Education is an ever-changing profession seeking to consistently meet the needs and demands of both students and schools. As times have changed, the role of a principal has resulted in a principal wearing many different hats to lead. And principals today are no longer just looked at as managers, but multi-faceted leaders needed to cater to their respective staff and student body.

While most past and some present principal preparation has typically focused on the managerial roles of principals, the emergent direction of principal preparation has trended more towards applicable and practical experiences to be learned and then later put into effect. Simulations of real-world scenarios have become more prevalent in developing appropriate administrative skills. By providing these types of experiences, aspiring school leaders have been able to develop the proper methodology to deal with certain problems and provide meaningful feedback. Emergent principal preparation has afforded opportunities to aspiring and current principals to be better community leaders, as well as instructional leaders and change agents within their schools.

With increased emphasis placed on school performance and school change, having an effective school leader at the helm is essential for school success. For a school to be effective, the principal, leadership team, and faculty must exude qualities that lead to school improvement. Unfortunately, however, with increased pressure and accountability, fewer potential candidates are willing to serve as principals. In many cases, there is no shortage of prospects that could serve in the principalship. Many fully-abled candidates are simply not applying for open positions, all too often because they believe they lack the adequate skills required to lead.

These feelings of inadequacy toward leadership have multiple explanations. One such factor is the inadequate preparation aspiring leaders receive at university and district levels. While university programs aim to prepare future school leaders with the skills to face the every day rigors of the job, there is all too often a disconnect between what is taught and the tools required for success. Even district-level training sometimes falls short in providing the training that is most useful and relevant for future school principals.

In our recent research, we requested feedback from 450 public and private building-level administrators (e.g., principals, vice principals, and assistant principals) throughout the state of Tennessee. Approximately 9% of this sample agreed to share with us those components of their education and training that contributed most toward their preparation for a leadership position. We first sought to learn what types of pre-service education at the university level were of greatest value to this group of educational leaders. Additionally, we aimed to determine what district-level training served to be most beneficial toward the success of these educational leaders after they had been employed as a principal, vice principal, or assistant principal position.   

What Educational Leaders Found Most Beneficial From Their University Preparation

No aspiring principal wants to spend an unreasonable amount of money on tuition, only to have a university preparation program provide irrelevant training. Most principal preparation programs have been aligned to the Interstate School Leadership Licensure Consortium (ISLLC) as an effort to improve the quality of leader preparation. ISLLC has been used as a blanket framework for accreditation, licensure, and preparation, yet as the roles of principals have drastically changed from that of manager to that of educational leader, there is still a need for the standards to be adaptive to school leaders of the 21st century.

So, what are the ingredients to effective leadership preparation at the university level, as expressed by aspiring and current principals? Below is a succinct list of the items shared as these leaders reflected upon the most valuable aspects of their university preparation experiences:

  • Authentic Experiences — Experiences that provide simulation or had real-world implications provided training directly consistent with and relevant to the daily tasks and demands of the principalship. Rather than just take coursework that may not be applicable, or as beneficial as one would prefer, most principals expressed a desire for hands-on experiences that provided a firsthand glimpse of what to expect when they take the reigns of leadership within a school. Examples included job shadowing alongside an acting principal or participation in an internship/practicum, which provided a mentoring experience without having complete responsibility.
  • Applicable Coursework — A majority of the building-level school administrators we contacted noted that the most valuable coursework in their preparation experience involved a practical and applicable curriculum pertaining to school finance, law, instructional leadership, or data-driven instruction. These courses provided program participants the opportunities to gain insight into the practical, managerial side of administration that could be put to immediate use.
  • Networking via Cohort — This sample of school administrators also valued cohort experiences as students. When university programs grouped students by cohort, educational leadership students then had opportunities to network and develop lasting relationships with colleagues. These school leaders further claimed that having contacts with those people after graduation proved to be invaluable in finding a job or simply getting advice from a trusted colleague while on the job.
  • Experienced Professors — Having experienced educational leaders as their professors was viewed by principals as invaluable. In many cases, some of the best professors were current school principals during the day. These experienced leaders had an ability to clearly teach and explain important tenets of the principalship. They could also share first-hand, real-life stories as well as lend practical advice that eased potential candidates as they were seeking to take on the often daunting role of a school leader.

What Educational Leaders Found Most Beneficial From Their District-Level Training

In addition to university preparation, local school districts are responsible for the continual fostering and nurturing of principals once they are in school leadership roles. Universities can teach various tenets of leadership such as theory and foundation. Yet there are some components of leadership, such as a specific district’s policies and vision, that must be conveyed through the individual school district.

With school districts placing increased attention on testing and truancy, it is easy for them to overlook their principals and their need for continued support and ongoing training. School districts should identify and implement positive measures to equip and maintain essential leadership experiences for their principals. Respondents indicated their need for the following from their school districts:

  • Continual Support — The active principals, vice principals, and assistant principals that participated in our study expressed a desire to know that they have avenues of support at their disposal to get help when it is needed. This district-level support can be provided through constant mentoring opportunities, professional development, or meetings with central office staff, including the superintendent throughout the school year.
  • Collaborative Opportunities — These building-level administrators clearly valued collaborative opportunities. They valued opportunities to collaborate with other administrators to stay up to date on current educational trends. They also expressed their need to bounce around ideas related to the numerous issues that affect a school.

Conclusion

Several avenues are needed for school administrators to explore not only how to become skilled leaders, but also how to create effective educational environments for their staff, parents, stakeholders, and most importantly their students. By enrolling in and completing successful preparation programs, candidates can certainly gain the necessary skills for the job. To meet principals’ needs, school districts can also provide more support and development throughout the school year to ensure principals are able to meet the myriad of challenges faced each workday. Together, both universities and local school districts can adequately prepare and effectively support school administrators.

Clinton D. Pulse (pulsec@hardemancountyschools.org) is an assistant principal and instructional facilitator for Grand Junction Elementary School in Grand Junction, Tennessee, of the Hardeman County School System. Stephen R. Marvin (smarvin@fhu.edu) is an Associate Professor of education for Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tennessee.

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