Beginning the Principalship: A Practical Guide for New School Leaders


John C. Daresh & Linda Alexander

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    Why is the fourth edition special and unique?

    New editions of educational guidebooks saturate the market with the next edition’s outline sometimes in the works before the current one has cooled from the presses. It becomes a bit overwhelming for educational leaders in schools, districts, and universities to decide which book will best serve to cultivate effective and inspirational educational leaders.

    So what do we believe sets this work apart from the stack of paperbacks and truly serves as a guide to build a better school leader?

    Ultimately, we are all looking to the future of our children and our world. Leaders are looking for which guide will provide a sound leadership framework for navigating the needs of children and communities served by the current educational environment, while also envisioning how to evolve to meet the rapidly changing needs and realities of the children of the future.

    John and I did not set out to design an outline that would update the third edition of Beginning the Principalship. Rather, the fourth edition came to us as a gift of inspiration through its own volition. The inspiration for the restyling of this leadership guide into the new and improved fourth edition was truly borne of a shared vision for evolving humanity and education toward instilling in children the shared intrinsic values needed for the future, believing in that vision and reflecting on exactly how it can be initiated and realized through educational leadership. We see the vision for this book as a gift of hope, neither planned nor contrived but realized, the kind of wow moment that inspires creativity and holds that tangible vibration of magic that only comes from pure truth. To be put simply, it was truly a labor of love for students and for our profession.

    The case studies in this book are witty, sometimes diabolical, and always realistic and enlightening. You get an insightful birds-eye view of your job as principal that reveals the real focus and importance of your role in each scenario. Whatever your dilemma, you will likely find one of the case studies you can relate to as similar in nature, and sometimes say, “Hey, that is exactly what I am going through!” The common denominator in all of these case studies is you. What you take away from these is that the difficulty in deciphering the wisest course is often on the surface and the simplicity to find consistency is in your depth as a leader.

    Beginning the Principalship serves as both a practical hands-on guide to navigating your role and an inspiration to nurture your passion for the immense responsibility you have undertaken.

    While you can easily access all you need to survive year one and get the immediate job done in Beginning the Principalship, how you cultivate and translate your own ethical platform and your commitment to it is the foundation of successful leadership.

    Leadership, by definition, is not about blithely following a step-by-step formula prescribed by another. Every leader is unique and best served by finding his or her own truth through self-awareness and reflective thinking practices. It is common knowledge in educational rhetoric that empowerment is key to student success. Your unique leadership is similarly affected and must be empowered by you through searching your own depth, making it your center and the foundation upon which you place your faith in your own direction and integrity.

    Whether you are looking for interactive and dynamic workshop materials for principal mentoring, a textbook for students enrolled in educational administration studies, or a personal guide for yourself, Beginning the Principalship is ideal for new and seasoned principals alike committed to student-centered continuous improvement. Each chapter contains practical questions designed to allow you to adapt ideas and strategies to your specific campus. In addition, Points to Ponder sections concluding the chapters emphasize reflective questions that also serve as excellent discussion points for collegially building a shared mission, vision, and campus improvement plan for your school. Space for notes allows you to design it into a personalized reference for your leadership platform and your campuses specific goals—from your own ethical platform to parent/community relations to understanding and implementing accountability requirements and goals.

    Part I of Beginning the Principalship is structured to assist your cultivation of yourself relevant to your fundamental philosophical beliefs and educational platform.

    Part II focuses on fine-tuning your socialization skills to build effective, consistent, inclusive communication practices. In addition, a discussion guide to observing, understanding, and respecting your past and current school culture serves as a guide to formulate, communicate, and drive continuous improvement and community involvement for the future.

    Part III describes the current educational environment with regard to accountability and serves as a guide to understanding the fundamentals of accountability as applied to your own campus. In addition, the likely future changes to accountability are presented to allow you to examine the specific impact on your campus and be proactive in anticipation of adapting to new accountability measures.

    Those who answer the call of education are born nurturers. The best teachers know that they do not impart knowledge to their students, but instead exchange it with them. If there is one single factor to underline the change needed, it is to listen, really give value and voice to the children, and let them shape our leadership for them. As children, we often wondered why adults did not really value and embrace the voice in our hearts over their own ambitions. As adults, we take on the characteristics of their cultivated indifference and repeat the condition in the next generation.

    It is time for that cycle to end; principals do hold the future in their hands and have the power to shape it. Beginning the Principalship is not just an excellent guide to the realities of the job, but is also grassroots about beginning the future, one confident young principal at a time, leading one school and rebuilding one culture at a time.

    For the foundation of self-awareness, the critically growing importance of ethics, and the unique leadership necessary for future generations, we could not envision just restating or tweaking yesterday’s recipe to apply to the realities of today’s day-to-day educational priorities. To do so may update what is outdated, but fails to really create a vision of today that incorporates the future. Revisions limited to “modify and update the past + add the flavor of the day” formulas relegates educational reform to a snail’s pace at a time when we are falling short of chasing the needs of today’s children, let alone children 30 or even 20 years from now. Why be satisfied to merely update and promote all the same “tried and true” things that worked yesterday as if the school climate and culture cultivated today could truly be defined as the climate and culture that has the best interests of the collective future of all children in mind? If so, then why is the income gap widening instead of receding? Why does indifference to each other grow while embracing each other continues to decline? We thought about what the next three generations and beyond would need to thrive and worked to design a leader that can be part of an evolution and paradigm shift of the current ideologies cultivated in schools into those necessary for the future.

