MENTORING: Supporting Our School Leaders

by Paul Grondahl for SAANYS Vanguard Magazine

Becoming a school principal has long been a position to which many teachers aspired. The position of principal was considered a crowning achievement of an educator’s career, a coveted job that carried with it prestige, great authority, and even greater respect. But nowadays, with budget deficit pressures rising to crisis levels and a growing chorus of criticism from parents, school board members, and government policy-makers, the job of principal is more challenging than ever. Against this backdrop of growing public demands for education reforms and widespread furor over failing schools, the school principal, it seems, has become the most convenient target for criticism.

Mike Dawkins, who retired after 20 years’ experience as a middle school and high school principal in the Rensselaer City School District, does not downplay the difficulties of the job. He said the hours are consistently long and working late into the evening at the office is a given. Then there are school board meetings and community group get-togethers at night that a principal is expected to attend. There are school dances to chaperone, sporting events to attend, and other nighttime commitments. Finally, a principal should be prepared to be available to the superintendent and district staff at all times, even while trying to stay above the fray during daily calls from angry parents, disciplinary matters with students, and issues that come up with teachers.

Given all those demands, perhaps it is not surprising that the talent pool for principal and school administrator applicants is shrinking. Not only arethere fewer teachers applying for principal openings, but the turnover rate is rising to troubling levels. Approximately two-thirds of new principals leave the school in which they started their careers within the first six years in New York State. Moreover, given anticipated retirements of an estimated 40 percent of principals over the next several years, there are projections of a serious shortage looming in terms of qualified applicants.

Given those many pressures and increasing levels of stress in the job of principal, it’s no wonder that school leaders concede that the job can leave them feeling isolated and in need of allies.

The job’s strains that Dawkins raises underscore why a new mentoring program was recently developed by the School Administrators Association of New York State. Known as the SAANYS MentorCoach Service and promising “to support, inspire, and invigorate new and mid-level career administrators,” it is modeled on successful mentoring programs in Maine, in Ontario, Canada, and elsewhere.

“We’ve put the pieces together and we’ve trained our first cadre of MentorCoaches, but we’re still in the early stages of growing our mentoring service. We’ll continue to expand as requests for our expertise increase,” said Jim Collins, director of professional development at SAANYS, who oversees the MentorCoach Service. By the end of 2010, 15 MentorCoaches had completed training and eight were working as mentors. The program involves one hour each week of one-on-one work between the MentorCoach and mentee over the course of 40 weeks. The program can be extended to 52 weeks and into a second year if the parties consider it beneficial. In addition to those face-to-face sessions, the MentorCoach and mentee are in frequent contact by phone and e-mail. The program started with discussions two years ago following the formation of a SAANYS Mentoring Committee.

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