The future of education is ours to shape

In Homer’s Odyssey, Ulysses left his house under the watchful eye of his trusted friend Mentor. During the ten years of Ulysses’ absence (at the Trojan wars) Mentor acted as friend and tutor to Ulysses’ son, Telemachus. His teachings and the example he set were regarded as responsible for the passing down of those attitudes and values that saw Telemachus grow into a mature and courageous adult.

As a consequence of the role modelling performed by Mentor, we today define mentoring as the process by which one acts as confidant, counsellor and prime example to a peer or subordinate.

School principals need mentors too. Principals are now not only the leaders of pedagogy and curriculum, but there is also an expectation that they will be thought leaders, able to articulate a vision for their schools and at the same time be expert in Public Relations, Human Resources and Financial Management. A body of research suggests that the altered expectations placed on school principals is having an adverse impact on the recruitment and retention of appropriately qualified candidates for school leadership positions. Collins (2006) observed that while there was a decrease in the number of applicants for principal roles, “a relatively high number of teachers expressed interest in school leadership”.

Why is it that this high level of interest in leadership fails to translate into applications for principal positions?

Are potential candidates intimidated by the breadth of skills they believe are essential for the role of principal and if so, what are we doing to support our next generation of leaders?

Mentoring has deep roots within society, manifesting in various forms. Parents naturally mentor their children, particularly during their formative years. In professional settings like the corporate world, mentors can take on diverse roles, ranging from supervisors or managers to friends or colleagues. Typically, a mentor is someone who has achieved success in a manner that the learner admires or occupies a position the learner aspires to attain. For instance, aspiring athletes often seek mentorship from coaches or esteemed players. Religious texts like the Bible showcase mentoring relationships, such as Moses guiding Joshua, Paul mentoring Timothy, and notably, Jesus instructing his disciples.

At its core, mentoring embodies a teacher-learner dynamic. Whether it occurs between peers or between individuals of different hierarchical levels, this relationship establishes the groundwork for a continuous exchange of experiences, reflections, and actions.

There has been an increasing acceptance in education that principals can, because of the levels of responsibility they bear, find themselves relatively unsupported when having to make the myriad decisions they face almost daily. For early career principals this can have a profound impact on not only their capacity to function effectively, but also on their wellbeing.

“the average school leaders’ wellbeing is less optimal than the average citizen. (…)  A provision of time for school leaders to build and maintain professional support networks is needed. This could be augmented by experienced principal mentors.”

– 2019 Australian Principal Occupational Health and Wellbeing Survey

There are many benefits of a mentoring program, including:

  • Receiving support and guidance
  • Developing and enhancing leadership capacity
  • The opportunity to explore issues in a non-threatening and confidential environment
  • An increase in self-awareness
  • Opportunities to discuss and develop policies, practices, and processes that align with strategic intentions

In light of these, to what extent are School Boards availing their principals with the benefits of a mentor, particularly if the principal is new to principalship? And likewise, to what extent are principals then nurturing their executive leaders by providing them with mentors?

Why would a person with the burden of responsibility associated with school leadership be prepared or keen to invest even more time and energy in equipping or empowering others for leadership roles? Quite simply, because mentoring can be a win-win opportunity. It is therefore clear that just as the relationship is two-way, so too is the reaping of benefits. There is ample incentive from a purely selfish viewpoint for the incumbent leader to engage in mentoring others. On behalf of the future of education and schooling, there is an equally compelling argument for mentoring of the next generation of school leaders.

Bishop Greg O’Kelly SJ, former Head of Saint Ignatius’ Riverview once said

“A principal who does not give a very significant part of his or her energies towards the inspiration and encouragement and resourcing of his or her staff will never be the head of a good school.”

It is imperative that we allocate resources to support the next generation of leaders, to ensure their retention and safeguard their well-being. Business leaders are hailed for their success in positioning their companies for sustained prosperity in the market, often transcending their own tenure. This reality holds equally true for educational leaders, who bear the responsibility of ensuring their schools are primed to address the educational requirements of students long after their leadership. This can only be attained by dedicating effort and resources to the professional growth of future generations of school leaders.

Collins, R. (2006). The principal shortage: And what we should be doing about it. Australian Educational Leader28(4).

Doneley, L., Jervis-Tracey, P., & Sim, C. (2018). Principal succession and recruitment: Trends and challenges. Leading and Managing24(1), 59-72.

O’Kelly, G (2012) Engaged in a ministry of meaning

Sieben, R., & Bentley, B. (2021). From pedagogue to principal: Addressing the declining candidature for the principalship. Australian Educational Leader, 43(4), 36-39.

About the author:
Rob Sieben is the Operations Manager at Hutton Consulting Australia.