Thank you for visiting the ISU Ed. Leadershop. Our intent over the past few years has been to field-test community-engaged writings for PK-20 practitioner conversation -- quick, 5-minute "read's" that help put into perspective the challenges and opportunities in our profession. Some of the writings have remained here solely; others have been developed further for other outlets. Our space has been a delightful "sketch board" for some very creative minds in leadership, indeed.

We believe that by kicking around an idea or two and not getting too worked-up over it, the thinking and writing involved have even greater potential to make a difference on behalf of those we serve. In such, please give us a read; share with others. We encourage your thoughts, opinions, feelings, and reactions to our work and thank you for taking your time. You keep us relevant.

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Parenting of Pre-service Proteges

The Parenting of Pre-service Protégés

By Casey Patterson Smitherman
Doctoral Student
Indiana State University
Principal, Brown Elementary School
Brownsburg Community School Corporation
Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

As parents we send our little ones off to kindergarten with mixed emotions of jubilance and trepidation; thirteen years later we revisit those feelings when we see them off to college.  As school leaders, we experience similar emotions when bidding our best teachers a fair adieu as they enter school leadership. 

After all, like kindergarten, college, and life – school leadership is tough work:  Similar to the Peace Corps, it’s is the toughest job you’ll ever love.  Leading a school, albeit a huge responsibility is rewarding each day.  At the elementary level, regular hugs, giggles and high fives bring about great job satisfaction.  At the secondary level, seeing first-hand a transformation from childhood to adulthood is equally gratifying.

Because of the level of difficulty that exists in assuming a role in school leadership, it requires substantial pre-service parenting from field supervisors who are successful, practicing leaders in their fields.  Someone with direct knowledge of candidate competencies must separate the wheat from the chaff, serving as not only career counselor, but also the voice for tomorrow’s children and families -- one who is not only a teacher-of-teachers, but also a teacher-of-leaders.  Is this you? 

If so, our role in the training and preparation of K-12 leaders is one of the most honored experiences we can enjoy.  Having a pre-service leadership candidate job shadow and work with us not only allows us to impart whatever wisdom we have gleaned through our own dedication; it also provides to us a colleague and confidante during our service in K-12 education. 

More so, it provides us with the opportunity to grow and learn through revisiting our own experiences and sharing the lessons we’ve learned along the way.  After all, we retain much more of what we teach, don’t we?  It’s about 90% by some estimates.

When that day comes and our protégé lands a career as a principal or assistant principal, we watch a bit of ourselves, yet something refreshingly unlike us as well, taking shape in a new school.  It is similar we recall, to what we as parents reflected upon as the bus pulled away for the first time, with small, pensive faces waving from the steps while wearing their backpacks.  

We each thought, “Did I do enough to help this newbie navigate these new, unchartered waters?”

As we’ve both thought about the advice we have tried to impart upon pre-service principals – and the advice that we, ourselves, received from our own mentors – we offer this wish-list to you, for your consideration of what you might offer to your aspiring principals in preparation for that big day. 

We would ask that in reading what we have here, you consider sharing some of your good ideas with us as well.

As field supervisors helping to guide pre-service school leadership, you may wish to:

1.     Allow pre-service principals an opportunity to be involved with discipline, encouraging them to be firm and fair, yet be mindful and compassionate in employing the teachable moment.  Getting it right from all angles in the discipline department is the quickest way to establish partnerships with faculty, staff, students, and families. Most teachers don’t send a student to the office unless they really need the help.  Getting the word out that one shouldn’t want to go to the principal after a teacher exhausts all efforts will save a lot of work, we might add.  Likewise, helping teachers understand that best efforts at instructional relevance and parental partnerships should be communicated before children are “sent packing” from the classroom, will save much work as well.

2.     Model healthy perspectives, by laughing at yourself and not being afraid afraid to make mistakes in front of your protégé.  We work in a people business, and mistakes are bound to happen as the human condition presents itself.  When we work with kids, mistakes when no harm is caused can be downright funny.  Adults are oftentimes, older versions of their adolescent selves, so we mustn’t forget that.  Don’t take yourself so seriously that you can’t see the humor in what you do while serving as a role model.  Don’t worry; be happy – it will pay dividends in those learning from your leadership.

3.     Distribute leadership to others, and as one example, consider letting your teachers design, plan, and organize professional development sessions and staff meetings.  Teaching teachers is hard work.  With the right selection of a planning committee here, your protégé will see that faculty will respect the efforts of their colleagues and will appreciate you for encouraging it.  This can provide the leadership team an opportunity to step out of the fish bowl for a time, to make the swim a bit safer.

4.     When it is possible, allow the aspiring principal to sit in on critical conversations you have with staff.  Such conversations can be among the most intimidating experiences for new principals, particularly when they’ve never been a part of such dialogue.  Vicarious learning here is the key. Allowing pre-service leaders to have mental models to use in their own schools can be priceless. 

5.     Include pre-service leaders in your work with support staff  – whether in monthly meetings with instructional assistants, lunch with the cafeteria team, or time spent shoveling with the daylight custodians on a snowy morning.  Support staff are essential to keeping the school running, so be sure you model the value placed in these folks.  By getting in the trenches and modeling your leadership brand, you will put your protégé in touch with those in our schools who have the most credibility in our communities.

6.     Enjoy classroom walk-throughs and observations together, and then discuss what you see as soon as you leave the room.  Experienced principals are observing the teaching and learning process with a very trained eye, or at least, that is the hope.  By sharing what you saw, heard, and felt in the classroom, you give aspiring principals a new way of looking at a classroom.  Then, listen to what they observed as well.  We are amazed at what another’s view of the classroom can give us, as a fresh perspective on instructional practices.

7.     Stop.  Pause.  And more than anything … LISTEN, to what your protégés need.  Are they asking for certain experiences?  Are they not asking for things they may be avoiding? Have you engendered the trust that encourages them to speak candidly about the areas they see as deficient?  Do they need some time to question you about things they are pondering?  Are they allowed to disagree with you and voice that disagreement? Your time is limited, we realize; however, your potential impact can be great.

A day will come when it is time to set your protégés free and watch them fly.  What a mixed blessing that will be! 

While it is oftentimes sad as well as a challenge to lose any of our great teacher-leaders, friends, and confidants, it is also incalculably rewarding to see all they will do for their new students and staffs, with us as their former teachers fondly remembering that we did all we could to make it happen.


Casey Patterson Smitherman and Ryan Donlan enjoy great conversations on leadership.  They encourage you to share ideas of your own on how we can prepare the next generation of K-12 school leaders and can be reached at or at 

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