How to Make Principal Pipelines Reflect the Community

Building a diverse pipeline of school leaders who are well prepared and supported enables districts to retain the kind of talent that ensures all students thrive. Here’s how.
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“Diversity is synonymous with excellence,” explained Dr. Desmond Blackburn, Deputy Chancellor School Leadership at the New York Department of Education. “Our organizations are better when we tap talent from a variety of spaces,” added Dr. Sonja Brookins Santelises, CEO, Baltimore City Public Schools. “When we think talent is only located in one place or in one profile, we actually lose out as a community and in our schools.”

Every week, we hear from district leaders who are looking to build strong leadership pathways, but are not sure how to attract and diversify their talent pools. Our expert panel and recent webinar offer valuable insights and real solutions. Caroline Damon, Vice President of Academics at the Chamberlain Education Foundation, and Arlithia Mackey, an ELA teacher and fellow in our National Aspiring Principals Fellowship, also joined the conversation. Tara Garcia Mathewson, an education reporter at The Hechinger Report, moderated the discussion.

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"Investing in leadership pipelines is a critical retention strategy,” noted Damon. “We tend to focus on teacher vacancies, but we know that teachers stay when they have a great leader—and they leave when they don't." Study after study also shows that students achieve more when the leaders around them reflect the rich diversity in their communities. Yet, as Mackey observed, districts can “perpetuate gaps and barriers if they don't scrutinize how they are tapping into the people already in their systems.”

From issues of recruitment and retention to measuring diversity and overcoming common and often hidden barriers to best practices for promotion and career pathways, all four speakers shared their experiences and lessons learned. See how they work to ensure that there is diversity in leadership across the system, “top to bottom.” 

Looking for your next step, consider their advice:

“It starts with who is at the table. We have to diversify who is in the room making all those key hiring decisions. Who is crafting the job description, vetting the resumes, drafting the interview questions, deciding who advances?” -Dr. Blackburn

“For foundations, it is important to not lose sight of investing in relationships at all levels of the school systems you are supporting, especially champions at the site level.” - Damon

“Consider prospective leaders with non-traditional backgrounds and experiences. Some of the best leaders who I have worked under had an unconventional background, but they have had the most profound impact on their staff.” - Mackey

“Through one teacher I saw what promising candidates are up against. How exhausting it is to navigate the system, to find the information you need. And, oh, do I really have a chance? … A lot of the work we’re doing is to make the process plain so every teacher in every section of the city knows what is available to advance their career.” - Dr. Santelises 

An edited transcript follows below:

Tara García Mathewson

So this leads very nicely into promotions and pathways. Are there any other kinds of best practices with creating those promotions and pathways to ensure that there's diversity in leadership throughout an entire organization, a school district top to bottom?

Caroline Damon:

I would say that we need to recognize that investing in leadership pipelines is a retention strategy. We tend to be so focused on teacher vacancies because it's the pain point. That's right in our faces with empty classrooms, but we know that teachers stay when they have a great leader in the building, and they leave when they don't. 

So for system leaders and for foundations, it’s really making sure that you're not just addressing the immediate urgent problem of teacher vacancies, but that you're building those principal pipelines and leadership pipelines. And that will not only address the teacher retention, but it will also create a bench of future system leaders as well.

Dr. Desmond Blackburn:

I was just going to chime in on the need to make sure that all staff are receiving exposure and opportunities that will help them build that resume and create new opportunities, in particular people of color and young men of color. I can tell you as a former 6’1” (I won’t say my weight) Black male math teacher—who was given what were perceived to be the behavior challenges in the school, who was asked to monitor the cafeteria during lunch, who was asked to coach athletic sports and things like that—I wasn't asked to chair the school-wide improvement committee. I wasn't asked to chair the reading improvement strategies. Knowing what was being done to me, and not being done for me, I positioned myself. I willed my way into those places and spaces, but it wasn't done naturally.

Far too often, we pigeonhole folks and don't give them the background experiences and opportunities that will make them attractive for the next level or for promotion.

Tara García Mathewson

These are all so interrelated that one question is leading right into another. How do you ensure the opportunities for promotion pathways by creating leadership programs that make people ready to take on this position? Does someone want to chime in?

