Principal Preparation: What We Know Works Best

Training to become a principal is a big step in your leadership journey. Here are the most important components to look for in principal preparation programs.
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Every superintendent, principal, and head of school was once an aspiring leader. For some of them, taking that next step into the principal role was smooth. They felt prepared and supported. For others, their first year as a principal was beyond difficult. They felt alone, ill-equipped, and overwhelmed. It does not have to be that way.

Researchers have identified several key aspects of principal preparation programs that work best for adult learners. That research, coupled with our two decades of being a pioneer in the field of school leadership development, led us to elevate two more aspects: a comprehensive approach to the multiple kinds of leadership and a commitment to developing equity-focused leaders, the kind of leaders who know how to build school cultures that are free from bias and limitation—and in which everyone thrives. 

Every day, we hear from aspiring leaders across the country who are looking to step into the principal role. They know how demanding—and rewarding—the job can be. They have passion. They have drive. And they want the best preparation possible. If you’re thinking about taking that next step in your leadership journey, here’s what you need to consider.

What works for principal preparation

Earlier this month, EdWeek outlined what we know to be the most important and effective components of principal preparation. Here’s what they are and why they matter:

Intentional selection process

While we believe leadership is learned (and not born), stepping into school leadership demands that you have demonstrated success with student gains. Districts are also looking for aspiring leaders who ask themselves the tough questions: Can I build a strong vision for instructional excellence and equity that is shared across a whole school? Am I willing to grow as a leader and help others grow as well? Can I hold others to high expectations too?

Cohort-based learning

Engaging with a community of learners allows aspiring principals to collaborate, problem-solve, and continuously improve alongside their peers. Shared learning spaces, be they in person, online, or hybrid, that build trust and implement norms that foster safe and rich conversations are key to ongoing learning. Having that network of support as you step into the principal role is also what will sustain you. 

Curriculum that mirrors real-world practice

We know that adults learn best when their learning is rooted in the challenging, day-to-day work of schools. Curricula to prepare the best principals needs to be evidence-based and culturally responsive. It should also be rooted in the actual leadership actions proven to drive and sustain school improvement. 

Extensive clinical experience

Like any other skill, the development of leadership is incremental and repetitive. It doesn’t happen all at once. An extensive clinical experience, like a residency program, allows you to apply your coursework and professional learning right away and in a real school setting. You can also strengthen your leadership by taking on increasingly more complex roles in residency, from coaching a teacher team to leading the school’s instructional leadership team (ILT). Doing the “real work” of schools prepares you to be ready for the principal role on day one. 

Mentors and expert coaching

Research shows that coaching and mentorship support leaders by providing the immediate and actionable feedback they need to continuously learn and grow. Coaching that is objective and unbiased allows you to identify, reflect upon, and then problem-solve the gaps between your practice and the leadership actions of highly effective principals. Self-reflection, coupled with accountability, allows you to accelerate your learning not only during your clinical experience but throughout your first year as a principal. Coaching that continues beyond the program can be a game-changer. 

Learning opportunities that address school-based challenges

In alignment with adult learning theory, adult learners need ample opportunities to translate theory into practice. The best kind of practice is authentic and relevant, addressing typical school challenges as well as the unpredictable kind like those experienced in schools during the pandemic. The best school leaders are continuously adapting to the demands of the moment, learning and sharpening their leadership as they go

Two more critical components to consider

At New Leaders, we add two additional foci to the list above. First, aspiring leaders need to zero in on equity-focused leadership, gaining the skills to remove barriers to student success. Equity-focused leaders ensure all children have access to rigorous instruction. They develop systems to distribute resources equitably. They build school cultures with high expectations in which students, staff, and families feel safe, valued, cared for, and seen. Schools need this kind of leadership. 

Second, it’s essential for a principal preparation program to offer a deep exploration and ample opportunities to practice the various kinds of leadership. Transformational leaders leverage every kind of leadership—from instructional to adaptive, interpersonal to operations, talent management to school culture—to ensure excellence for every student in every classroom. Our evidence-based Transformational Leadership Framework outlines them all, pinpointing how the best leaders drive student success.

Our National Aspiring Principals Fellowship is an online principal certification and master’s degree program that develops the next generation of equity-focused leaders. Combining online learning with a rigorous residency program, the Fellowship allows aspiring principals to apply their learning in their own schools and in their current roles. Fellows then hone their leadership skills via coursework, expert coaching, and an interactive cohort-based experience.

Next steps?

Every impactful leader started out as an aspiring one. If you’re thinking about growing your leadership and moving into the principal role, make sure you are well-versed in the kind of professional learning you’ll need to be successful in your first year—and for years to come.

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