The first day of school can be a rough adjustment for anyone inside a school, including a new principal. Mike Riley became principal of Hidden Valley Middle School in Roanoke County, Va., in August 2012 with just one day's notice. "At that point, I didn't know what to expect or even what I needed to know," Riley said.
Enter E. Wayne Harris, a Virginia Tech Fellow with the Center for Organizational and Technological Advancement. In 2005, Harris designed and implemented a workshop series aim at creating more confident school leaders focused on student success.
A veteran teacher and school superintendent, Harris knows that principals such as Riley may be unaware of the legalities of red tape, the demands of leadership, and the dynamics of community and staff. Since 2005, 36 school districts have sent recently appointed administrators through the Roanoke-based Virginia School Leaders Institute's Recently Appointed Administrators Program.
Harris' achievement has been to revamp the way new principals and assistant principals learn their jobs, said Billy Cannaday Jr., dean and provost for academic outreach at the University of Virginia. From 2006 to 2008, Cannaday led K-12 instruction for Virginia as its superintendent of public instruction.
"I give Wayne Harris all the credit in the world for thinking about that and for realizing that just because someone is credentialed to lead doesn't mean they are ready to lead," Cannaday said.
At the workshops, school leaders hear from experts about how to better communicate, build relationships, manage data, and deal with news media. In small groups, they discuss problems such as teacher morale and effective student discipline. They're asked to think about keeping their lives in balance and to reflect on their actions and decisions rather than just rush through the school day.
Leadership is a paramount theme. "The workshop series enables the new leaders to expand their understanding of what effective leadership is," said Harris, who conducts the workshops with Wayne Tripp, a newly named Fellow, who is a retired superintendent of Salem (Va.) City Schools. Last year, for the first time, they added a new associate: Sharon Richardson, also a retired school administrator.
"Trial and error, decades ago, was how we did it," said Cannaday, who earned a doctoral degree in education administration from Virginia Tech in 1990. "Now there are higher risks associated with error. The clientele we serve are less forgiving of errors."
Missteps that new principals and assistant principals can take are many. They might not understand how to compensate for their weaknesses and blind spots, Cannaday said. A visionary, big-picture person might need to learn that details are key to successful implementation of ideas. Another common mistake is that they come off to school staff "as people less concerned about the ones they are expected to lead and more concerned about their own advancement," Cannaday said. Listening and other skills help avoid this pitfall.
The workshops last about a dozen days during the school year. Riley and other participants said the training helped them breeze through the learning curve of their new jobs and apply leadership theory immediately to real-life situations.
"If it wasn't working, it wouldn't have lasted for eight years," Cannaday said of the program. "It would have closed long ago. Superintendents around the state see value in it. They keep sending their people."
Another endorsement comes from Amanda Thomas, an eighth-grader at Hidden Valley Middle School. "I think it's a good idea that Mr. Riley wants to keep learning and to learn to be a better principal than he already is."
Virginia Tech's Recently Appointed Administrators Program helps get school leaders off on the right foot.
Assistant Principal Jennifer Bolling talks about her first days on the job and how the program helped her.
Principal Mike Riley talks about putting the workshop’s lessons into practice.
Virginia Tech established the Center for Organizational and Technological Advancement in 1994 to foster best practices and innovation across business, industry, K-12 and post-secondary education, government, and nonprofits. The goal of its programs is to build and maintain results-driven organizations.