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Paul Young's Young @ Heart

Becoming a Principal Is
Like Learning to Swim
All Over Again

The lessons Paul Young learned while learning to swim stick with him today. Learning to swim and learning to principal aren't all that different, he says. Both require encouragement from trusted teachers. So are you ready to dive into the principalship?

As a young boy, I remember being very afraid of the water. I was shy and lacked skills in most athletic endeavors. When it came time for me to learn to swim, it seemed that all my friends already swam like fish. My observations of their fun in the pool did nothing to boost my self-esteem or confidence. I wanted nothing more than to end my swimming lessons, but my parents assured me that with time I'd learn to swim -- and learn to enjoy it.

It took lots of encouragement from several trusted teachers before I eventually jumped into the pool, let alone ventured into shallow waters. My teachers encouraged me to observe other swimmers' good techniques and learn new skills during each lesson. Slowly, I began inching toward parts of the pool where my feet barely touched the bottom. But all the while I insisted upon being near the strong arm of a teacher. Only with another's watchful eye would I risk moving into deeper waters.

In time, the proximity and encouragement of capable swimmers boosted my confidence. Because of their guidance and patience, I eventually caught on to the basics and began to enjoy the sport of swimming -- even in the deep water.

Soon my swimming lessons came to an end, but with much practice and persistence I began experiencing the exhilarating feelings that come with being in the water.

Learning to swim is an excellent analogy for learning lots of other things. Also, it is a good analogy in many ways for the training and mentoring of new principals. New principals begin to learn the ropes by observing others. Most are anxious and experience moments of self-doubt. They spend hours in training, and they complete internships during which they demonstrate basic skills.

But learning to be a principal doesn't end when the classes stop.

Instead, learning to become a principal continues during an apprenticeship with a caring mentor. In time, and with patience, new levels of independence and self-sufficiency are learned from practical experiences, reflection, and personal insight that help develop advanced management techniques and leadership competencies.


There are many capable classroom teachers with the potential to become outstanding principals, but they lack the confidence to venture into the deep water. They are paralyzed by fear of the unknown. Many never test the waters, so they end their careers as principals before they even begin. But most of those who do venture into the deep end succeed when they seek out the support of an experienced principal. Mentors are the key to helping beginning principals envision new opportunities and achieve success as they test the waters.

Many capable classroom teachers have the potential to become outstanding principals, but they are paralyzed by fear of the unknown. Many never test the waters, so they end their careers as principals before they even begin.

To become a principal, one must get into the pool, practice, and learn from mistakes while maintaining a resilient spirit. Those who are wise seek feedback and support from a nurturing principal -- a mentor. Without the support of that teacher nearby, beginning swimmers sometimes flounder and nearly drown. Success comes as a mentor helps a principal-to-be learn to navigate independently and lead others through stormy waters.

The mentoring relationship doesn't end when the mentee is hired into a principalship. A beginning principal needs more of the same kind of encouragement. Mentors can support the new principal through a multitude of challenges and difficulties. Mentors continue to be there to help their mentees learn to survive -- and thrive.

Mentoring partnerships naturally evolve through many stages. Some end as principals advance to positions in far-away locations. But the best continuously evolve and recreate themselves in new ways that perpetuate the learning cycle: learner becomes follower, follower becomes teacher, teacher becomes mentor, mentor becomes learner. Where one lesson ends, another begins. In the most effective partnerships, mentors and mentees learn together for a lifetime. Each experience they share creates new discoveries and opportunities.

I could have become a better swimmer, but I didn't have the foresight to understand the importance of staying with an instructor. Fortunately, I experienced a successful career as a principal because of ongoing support and guidance from numerous teachers, my mentors. The key is that I sought them out, continuously. When one relationship ended, one or more others began. Eventually, my support network became so extensive and multi-layered that I fearlessly ventured into the deepest waters of school leadership. Although my practicing career ended at retirement, my service as a mentor begins every time I interact with beginning principals. Learning never ends. Mentoring helps end bad experiences and create new beginnings.

Article by Paul Young
Copyright © Education World®

Updated 02/17/2012