George Lucas Educational Foundation

Principal Mentoring: The Push for New School Leaders

Mentors can make all the difference in engaging and inspiring new principals to become great leaders. More to this story.
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Principal: Couple of things we're gonna cover today. One is a midday block schedule for next year, so we could actually start planning now.

Narrator: It's not easy being a principal these days. Among other things, you've got to be a financial wizard.

Rich: Well, I think we need to look at what the priorities in the budget are gonna be.

Narrator: A savvy politician.

Principal: --back from Bell South Foundation for our grant.

Narrator: And an educational visionary.

There has to be exploration and it has to be decided by the children, not by the teachers.

Narrator: And you've also go to know what to do with the kid who's throwing food in the cafeteria.

Rich: Yeah.

Woman: Since I saw you last and actually talked to you about that, he had to throw a slushie clear across the cafeteria.

Rich: Oh no.

Narrator: With daily challenges and mounting pressures, it's perhaps not surprising that forty percent of current principals are planning to retire in the next decade.

Woman: So what do you think we should do with him now?

Rich: We can sit down with him, because we just can't have this kind of behavior happening, at a constant level.

Narrator: Problem solving is nothing new to Rich Kuder, who spent years as a classroom teacher and assistant principal. But in his first year as principal of Eisenhower Middle School in Wyckoff, New Jersey, he has to come up with all the right answers all the time.

Teacher: Keep the kids in the center and start the cut from the outside.

Rich: As a first year principal, you have to get a sense of the culture, of how things are done in a school. You know, there's sort of the written rules about how things work and then there's the unwritten rules about how things work, and you really need to be attuned to those, and work not only to understand it, but then also if need be, change some of those operating assumptions.

Teacher: Okay, very good.

Jim: You certainly need a person who can think on their feet, and come to creative solutions.

Rich: But there's a slight itinerary change in the Philly trip.

Jim: A good leader is a person who can relate to people and have them come along on a mission, have them grab on and engage with that mission and see it to its finality.

Narrator: Fortunately, Kuder has been able to turn to another principal for critical advice.

Tony: Okay, you get the idea? Okay, don't raise your hand. Just kinda look at me. I can read your faces. So--

Narrator: His former boss, Tony Bencivenga, is principal at Ben Franklin Middle School in nearby Ridgewood, and every few weeks, Bencivenga visits his protege to renew their friendship and continue their informal mentorship arrangement.

Tony: How are the kids doing, all right?

Rich: Yeah, they're doing great.

Tony: Good.

Narrator: One of the most successful programs Kuder has brought to Eisenhower is a daily news broadcast, patterned after a program he launched with his mentor at Ben Franklin.

Boy: Eisenhower wishes farewell to Emily Murphy as she moves to Oakland. Best wishes--

Tony: You've been live every day since the beginning of the year?

Rich: Yeah, I mean a few days into the year, you know, we started going with a live show.

Tony: Right, right.

Rich: Every day.

Tony: Every day.

Rich: Every day.

Tony: The children, they're really directing their learning.

Rich: This is about them, the opportunity to do this is really up to them. They understand what needs to do in order to get a show out and to do a great job. And they work and critique themselves.

Tony: That's the authentic assessment we talked about. And how about project based learning? You know, you're talking about working on a project. This is project based learning every day.

Rich: Every student that's in here at eight thirty tomorrow morning will have an opportunity to say like, "You know what, I really did something today. A real thing. Everybody saw my broadcast."

Tony: Exactly.

Rich: This was a great accomplishment.

Tony: Right, right.

You don't work with a teleprompter? You--

Rich: No, we don't work with a teleprompter.

Tony: Because you know, we don't either. And I think you and I talked about that.

Rich: Well, and again, that's kind of a conscious decision.

Rich: You need somebody to bounce things off of. It's wonderful to have someone, a friend like Tony, who will be up front and honest with you about, you know, "Well, I think you're right. I think your line of thinking is right on the money," or, "Have you considered this about your position?"

Rich: So it's been a great relationship. It's been really beneficial for me.

Tony: And what you always talked about, the reality based learning. This is a perfect example of it.

Teacher: We have the geographical location, geology, climate, living things.

Narrator: Kuder inherited a highly rated school. His challenge is to maintain the current high standards while advancing his personal agenda.

Rich: It sounds to me like what you're working on is ambitious and appropriate, so I would go with that unless--

As a principal, I have tried to articulate my vision with my staff, meeting the individual needs of kids, attending to the social and emotional needs of kids, providing strong reality based programs, infusing technology into the curriculum. Even in our faculty meetings, we spend time talking about, what does it mean to have a culture in your classroom where kids feel like they're accepted, where they feel safe, where they can take risks?

Teacher: You'll be working cooperatively in groups to accomplish this task. You gotta find the name of the person, date of birth and death, their revolutionary role and their major beliefs and accomplishments. All right, so we'll go to that home page. All right, the time, you will have twenty minutes to get this accomplished.

Student: Oh, here we go.

Student: It says that the most important thing in society is the way people earn their money.

Student: Bolsheviks came to power, blah, blah, blah. The orthodox church was an enemy. So they helped the czar of Russia.

Narrator: Monitoring this sixth grade Russian history lesson, Kuder sees his educational vision come to life.

Student: Like after he was banished from the Soviet Union, he criticized Stalin's rule, like a lot, and then he was assassined in Mexico in 1940.

Teacher: Okay, very good. Very good job, Josh.

Narrator: During a quick brown bag lunch, Kuder enjoys a stress reduction ritual he picked up from his old boss, indulging in a rerun of "The Honeymooners."

Tony: There he is.

Ralph Kramden: There'll be no snoozing. Norton, I said don't snooze.

Tony: How're things going?

Rich: All right.

We're working on staffing for next year. We have an incoming sixth grade class next year of over two hundred and eighty kids, and so we're looking at, you know, how to keep class sizes manageable.

Tony: We have a similar problem with the staffing. The dilemma I'm facing right now is, what's more critical, the seventh grade or the sixth grade? And my feeling is that maybe the transition from fifth to sixth is the more critical moment, and I really need--

The joy of what I do and the joy that I know that Rich feels is the joy of being with the kids.

Rich: You guys okay?

Student: Yep.

Tony: I've been in education for thirty five years and I still get up in the morning, knowing that I'm gonna face a challenging day, but I'm gonna face a great day. It's gonna be an exciting day, watching the kids learn.

I am so proud of what you all do in this school.

To watch children learn and grow and be happy is very rewarding.

Narrator: For more information on what works in public education, go to

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Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Associate Producer:

  • Leigh Iacobucci

Camera Crew:

  • Jean Paul Deme
  • John Gullotta
  • Guy Jackson
  • Ward Laver
  • Dominic Orlando
  • Eric Seguim-Arnold
  • Jon Shenk
  • Robert O. Weller
  • James Williams


  • Karen Sutherland


  • Kris Welch

Editor's Note: Since this video was produced in 2000, Benjamin Franklin Middle School principal Tony Bencivenga has retired; he is now a professor of education at William Paterson University.

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