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Help Them Swim, Not Sink

How principal mentorship programs can benefit first-year leaders
Chalkboard fish

New school principals face high-stakes decisions as they navigate an unprecedented wave of challenges, including political and social rifts, the mental health crisis, and teacher resignations. Not surprisingly, this kind of stress takes a toll: almost 20% of principals leave the job each year, and nearly half of new principals leave their schools after three years. As school leaders, this kind of turnover impacts the whole community — its effects have been found to trickle down into student achievement as well as teacher turnover. 

Rather than let principals sink or swim, what are the options for helping them gain the confidence they need to tackle challenges? As Bridgewater State University professor Phyllis Gimbel and educator and writer Peter Gow show in their new book, one answer is mentorship programs.

In Leadership Through Mentoring: The Key to Improving the Confidence and Skill of Principals, Gimbel (a Harvard Graduate School of Education alum) and Gow draw on mentorship initiatives with the Vermont Principals’ Association and the Massachusetts School Administrators Association to understand how to successfully deploy mentorship programs to support and retain principals. Takeaways include:

  1. Match the leadership styles, backgrounds, and interests of mentors and mentees. Because mentors will be offering advice drawn from their perspective and experiences, it’s important that there’s some shared ground. However, a successful relationship may not just be based on the similarities between work environments. Having common interests outside of work may help to deepen and enrich the relationship.
  2. Mentors should meet with their mentees regularly and consistently. Mentoring is a time commitment and mentors need to be readily available. Consistent meetings help to build trust. As such, it may be helpful to find mentors who may not currently be working, such as retired principals. Also, provide mentors with compensation for their time and insight.
  3. Put trust at the center of the relationship. A mentor’s job is not to evaluate or pass judgement on a principal but to ask questions and to listen with empathy. The mentor is not actively trying to coach the mentee or reporting on their success.
  4. “Turn good intentions into effective actions.” A good mentor can help cultivate a successful leadership practice in a mentee by asking careful questions, giving the mentee time to think, listen to their answer, and paraphrasing or reciting any new ideas and answers back to the mentee. Giving time for the mentee to reflect on their decisions and growth is also critical to help ensure that any next steps are thoughtful and effective.

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