New Principals: Find a Mentor or Join a Team?

by Mariah Cone
Thursday, October 17, 2013

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I recently came across an intriguing post, submitted to Linked In by Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat, titled Forget a Mentor, Build a Team.  Whitehurst notes that while mentors can considerably enhance one’s profession, they are frequently impractical and difficult to find, given that it really matters that your mentor know and care about you.  I completely agree. 

In all my current work researching how we prepare and support principals, overwhelmingly mentoring is “where it’s at.”  Nationally, we seem to have privileged mentoring as the supreme mechanism to help principals over the hurdle of early career leadership challenges.  We at School Leaders Network wanted to know a bit more if this was in fact true. 

Mentoring continues to come at a significant cost to school districts and has yielded quite mixed results about effect in research.  So we recently conducted a study to understand a bit more about what learning with mentors is like and how this compares with learning with a team of peers. 

Here’s what we found when we asked early career principals who had both a mentor and a School Leader Network:

Learning with Mentors:

  • Information is shared one way – from mentor to new principal
  • It mattered to new principals that the mentor had worked in similar school contexts
  • New principals had a wide variety of perceptions about the quality of their mentor; some had developed strong, likely lasting friendships, and others were requesting new mentors.
  • Mentors helped new principals most frequently with 1) school “fires” – how to interact with an angry parent, etc. and 2) how to respond to district level requests – such as how to fill out a school improvement plan.

Learning with School Leader Network Peers:

  • Information is shared reciprocally – new principals shared leadership ideas and received leadership ideas from others.  New principals reported that this helped them grow confidence in their new role as principal.
  • It matters less that everyone in SLN share school context, with fifteen peers to choose from, “There’s always someone there who has the experience I need.”
  • New principals had more uniform perceptions of the quality of the network facilitator.  Since there is only one person leading all the networks, the quality of service was more likely to be of uniform quality.
  • Network peers helped new principals most with 1) becoming a stronger instructional leader and 2) becoming strategically focused on school improvement efforts.

What’s perhaps most intriguing to me in the study, is that 75% of new principals who were supported simultaneously with a mentor and a team approach felt the two forms of learning complemented each other.  Mentors were likely to be called at a moments notice, asked to help manage intrusions to instructional leadership.  And their team helped new principals continue to develop deeper insights and actions toward becoming highly effective instructional leaders.

So, I say, if you’re a new principal – build a lasting team (or join one), and if you can, find a mentor too.