April 30, 2021

Training of a “Principal-To-Be”

The Principals’ Corner:

One of the most important tasks in any district is the preparation and training of principals.  One of the tasks most poorly done in many districts is … the preparation and training of principals!  That’s not to say that there is an absence of training.  Indeed, many provinces and states have principals’ qualification courses which are mandatory if one wants the position.  Many districts also have some form of training program or internship program — but these often take the form of the proverbial (and highly generalized) leadership course which is beneficial but is not always directed to the kinds of specific skill development and knowledge base that is most needed when a principal takes over his/her first school.  Maybe it’s time to look for another model.  Here is one I propose.

The best place to train a principal-to-be is right in the school where he or she works — especially if he/she is assigned there as a vice-principal.  And the best person to do it is the principal in the school.  Unfortunately, many principals do not see that as part of their mandate — but it’s time they do.  I would even go so far as to identify the training of a vice-principal for a principalship by the in-school principal as one of the mandatory responsibilities for the latter.

So, let’s give the in-school principal a bit of a “curriculum” for that role.  As a rookie principal I knew almost nothing about two of the three major roles I was asked to take on:  Staffing and Budgeting.  I did, as a former department head in a secondary school, know something about the third major task, supervising and evaluation staff, though federation/union rules did not allow me as a head to deal with some of the problems that would one day come my way as a principal.

In many cases, the training need not be time-consuming for the principal.  It could simply be a matter of involving that vice-principal at all stages of the processes noted above.  In budgeting, for instance, it could start with the receipt of the budget from the head office.  I reviewed the budget process with my vice-principal in terms of how it was generated for the school allocation, which parts were flexible and could be applied to other areas and which parts were “sweatered” meaning they could only be spent in the areas to which they were allocated.

The next part was dealing with the decision-making at the school level surrounding budget distribution.  It always struck me that many principals held “the purse” close to their vest/dress and surrounded it with a great deal of mystery.  To me, that was a power play on the part of the principal.  When the figures came into me as a principal, I had a policy of full disclosure (and a three-year budget cycle) and I made certain my vice-principal helped develop the budget presentation and process we would be using at the heads’ council.  Even the experienced vice-principals I had had never seen the budget sheet or been part of the decision-making for the internal distribution of funds.

The second area was staffing.  Again, I made certain that the vice-principal understood the staffing model and was part of the process of gathering input from the heads and then working overseeing the development of the timetable.  I was surprised at how little they knew.  As was the case with budgeting, it didn’t mean any extra work for me.  It just meant sitting side-by-side with the vice-principal, going through the process and, of course, soliciting input on staffing decisions.  Not that it was much of a burden!  It turned out to be most helpful as I was privy to ideas and suggestions I had never thought of before in this area and it enriched my understanding immeasurably.

The last, and most contentious area, perhaps, was in evaluating staff.  This is, of course, a minefield and it would not be fair to put a vice-principal in a position of dealing with a staff member under review.  But there was ample opportunity to work with good teachers whose reports would not be problematical.  What I tended to do was to give the vice-principal responsibility for a few staff in the beginning (first year of his/her appointment) and then alter the assignment in the next year to some more problematic performance issues.  In the early stages we went over the techniques for supervision together and I monitored the process.  I also reviewed draft reports before the vice-principal met with the teacher for an evaluation conference.  This became less necessary when it was obvious that the vice-principal was now able to handle these issues on his/her own.

In addition, because there has been so much written and there are so many professional development and training opportunities in this area, I made certain that he/she had materials to read but also had the experience of attending sessions both inside and outside the district to help in his/her development.

In the end, the vice-principals were pleased and appreciative of the time and effort I had spent with them. They certainly were able to use the experience in answering questions or doing case studies in the principals’ competitions where one can usually count on a question about dealing with under-performing staff.

Over the years, I have come to believe that, if there is to be a change in education, it will happen first and foremost at the school level.  This kind of training is, I think, a suitable example of that.  The district office or the ministry or the state’s education department should do its part in preparing vice-principals for the next job, but so should the in-school principal.  It’s a service to the vice-principal, to the staff, to the district and, most of all, to the students.  As a professional, that principal has, in my estimation, the responsibility of preparing the next cohort of school leaders.  Don’t let the opportunity pass you by!

Dr. Dan

For additional training, check out the “VP Academy”.