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Ed. Magazine

What I Learned About Mentoring Principals

Phyllis Gimbel
Phyllis Gimbel
Photo: Heather McGrath

It's not uncommon for teachers nowadays to have mentors. But mentoring for principals is a rarer — but very necessary — thing, says Phyllis Gimbel, Ed.M.’95, author of the new book, Leadership Through Mentoring, The Key to Improving the Confidence and Skill of Principals. Principals have a huge impact on teacher experience and student achievement yet principal turnover is more common than ever, with 35% staying at their school for less than two years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. One reason for this, says Gimbel, a professor at Bridgewater State University, is that being a principal is more stressful than ever. “Principals need to hit the halls running,” she writes, but “many are left to learn on the job. It doesn’t take long for new principals to feel overwhelmed by things coming at them from all directions.” Gimbel saw this firsthand when she was working in schools, first as a teacher, then as a school administrator, principal, and mentor trainer. Recently, she shared some of the lessons she learned working in schools and then while researching her book, about the role mentors play and why new principals need to be supported more than ever.

What is mentoring? The mentoring relationship between two people, typically face to face, endeavors to expand a new principal’s professional development.

Not all states require mentoring of new school principals due to variations in federal and state funding. It is important to allow state or federal funds to support principal mentoring programs in schools.

Often, practicing principals do not have time to be trained and then to mentor for one or two years. Yet, the daily demands on school leaders require clear and consistent feedback. Without a mentor, a new principal is not guaranteed this type of regular assistance.

In my research and in my own practice as a principal, I have learned that ... new school leaders are often left alone, serving in isolation, without much-needed support from colleagues serving in similar roles.

There were times I wanted someone who was not part of my school district to listen and advise me. Maybe I could have had an impact sooner in my tenure had I had a mentor.

Research has shown that school leaders are second only to teachers when it comes to having an impact on student achievement.

Nowadays, schools are becoming more and more the objects of attention, from many quarters, from politicians to teachers on the verge of resigning, to parents and guardians made even more anxious and demanding by the uncertainties of the ongoing pandemic, mental health crisis, political and social rifts, and the desire for racial equity.

Principals are often occupying what has been named the “complaint window.”

As a new secondary school teacher, I did not have confidence, especially regarding classroom management and discipline. My students were diverse and each one of them was unique. How could I be fair, trustworthy, equitable in my actions, and still be an effective teacher? If I had someone who would not be evaluating me and someone I could trust, I would have liked to run some scenarios of how I would handle certain situations. But I could not, so I had to “fly blindly.”

In my research and role as mentor trainer of retired principals, I have found that new principals can benefit from seasoned principals who have retired within the past five years. Since the demand on principals today is so different from 10 or more years ago, some of the social constructs and state licensing requirements have changed, making it challenging, in my opinion, for those individuals who retired a decade ago to understand the current educational landscape.

In my work as mentor trainer, some trainees mentioned that the biggest way a mentor can help a mentee is by providing a relationship whose primary goal is to create perspective. Another mentor in training told me that his mentee needed a “culture reset” to re-create a sense of trust among the faculty and the principal.

Through my research and training of mentors, I have found that the most effective mentors create instructive challenges by helping a new principal understand and frame issues, help develop a new principal’s professional vision via dialogue, and help the new principal feel empowered to solve problems themselves.

A good mentor listens empathically, offers a safe space to vent, to air, to complain and to feel shame. The role of mentor is supportive and non-evaluative.

Mentors and mentees should be matched carefully.

Time must be allotted for mentors and mentees to meet regularly.

It is better to have a mentor from outside the new principal’s school district so that the mentor provides more objective advice. It is important for the mentor to be trained to listen, ask questions, and not pass judgment so that mutual trust can evolve.

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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