    If not you, then who? The vision for this book came from the realization that for educational leaders, it really is on us. Educational leadership in the 21st century will prove to be pivotal in shaping the destination of humanity. Many of the challenges and progressive goals of the 20th century will become the norms and necessities of the 21st century. Students will inherit an Earth that will likely reach its carrying capacity not long into the 22nd century.

    Educational leaders are challenged to cultivate both the unique tools and higher-purpose driven values that students must collectively embody to secure their own success and the future survival of humanity on “spaceship” Earth. Schools are the places where societal norms are shaped and internalized. School leaders are, in essence, the heads of mini-societies that are often as dynamic, diverse, and unpredictable as a bustling multinational corporation. “Let me think on that for a few days,” is not a luxury many a principal can often afford. Principals are called upon throughout their day to make trivial to pivotal decisions, navigate planned community events and unexpected emergencies. They will be continuously sought for guidance and input from curriculum to athletics to property maintenance or town gossip. They will be in the spotlight, both revered and critiqued; they will be expected to make confident, consistent decisions with poise and integrity. They will need to know when to speak and when to hold their tongues to acknowledge all stakeholders, support conflict resolution, and cultivate a positive school climate. Their leadership will ultimately epitomize the culture and values of the school, perceived as mentors for teachers, staff, and students, and often will embody the voice of the community as well as the school.

    The job description of today’s principal reads like that of a superhero, perhaps disguised as Clark Kent. Indeed, the educational leaders are truly the superheroes of tomorrow and the primary catalysts for changing the nature and direction of contemporary notions of success, progress, community, and responsibility. The limited, material, and individual focus of the values dominantly cultivated in 20th-century education will not be sufficient to meet the needs of future generations. These values were engineered to promote a society that thrived on consumerism and focused on maximizing the potentials of a consumer-driven society. The world around us may still be able to function quite splendidly day-to-day in this environment, but signs are emerging that this will not be a wise course for the future.

    It is the educational leaders that must pioneer and champion the paradigm shift in the vision of education. It is no longer enough to be satisfied with inspiring students to empower themselves and to be functioning citizens in a world where success and achievement is most often measured by the degree to which one can individually indulge in luxury and dabble in philanthropy as a conscience-assuaging hobby. We have a moral obligation to make an attempt to build future communities that will be compatible with sustaining humanity within the limits of Earth’s bounties.

    Starting with the children, right now, today, we need to build a vision and inspiration to empower each other, a desire to embrace each other and value each other. We need to build a vision that places equal emphasis on individual value and collective value, cultivated at an intrinsic level.

    This book is about leadership. Educational leadership is truly a noble and weighty endeavor, limitless in its rewards. The responsibility of the avocation grows as the demands and challenges for the future multiply. Superheroes make it look easy; in this book lay the keys to uncovering and accessing the superhero in you. To put it succinctly, it helps you ask yourself and find out what you are made of and why. The more aware you are of your own ethical construct and its foundations, the more consistent, inclusive, tolerant, and embracing will be your leadership. In addition, the book provides case studies that mirror situations you will frequently encounter. Topics such as accountability and managerial skills are presented with the background knowledge you need to lead and the strategies you will need to guide implementation. You will have many decisions to make for and about the people and environment surrounding you, but focusing primarily on evaluating others as a basis for decision making will not be the key to your success. The mark of a true leader is in their ability to focus positive thoughts on self-reflection and translate those thoughts into decisions and visions that nurture others and drive progress and improvement.

    Today’s principal is the needed superhero of tomorrow. Invisible heroes of humanity like the custodial staff in Chapter 7 are often the invisible heroes of your school. The values and norms that educational leaders pioneer by example and choose to cultivate in the curriculum of schools near and far, these chosen values and norms that will become automatic and internalized in tomorrow’s leaders may very well be the defining vehicle to drive the progress of the future.

    Tomorrow is about today.


    Corwin gratefully acknowledges the contributions of the following reviewers:

    Silvia Braidic, Professor & Administrative Leadership Programs Coordinator

    California University of Pennsylvania

    Keystone School of Education

    California, PA

    Delsia Easley, Principal

    W. E. Striplin Elementary School

    Gadsden, AL

    Douglas Hesbol, Research Associate

    University of Denver

    Morgridge College of Education

    Denver, CO

    Virginia E. Kelsen, Principal

    Rancho Cucamonga High School

    Rancho Cucamonga, CA

    Carol Spencer, Director of Curriculum

    Addison Northwest Supervisory Union

    Vergennes, VT

    Kelly VanLaeken, Principal

    Ruben A. Cirillo High School

    Walworth, NY

    About the Authors

    John C. Daresh is a professor of educational leadership at the University of Texas at El Paso. Over the years, he has held faculty or administrative appointments at the University of Cincinnati, The Ohio State University, and the University of Northern Colorado. He has worked as a consultant for universities, state departments of education, and school districts across the United States, and also in Canada, France, Holland, Israel, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Taiwan. In addition to his university appointment, he serves the Chicago Public Schools as the lead consultant on principal mentoring, a central part of the district’s strong commitment to the creation of more effective instructional leaders to serve the children of the nation’s second largest school system.

    Linda Alexander is a teacher and department chair for social studies at the Mission Valley Early College High School for the Socorro Independent Schools. Prior to that, she spent her teaching career as a teacher and testing coordinator at Coronado High School in El Paso. Her academic career included a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from The Ohio State University and Master’s degree in Educational Leadership from the University of Texas at El Paso.

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