Sunday, June 3, 2018

Instructional Leadership - A Mentor Principal Must #BeTheModel

Challenges bring with them the opportunity to self-reflect. When recently asked to mentor a new principal, I readily accepted the challenge and knew this was an opportunity for me to pay forward all the mentorship and support I received in my rookie year. Why would I consider mentoring a new principal a challenge? Because as I end my fifth year as a principal, I can look in the rearview mirror and clearly see that I didn’t know what I didn’t know in my first and even second year. So tasked with helping to be that cheerleader, listening ear, collaborator, sounding board, problem-solver and mentor to a new principal is indeed a challenge. Unlike any other profession, there is no amount of training, schooling, professional development or reading that will truly prepare you for being responsible for shaping students’ lives and futures, supporting adult learners, accepting responsibility for ant bites when you are certainly not the one in charge of maintenance of the school grounds, social media posts gone awry, increasing test scores, safety and security and I could go on indefinitely. Having sat in the assistant principal’s seat for 8 years, upon becoming a principal, it was evident that the principalship requires job-embedded learning. In essence, you learn every day, because no two days are ever the same. So given this charge, to help with the responsibility of supporting a new principal, the question, “What would you have wanted someone to tell you your first year?” came to mind.

As I prepared to meet with my protégé, I knew I wanted to meaningfully welcome her to the profession. I listed out the five things that I wish I knew five years ago:

  • Be true to who you are. Know your why. Know your core beliefs and let all those you serve know what they are. Without them knowing what you stand for and believe in, others will not follow your lead. Sharing your core beliefs, being transparent and telling your story, can’t be shared once at a meeting. Whether you know it or not, you do it every day in your interactions, and it should shine through in every conversation you have. Don’t forget to be reflective. – Journal
  • You have to show up and bring the magic with you every day if you intend to build fond, lifelong memories for all stakeholders. No matter what you have going on, wave the magic wand once you step into the building because every day you will build memories; it’s up to you to make them momentous ones. – M and M’s
  • The reality is this is a stressful job. One must be mindful and intentional in taking care of oneself. I would use the analogy of putting on your own oxygen mask before trying to put it on others to save them. I’ll be honest…five years in, I’m still working on this, but I wish someone explicitly expressed the need to be intentional with my own health from day one. – Book of Mindfulness
  • Show gratitude. Take note of not just the big things; it’s the small things that those around you do that help to lighten your load and you need to show appreciation for it. Get to know the love languages of those who support you and let them know often what you appreciate about them. People who feel appreciated will always go the extra mile for you. – Note cards
  • Everyone refers to you as the boss; for me, personally, I prefer #LeadLearner. While I have a sign on my desk that says that I’m the boss, it says Mom Boss…that’s who I tell what to do…my kids. This role is not about power, or bossing people around. That is a recipe for failure. As a principal you are called to serve and lead both adult and student learners, and to be successful you have to be conscious about leading with grace and heart. – Boss Desk Sign

I filled the goodie bag with treats related to the five things I wish I knew and I added a few extras:
  • ·       Popcorn – when things get off and popping, just breathe and stay calm.
  • ·       Heart-shaped Post-it Notes – remember to lead with a servant’s heart.
  • ·       Orbit Gum – there are just some days you’ll ask yourself if you’re on another planet.
  • ·     Pens – go with your gut; you are the “right” one for the job, although there are days you will doubt yourself.
  • ·       Nuts – you guessed it; there are days when you will think you are going nuts, but that too shall pass.
  • ·       Rice Rollers – there are days you’ll just have to roll with the punches but you will get through it.
  • ·     Paper Weight – Positive Vibes Only – energy vampires will weigh you down; do not allow them to take you off course.
  • ·      Coke (happens to be my protégé’s drink of choice in stressful times) – keeping it real – when you’ve reached your frustration level, before you lose your cool, because, YES, it will happen, we’re human too…close your door, “have a drink” then get up and right back at it.

The goodie bag was filled with treats I knew she would enjoy and appreciate, but it felt incomplete. What object in the bag allowed me to share with my protégé that the most important role of a #LeadLearner is to #BeTheModel as an instructional leader? None. As a mentor, you have to be grounded in current educational leadership trends. I knew that I had to share the importance of developing and studying professional practices. How could we want students to show up every day ready to learn, and encourage teachers to commit to lifelong learning if we weren’t going to do so ourselves as leaders? I added the two most important “treats” to the bag – The Innovator's Mindset by George Couros and Start.Right.Now by Todd Whitaker, Jeffrey Zoul and Jimmy Casas.

Five years ago I knew that I education was ever changing, but the pace in which it is growing can be overwhelming. We sometimes get lost with the “newness” of best practices, technology tools, etc., but   The Innovator's Mindset was a great reminder for me that when we as educators think about innovating, we have to be cognizant that it’s a way of thinking; it’s not about changing everything. It’s about creating something new and better. More importantly, Couros helps you to understand that you must learn first if you want to lead well. In Start.Right.Now the #EduRockStars share the first steps toward excellence – Know the Way, Show the Way, Go the Way and Grow Each Day. Hearing or reading from those established in the field is so critical to a principal’s success. It helps to cement your beliefs and steer you back on course when you veer off. As an effective mentor, I would be remiss if I did not share the importance of staying current and these are two texts that I recommend that mentors share with their protégés to deepen their pedagogy in being an instructional leader.

The Innovator's Mindset
So yes, my protégé enjoyed every single one of the treats in her goodie back, but when all the snacks are eaten, and the cutesy items are no longer on display, it’s the books shared that will help to sustain her ability to deepen her practice for years to come.

For those mentoring new principals, being an effective mentor indeed requires you to model active instructional leadership. How do you stay current? What organizations do you belong to? How do you seek out learning opportunities? What books are you reading that are worth sharing with your protégé?

Start. Right. Now.


  1. Onica, this is amazing. Great reflection for newbies AND those of us who just need reminders along the way! #MAPS

  2. Thanks for sharing your kind words.