Dr. Sonja B. Santelises

I want to speak to one of the things that Desmond said. And, by the way, I'm not being disrespectful. I tend to call people by their first name, so I'm sorry. But Desmond knows that, so I'm not really worried about him. But one of the things I would say is that I've also found that we need authentic feedback to partner with that. 

So this piece that he just cited around who gets in the room for the assignments, right? Who gets thought of for the things. Our pipeline also comes with, I think, an obligation from the organization, from the supervisors, from the managers to give what I call “invested feedback.” Like I am invested enough in you that I'm going to give you real feedback.

I have found oftentimes, particularly with people of color, that they don't get authentic feedback. Either it's bruising and it's just you're not ready. Or people sit there and do what I call the “nice nod.” “Oh it was great,” when you know the work product was not where it needed to be. 

So I think that who gets feedback in organizations and who does not is really interesting. And the number of Black male principal candidates who walk out saying, how come I didn't get that position? And even when I would sit down and give people feedback, they'd be like, Doc, how come nobody ever told me this? 

So I think we've got to also dig into who's getting the kind of feedback that allows them to really grow. And how many people are we writing off nicely, doing what I call the kind of nice suburban “thank you, it was really great.” But not saying, “Hey, you didn't talk enough about instruction. And if you need that experience, we need to get you on this committee.” I think those are the little things that we don't talk about that actually make a difference in people's preparation.

Tara García Mathewson:

Arlithia, can you chime in on your experience with how the Fellowship does this? Tell us how you got it. I wonder if there are people in the audience who would like to know that too? 

Arlithia Mackey: 

Sure! I've been having an amazing experience with the National Aspiring Principal Fellowship. I’m in the illustrious inaugural cohort. I'll start where I personally plugged myself in again. 

I think everyone has spoken to the opportunities, right? I'm at a small school. We serve 160 kids  and so there are not many opportunities because our leadership team is not big. In recognizing that within myself—that thirst for wanting to know more and not just wanting to jump into a position because it sounds good or I want to—but that I do need the exposure to all forms of competencies and skill sets that are necessary. I think that honesty within myself—because I've been approached to lead schools, I've been approached to have certain positions—but it took that genuine desire and that honesty within myself to say I need a little bit more preparation when it comes to human resource management. I need more preparation when it comes to creating an educational program that is good for all students and not just my ELA kids because I don't know how to maybe lead a math team into their excellence. So from that, I think my experience has been extremely nourishing for things such as getting and giving feedback and the exposure to what is happening in other places as well. 

I found myself operating in this silo. This is what's happening at my school. This is what works for my students here. But if I am wanting to make the most impact, I need to be aware of everything and not just my own little path. Because I might try to lead others to do the same, and it might not be the best practice. And so I've really had to put my foot on this path of being very strategic, of being a learner, and of not being afraid of that feedback.

I have a phenomenal coach who works with me, one-on-one. One of our capstone projects is that we have to create something that addresses a problem within our school. I've gotten very enriching feedback on this is why this will not work. It sounds good in the idealistic brain like yours, but strategically on the human resource level, this is what the reality is. It’s been really helpful in my capacity as a leader. Because I would hate to take on a position such as a principal at a middle school, even within the same district, and have it be in shambles because it sounds great, but I don't have the skill sets and the competency needed. 

So I think what New Leaders does very well is that they bring together this very diverse cohort of people. Some of my colleagues are in Hawaii, which is amazing to learn about their experiences. Some folks are in Baltimore. I have someone down in my hometown in Florida. And I get to learn about what is happening in their schools, and we get to have these genuine conversations with real problems of practice. Not just this is how you write someone's job description or do this other thing. We’re addressing real issues. Maybe your school is struggling financially. Or your school is struggling culturally. What are your next steps? 

And it's not just an idealistic solution like this sounds good. We get feedback on what's not going to work because you have this issue. It just really does help to prepare you mentally for the realities of leadership. The case studies are so relevant. 

Anybody who is interested or wanting to think through what would you do in this situation as a school principal, the Fellowship does help to craft your mindset towards different cases and scenarios.

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