Administration & Leadership

Working With a Mentor as a New Principal

These ideas can guide novice or even seasoned principals facing the challenges of working at a new school.

June 14, 2024
Dan Page / The iSpot

In many schools, the summer months can be a time of change. Veteran principals retire or move to new positions, and others are selected to assume their roles, some in their first assignment. How can a new principal be an effective part of this change? My best advice is to begin searching for the individual(s) who will become your mentor(s) and provide needed help.

I was fortunate. On the first contracted day of my assignment, a veteran principal from a school 10 miles away in the same rural Ohio school district visited me and greeted me warmly. We had never met; he was a friend of my predecessor, and I was new to the district and won the job over people he knew. Regardless, he welcomed me and stressed that if I needed anything or had any questions, I was to pick up the phone and call him—anytime.

He became my first principal mentor and was a friend and confidant until he passed away two years ago.

The importance of a Mentor for New Principals

The principalship is too complex to figure out alone. Search for an experienced leader in your district (or outside) with a genuine desire to help grow new principals, not someone the district randomly assigns. Find that person(s) and routinely seek their advice and guidance. For a new principal, working with a mentor is one of the most effective ways to learn the ropes. Meet for coffee after work to debrief and learn together how best to address the unique challenges that will develop. And talk regularly.

My first month on the job (July) was spent checking in and distributing supplies that my predecessor had ordered, working with my secretary (who was contracted for fewer days to work than me), supervising and supporting the custodial staff as they completed summer work, and doing many other tasks new to me but not my mentor. He, too, was working alone without a secretary, so we would often meet for lunch and talk business.

He stressed the importance of the administrative tasks and responsibilities that needed to be prepared and fulfilled before the start of the school year. He helped me ensure that books and supplies were ordered and distributed, and the paperwork was in line with expectations from the district business office. He helped make sure that I got off on the right foot with key individuals—the district superintendent, the treasurer, teacher leaders, union officials, parents, classified staff, community leaders, and more.

What I did not do, but should have, was invite my predecessor back to the school (or to lunch away from campus) to discuss the transition. “Changing of the guard” can be a stressful time for an entire school learning community. Outgoing principals will experience mixed emotions—relief, sadness, joy, apprehension, disappointment, fulfillment—depending on their reason for departure. It is good to seek this person’s advice and learn as much from them about their leadership experience as possible. 

There are questions you can ask, and some you should not, depending on the circumstances of the transition. However, one that I would advise is, “If you were to still be the principal this coming year, what do you see as priorities that you would be dealing with, and how?”

Effective leadership transitions, regardless of the time of year they occur, are subjected to unique school scenarios and the desire of the two leaders to develop a smooth plan. If you follow a long-serving individual who has attained prominent levels of success, seek that person’s assistance to the extent they will provide it. Hopefully, they won’t cast a shadow over your work. When successful leaders retire or move elsewhere, they should cut ties and keep their distance, while agreeing to provide you with the forms of support you need to succeed and carry on with their success.

Many new principals are assigned to roles with large administrative support teams. These individuals need access to you and time to learn about your vision for the school. If they’re not given proper direction, transparent communication, encouragement, and feedback, the school’s culture (which I define as “the way things are done around here”) begins to rot. 

As transitions unfold, people need to be assured that you possess the competencies needed to run the school. The adage “Books, buses, and beans first” has validity. If books aren’t ordered, buses don’t run on time, or the cafeteria staff cannot prepare good and timely meals, you’ll quickly hear about it. People will forgive one or two errors, but when “the way we do things around here” doesn’t smoothly occur on a routine basis—even if the events and actions aren’t directly your doing, you’ll still be held responsible, and failure to take corrective action will doom your tenure in the principalship.    

New principals often experience anxiety during transitions, especially when facing tough decisions. You might not always make the right decision, and what worked for your mentor might not for you. But if you seek advice, focus on the needs of the students, manage behavior, and make timely decisions, you will be accepted and respected by most.

When your staff realizes that you possess the requisite job-description competencies, their desire to keep the status quo of your predecessor will fade, and they will accept you as the leader. But if they consistently find cracks in the standards of your administrative performance, particularly your management of student and staff activities, behavior, performance, security, scheduling, budgets, observations and evaluations, maintenance, and parent and community engagement, your relationship will never form in desirable ways and your transition will be rocky.

New principals face steep learning curves. But the work is exciting—there will never be a dull moment. As your principalship progresses, you will succeed, but you’ll also get knocked down at times. You must pick yourself up, seek help, and then begin to thrive. When you realize that your efforts motivate kids to come to school, learn, and attain elevated levels of achievement, what can be better?

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Administration & Leadership

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Edutopia is an initiative of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.