series of interviews leading to a successful hire can be likened to the dating and marriage process.

The principalship interview can also be compared to a sales visit. Candidates sell leadership. The interviewers need to buy a leader. To convince others that you are that leader, you must dress and act like a principal and appear calm, collected and confident. And all your pre-interview paperwork preparations must be organized and meticulous.

Anyone who thinks he or she wants to be a principal likely has a preconception of what the interview process is like. After all, you've already successfully interviewed for your current job. But an important lesson to learn is that preparing with a principal mentor helps candidates better understand how practicing school administrators think, assess their responses to questions, and evaluate how they did. Principal mentors help their mentees identify unique school cultures, the varied roles of search committee members (parents, students, teachers, central office administrators, consultants), and what must be said -- rather than what not to say -- to gain the advantage. Mentors help you focus on who you are as a leader.

See the endbar of this article for Twenty More Tips for Aspiring Principals.


So you are wondering what you might need to do to win the hearts and favor of interview teams?

First, do your homework.  Use your professional network and contacts to discover why the vacancy exists. Do you know people who know other people who might speak on your behalf or open doors? Uncover the personal agendas that individuals on the interview team might bring to the table. Are there hot union issues to be dealt with? Does the school need a turnaround leader or one capable of sustaining success? Determine in advance if you'd accept the job if it was offered to you during the interview. If you have serious doubts, don't accept the interview. You need to be comfortable with those you'll potentially lead as much as they must be with you.

The commute.  Next, decide what should be a realistic commute to and from work. Are you willing and able to move? Will the vehicle you drive meet accepted standards for a school leader in the community? The principalship can be a 24-7 job and, given a choice, interview teams might lean toward a candidate they know will agree to live within proximity of the school. Be honest with yourself, and be prepared to address this issue (and convince the team that where you'll choose to live is a non-issue) during the interview.

Dont whine or complain.  Whatever you do, don't obsess or lament about high-stakes testing, deadbeat parents, unfunded mandates, or No Child Left Behind accountability. Principals are hired to solve problems and make issues go away.

Be in shape.  If you have ailments or potential health issues that could signal problems among those on the interview team, don't be surprised when the rejection letters arrive. Don't let people see you pant or sweat when walking up the stairs. Get yourself in shape and convince others that you are physically, mentally, and emotionally up to the multi-faceted challenges of school leadership. Prove that you have proper balance between work and your private life.

Knock their socks off!  Go to the interview prepared with videotapes, digital pictures, DVDs, and other forms of technology that show your capabilities in action, in real settings. Let others see and hear you leading a meeting, speaking and interacting with students, parents, or community members. Whatever you choose to highlight, let them see and hear you lead! Leave them with copies of newsletters, memos, parent letters or articles you've written, public relations and school marketing ideas, newspaper clippings, evaluations about your work, and anything else that is effective, affordable, and memorable. There are numerous creative ways to showcase your talents and abilities and important skills that otherwise might be overlooked in traditional interviews.

Sell yourself!  Interviewing is all about selling. It is not enough just to tell about yourself. Rather, you must sell yourself while simultaneously avoiding the appearance of being arrogant, domineering, or wimpy. If you appear wishy-washy, youll get wiped up by those who exude confidence. More importantly, show that you have courage. Leadership can be dangerous and frightening. If you won't take risks, can't articulate a vision, fail to establish and clarify expectations, or fall short when motivating or persuading, you can't lead. Share examples of your resiliency handling tough situations.

Talk with your mentor.  Finally, learn everything you can from your mentor. Talk with your mentor about the tips above, and listen to what your mentor has to share. In an effective partnership, you will both learn together. When it is obvious that you are a leader with self-motivation and strong determination to learn, you will experience successful interviews and win the job that is meant for you.

Twenty More Tips for Aspiring Principals

Based on my mentoring experiences, I've developed the following interview tips to share with aspiring principals:

Prepare a professional portfolio that showcases the quality of your work and can be left as a reminder of who you are.

Arrive early. Make a good impression and connect with the receptionist, secretary, and other office personnel. Likely, those individuals have influence and will work directly with and for the new principal.

In advance, do your homework and become familiar with the names of everyone you might meet at the school or during the interview.

Be yourself during the interview. Smile. Let your sense of humor surface.

Maintain good eye contact. Shake hands firmly and connect visually with each individual on the interview team while saying his/her name.

Always use correct grammar. Avoid the use of umh, you know, like, and okay.

Body posture, facial expressions, voice quality, and gestures say a lot about you. If you wear glasses, avoid glare or other distractions that might limit your eye contact. Use your body to add emotion and emphasis to what you say, but dont overdo the use of your hands.

Be prepared to demonstrate capabilities of all aspects of the job description. If you don't possess all the prerequisite skills, don't accept interviews until you do.

Keep your answers short and to the point, then listen carefully and respond to the follow-up questions that might be asked from left field. Don't use jargon, acronyms, or slang.

Write out in advance and orally practice your responses to standard questions (for example, questions that might involve you sharing your vision, approaches to discipline, career goals, strengths and weakness, or curriculum and instruction experience). Participate in a series of mock interviews. Videotape them and reflect with your mentor on your performance.

Say "I don't know" when you don't.

Never allow yourself to appear arrogant, cocky, or eccentric.

Let members of the interview team sell their school.

Be prepared with points that you want to make during the interview. Make sure you deliver them. Sell yourself!

Be able to tell personal stories about your work that are simple, concrete, and highlight your creativity. Good stories help you connect on an emotional level with your listeners.

Have a list of a few good questions that you can ask at the right time that show interest in the school community.

Understand that interviews often continue on the walk during the building tour. Be courteous and greet others that you meet throughout the school (for example, teachers, classified staff, parents, volunteers, and students). How you look, act, and respond in this or other types of quasi-social settings might become a deciding factor.

Convince the team that your personal character and code of ethics are of the highest quality. Toot your own horn without blasting or sounding too soft. Assure the team that your work ethic and decision-making capabilities are second to none. (It goes without saying, of course, that everything you say must be factual and capable of being backed up by your references.)

Know how and when to exit the interview in a graceful manner. Thank each member of the interview team while shaking hands and making eye contact.

Leave and reflect immediately with your mentor at another location.


Article by Paul Young
Copyright © Education World®

Updated 4/30/2012