5 school leaders’ expert advice for aspiring administrators

There’s no course or resource book that can truly prepare school leaders for every situation they will encounter but there are key strategies and mindsets that can help aspiring administrators be effective leaders in the future. 

“The pandemic is a classic example,” Steve Joel, superintendent of Lincoln Public Schools in Lincoln, Nebraska, told Education Dive. No one in school administration had professional development coursework in preparing for a major health crisis that would close school buildings for extended periods, he said.

But by learning, listening and collaborating with others during crises and everyday management responsibilities, administrators can gain confidence and reach positive results, Joel said.

To help educators better understand if they’d like to take an administrative career track, we asked administrators around the U.S. for tips, recommendations and advice — and even what they wished they would have known or done before becoming an administrator. Here are their responses.

Aaron Spence – superintendent, Virginia Beach City Public Schools

Virginia Beach, Virginia

School administration is a wonderful career. You have to really want to do it because it is also really challenging. My advice is to think about, when you’re approaching school administration, two sets of skills that will be needed to be successful:

  • Technical skills. Being really competent matters. You have to have good instructional knowledge. You need management skills, knowing the bus schedules and books. No matter what else is happening, schools have to open and everything has to run. Learn about school law and school finance.

  • People skills. Most of what we do is leadership by influence and building relationships and building trust with our stakeholders. We need to establish that people matter most.

When giving advice to administrators, what I always tell them is you have to maintain a balance between those two skills. Because where I see failure in administration is when somebody is at one end of that spectrum or the other. 

My advice for aspiring administrators is to work on both, I mean really work on both. Don’t assume that you understand what good interpersonal skills are just because you like people. You have to build your competencies so people trust you when you tell them what needs to get done and they want to do it with you. If you can do that, you’ll be really successful as a school administrator.

Heath Peine – exec. director of student support services, Wichita Public Schools

Wichita, Kansas

Some things I would have liked to have known before coming into the role of administrator is that it’s a job that’s always about learning, and it’s a job where there’s not always a right way or a wrong way to do things, but you have to problem solve and work to find the right solutions.

Heath Peine

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There are problems that are adaptive and technical. Technical [problems] have a right answer or a wrong answer, and they can be solved by an expert. Adaptive solutions have challenges that are difficult to identify and are difficult to solve, and they need more people involved. Having a better understanding of how to do that adaptive problem-solving would have helped. 

As a leader, I’ve been trying to learn and read more, attend webinars, buy books, talk to people who are successful, learn from successful buildings and districts. I think all these components are things I’ve found along the way. I can now see things that really make a difference and have the largest impact, and one of those is just knowing what our impact is. 

If you are looking at your impact at all times and trying to cause student growth and looking to see how much growth you are causing for the students, you’re going to be successful if you keep working toward your goal.

Steve Joel – superintendent, Lincoln Public Schools

Lincoln, Nebraska

The most important thing for aspiring administrators to realize is that this is an ongoing journey, and as much as we try to learn through our college courses, through our workshops, observing administrators who we either work for or know of, there’s absolutely no substitute for on-the-job training. In reality, when we’re dealing with human beings in such a crucial and essential enterprise, there’s so many gray areas that we just have to be comfortable with that.

My point is that, as an aspiring administrator, you have to be a consumer of everything around you — that you have an understanding of the culture, the situation of which you’re a part of. 

The administrators I know who have been able to look, listen and learn have been able to stay longer than those who, for whatever reason, have been unable to do that, and that includes the collegiality that comes with being a part of professional groups, having coaches and mentors that you can refer to.

There’s no class that can prepare you for it, and the pandemic is a classic example. Every district is different, every circumstance is different, every board is different, every faculty is different, every parent group is different. And the administrators who are getting it done and the ones who are going to thrive and control their own professional destinies are the ones who took the time to immerse themselves in their culture and learn it.

LaShundra Wilson – assistant principal, Lewisville High School

Lewisville, Texas

I think that the biggest piece of advice I could give anyone is to know your “why,” because this work is challenging, daunting. It is hard. It is also rewarding and fulfilling and enjoyable if you know why you’re doing what you’re doing. If you can figure out exactly what your plan is, why you’re doing what you’re doing, it makes everything so much better. All the rough days are made better when your why is always in the front of what you’re doing.

LaShundra Wilson

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When things get tough, that why is the fuel that keeps you going. If you don’t have one at the end of the day, sit back and ask yourself why am I doing this, what am I here for? If you don’t have an answer for that, you may want to reconsider if the passion that you have for the work and then the work you are doing are in alignment.

For me, my why is to make sure every child, especially those that come from impoverished backgrounds, backgrounds of disadvantage, backgrounds where their socioeconomic status could be a hindrance, knows that they have an opportunity to overcome their circumstances, and that can be done through their education.

Nick Polyak – superintendent, Leyden High School District 212
Franklin Park, Illinois

I tell people the No. 1 quality I think an effective administrator needs is humility. When people think they have all the answers or they think they’re more important than the things that they are doing, the kids they are serving, that’s the people we see fail. A really good leader is someone who comes in with a humble heart.

Nick Polyak

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You need good mentors and coaches to help identify your blind spots and call you out on those things. It’s coming at things with humility and empathy, and you have to bring hard work because these aren’t easy jobs. You could be humble, you could be empathic, but if you don’t do the work, you won’t be effective either.

The other mistake people make when they get into these leadership positions is all of a sudden, you’re in charge, you’re the building principal or you’re the district superintendent. You have this feeling like you’re supposed to have the answers, and so people fall into the trap of going it alone. The sign of a strong leader is understanding that we’re all better together. Finding your networks, being willing to put yourself out there and ask for help and offer help, that’s a sign of someone who’s really effective.

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