Tapping the Next Generation of School Principals

The “shoulder tap”—when someone sees your leadership potential and helps you navigate a path forward—can be life-changing. Start more of those conversations with the future leaders you know. Here’s how.
new leaders education leadership development leading others to the topnew leaders education leadership development leading others to the top
Blog date
2/16/23
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For a moment, consider your trajectory as a school leader, especially the beginning of your journey. Did you always know you wanted to be a principal or have an administrative role? Maybe you saw your ability to lead but weren’t sure where to begin. You might have thought, “Do I really stand a chance?”

Or, was it never part of your thought process until your principal or another school leader encouraged you to entertain a new path? 

Many school leaders identify future school leaders. They are often introduced to the profession through an informal recruitment process—what we call “the shoulder tap.” An administrator sees something in you that you didn’t quite see in yourself and takes the opportunity to not only tell you about the potential they see but also becomes a key part of deliberately developing your leadership capacity

Many school leaders are introduced to the profession through an informal recruitment process–what we call “the shoulder tap.” 

As a school leader, you have an opportunity to do the same for the aspiring principals and teacher leaders in your care. Here are some ways, big and small, that you can start to have those initial conversations: 

Remind your teachers they already possess many of the necessary leadership skills

You most likely rely on your past teaching experience and knowledge to help you in your current leadership role. That’s because through teaching, you’ve already developed several valuable leadership skills that transfer nicely into the educational leadership. Managing students, collaborating with parents, planning instruction and utilizing data to inform those efforts, team collaboration with other teachers, and ensuring you’re providing equitable education experiences to all students—these are actions teachers take every day, without quite realizing they’re leadership actions. Pointing this out to the aspiring leaders on your team can help to allay fears of “not knowing anything” about being a school principal.

It’s also a good opportunity to have the conversation with leaders-to-be that transformational school leadership isn’t just one thing. As an effective school leader, you often leverage leadership in multiple domains. Whether it’s instructional leadership, equity-focused leadership, school culture leadership, or talent management, aspiring leaders can find a principal training program that helps them enhance their leadership strengths and immerse themselves in new practices. 

It’s also a good opportunity to have a conversation with leaders-to-be that transformational school leadership isn’t just one thing. As an effective school leader, you often leverage leadership in multiple domains. 

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Let them know there’s never a “right” time for leadership

Whether it’s making moves in our professional careers or determining steps to take in our personal lives, we often wait to make big decisions until we feel ready. Stories like this one abound in education leadership—teachers want to take the next step in their careers, but might not feel that they’ve checked all the boxes, or they have insecurity that creeps in when they think about leading effectively at the school level.

Again, it helps to think about your own journey here. Was there a time when you felt 100 percent prepared for everything that was to come your way as a school leader? If the answer is no—and we have a sneaking suspicion that it is—be sure to communicate your own experiences to your aspiring leaders. The timing is rarely perfect. Often, it’s best to take the leap and see where it goes.

Guide them in cultivating their own vision of what a school can be

Many aspiring school leaders consider becoming a school principal because they want to make an impact at a higher level. They’ve seen incredible transformations with students in their classrooms, and they want to amplify what they did for 30 kids to 500. Executing on that impact begins with a solid school vision

Many aspiring school leaders consider becoming a principal because they want to make an impact at a higher level. They’ve seen incredible transformations with students in their classrooms, and they want to amplify what they did for 30 kids to 500.

Those who are interested in school leadership might have a clear picture of what a great school should look like and the action steps they’d take to make it a high-achieving, inclusive, and safe place for everyone. Others might know what they want to see in a school they lead but may not know how they’d get there. Here’s where you can work with your leaders-to-be on crafting their own school vision. Ask them: what are their ideas and belief systems, and how will they connect them to the actions they want to take as a principal? How will they share that vision with all of their stakeholders and build a positive school culture? How will they solicit feedback and listen to their school community, and incorporate those learnings into a vision that fits everyone?

Encourage them to remember their “why”

In addition to having a clear vision for school success, it’s also critical for aspiring leaders to understand their own “why”. Being an effective principal is challenging, and at times, downright daunting. Making sure that anyone thinking about school leadership knows why they’re taking on the role will help them when they’re sailing in rough waters.

Former principal and New Leaders Senior Executive Director Maria Esponda-Medina says her “why” began in college when she started thinking about education and how unfair it was for people to make assumptions about her based on her accent, the color of her skin, her gender, and where she lived. “I wanted to offer kids like me a chance,” she says. “My ‘why’ is about creating schools where children feel they have a right to be there, that they have a voice, their families belong, and their voices are welcome, too.” Esponda-Medina says knowing what drives you personally makes it much easier to course-correct and take actions to be a transformational leader. 

Help them outline next steps and identify where to get more information

When it comes to school leadership, there’s an excess of information for some parts of the job and not nearly enough clear information on others. Figuring out certification requirements can be a puzzle, especially depending on the state. Some states allow for alternative routes to initial principal certification through preparation programs or other non-traditional paths, while others require field experience. And, there’s the topic of additional schooling. The majority, but not all, of the states require school leadership candidates to hold a master’s degree and have at least three years of teaching or related experience.

You’ve most likely navigated through the same hurdles, and those insights can be a wealth of knowledge for aspiring leaders. Share information about potential training programs that allow them to apply what they’ve learned immediately in their own schools and current roles. Connect them with networking groups that might have helped you as you went through your own process. Or, simply offer to sit down with them and work through the next steps together. Having someone to listen to what’s holding them back and providing the resources and much-needed mentorship will be invaluable to them. 

You’ve most likely navigated through the same hurdles, and those insights can be a wealth of knowledge for aspiring leaders. Share information about potential training programs that allow them to apply what they’ve learned immediately in their own schools and current roles.

Be the guiding light you might have wanted 

This small action, a “shoulder tap” to consider school leadership, can open up a world of possibilities one might not have been considering prior to that moment. It’s also a fantastic opportunity for you as a school leader to provide support, resources, and a clear way forward, something that might have been missing when you had your own “step-up” moment. 

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