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Professional Opinion

How to coach strong school principals

Follow these tips to build relationships that foster growth for newcomers and experienced K12 leaders
Chris Wolk is the principal at Avon Center School in Round Lake Beach, Illinois. He is a regional director for the Illinois Principal Association and a certified principal mentor with the National Association of Elementary School Principals.
Chris Wolk is the principal at Avon Center School in Round Lake Beach, Illinois. He is a regional director for the Illinois Principal Association and a certified principal mentor with the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

Principal preparation programs continue to place more demands on candidates, in some cases requiring a yearlong internship. When the time comes to assume the role, no amount of preparation can prepare a person for what lies ahead. The constant demands, interruptions, rules, pressure and stress can wear down even the most resilient person.

In a Rand Corporation study of first-year principals, researchers found that 107 of 519 new principals left the profession within two years.

District human resources departments across the country are working to retain highly qualified and effective principals. Mentoring is a resource that districts and states can use to help new principals develop their skills and connect with other professionals in a non-evaluative way.

Many states have incorporated formal mentoring initiatives—and the training process for becoming a mentor can be a rigorous one. For example, The National Association of Elementary School Principals’ program requires three days of training, a nine-month internship, and monthly cohort chats and reflections.

A true mentoring experience differs from the informal supervisor/subordinate model that many districts have put into place. Here are a few tips that will improve those relationships.

Hold meeting times sacred

Meetings and emergencies pop up unexpectedly, but when mentoring, hold time with your trainee as non-negotiable. This is a time for you to work with an individual who is trying to improve personally and professionally.

All relationships are built on trust. Knowing that you are willing to set aside time for each other is the foundation to that trust. Regularly scheduled meetings are a good way to start.

Conduct site visits

Vary where you have your meetings. If you are always meeting at the same building it may become a repetitive conversation that may revolve around similar topics. Going to each other’s schools allows each of you to highlight and share ideas about what new and innovative things you are implementing within your building.

Offsite meetings provide privacy and ensure that neither of you will be distracted nor interrupted.

Be open to reflection

Reflective conversations allow us insight into our practice. Being honest and discussing our practice offers a chance to discover more about ourselves. Open-ended questions facilitate reflective conversations that help us organize our thoughts about our past practice and formulate a plan to improve moving forward.

Spot opportunities for mutual growth

Mentoring is about more than helping a fellow administrator. Mentoring allows you to learn more about yourself and improve your own leadership practices. Through discussion, questioning and reflection, you may improve your communication skills.

Develop your professional learning network

Mentoring courses through a state or national organization will put you in contact with other veteran administrators and allow you to share your experiences. Using social media to keep in contact with your colleagues will open a new world of resources.

Keeping in contact with one member of your mentoring cohort on a platform such as Twitter may connect you to thousands of fellow administrators from around the world. Sharing this experience with a new principal will then open their world of resources exponentially.


Chris Wolk is the principal at Avon Center School in Round Lake Beach, Illinois. He is a regional director for the Illinois Principal Association and a certified principal mentor with the National Association of Elementary School Principals.