Administration & Leadership

How Principals Can Find and Work With a Mentor

If you’re a principal, or aiming to be one, it’s a good idea to connect with an experienced leader who can guide you in your career.

May 31, 2023
kate_sept2004 / iStock

The principalship is one of the most visible yet perhaps loneliest jobs in a school. Even with high-tech connectivity, principals can feel isolated. To weather tough times, you need various forms of support.

You won’t have the same social circles as you did before you became a school leader, however. Teachers who were your friends will view you from an unfamiliar perspective. Collegiality will seem to evaporate. Friendships you relied upon for normalcy in your life will dissipate. The relationships that principals need to form with their staff, students, and parents differ from those you might have enjoyed as a teacher.

These solitary feelings can shake you to the core, and unfortunately many new principals struggle quietly on their own. An effective, caring mentor will ensure that you don’t feel deserted. A mentor can help guide you through dark periods and help restore your sanity when day-to-day challenges accumulate and life becomes excessively chaotic.

As a mentee while a principal, I found support, encouragement, and guidance from more experienced principals in my district, trusted professors, retired administrators, and leaders I met through my state and national principals’ associations. Now retired, I mentor principals who previously taught for me and others whom I’ve met through professional associations.

Working with a mentor

Mentors and their mentees form partnerships in different ways. You can intentionally seek out a mentor, or you may be fortunate enough to have a mentor recognize your potential and feel motivated to encourage, develop, and guide you along your professional journey. You also can have more than one mentor.

Support can come through various forms of contact—phone calls, email, texting, morning meetings at a coffee shop, lunches, conferences—as often as a mentee requests. I initiate contact if too much time elapses and I haven’t heard from a mentee. Forms of e-mentoring, especially through professional associations, can broaden perspectives, expand beyond the one-on-one partnership, and reduce isolation in areas with sparse populations.

Some school districts will pair new principals with mentors and provide support through one-on-one partnerships or small cohorts. Be careful, though, about who you invest your time in. Make sure to avoid the incidental mentor, an individual who stumbles into a mentoring role without forethought or deliberate consideration and desire to help others grow. You need someone you can trust and with whom you can be completely transparent. This type of relationship is best formed naturally between two individuals, both willing to commit time and energy toward learning, growing, and adapting to the transitions of leadership.

When I read social media posts from principals who describe unfortunate, soul-challenging dilemmas, I wonder whether these individuals, who I’m certain had the best intentions for their students, staff, and parents when they started their jobs, devoted enough time during the transition to the principalship investing in the development of support systems for themselves. I wonder, “Have you talked any of this through with your mentor?” 

One of the worst mistakes a school leader can make is to delay asking for help when anxiety begins to accelerate. Mentors and their mentees talk about basic expectations of student management, learning, parent engagement, organization, structures, visioning, and more, and together they develop strategies that support the development of leadership capacity.

You can be the most charismatic individual ever to occupy the principal’s office, but if you fail to fulfill basic expectations of your job description—and do so consistently over time—problems will accumulate, and frustration will become all-consuming. People abandon indecisive leaders who drop the ball too many times.

When the daily work becomes tumultuous, your mentor(s) will help you refocus your purpose. They’ll provide consistency, encouragement, guidance, and support to keep going. They’ll help you work through tough decisions and push you to reach your full potential, live your best life, and remain unshaken when storms blow.

If you’re thinking of becoming a principal

It’s a good idea to acquire several mentors before you enter the principalship. In a mentoring partnership, you’ll acquire the permanence in support that every principal must have. You will stumble and struggle without one.

If you’re considering the principalship but feel that your potential isn't acknowledged in your current setting, you need to look beyond your school or district for support and encouragement. Join your state and national principals’ professional associations as an aspiring member and attend as many functions as possible. Roll up your sleeves and intentionally become involved.

When you work closely with experienced principals, someone is likely to recognize your abilities, desire, and commitment and take an interest in helping shape your career. Your state association likely has members who have been enrolled in the National Mentor Training and Certification Program and can help make introductions.

Regardless of what might be the best fit for you, an intentional interest in learning and growing on the part of the mentee is essential for long-term success of any form of a mentoring partnership. Mentors want you to succeed. When you find that special person or people, you will have found your rock.

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