Research News

Improving the Transition to a Tough Position

IPR associate James Spillane studies transitions of novice principals

principal office
Novice principals feel a "responsibility shock" when starting their positions, Spillane has discovered.

With fast-paced, fragmented, varied work that requires long hours, being a school principal is a difficult job—and one that often has a steep learning curve. In an article in Educational Administration Quarterly, education professor and IPR associate James Spillane, with the University of Texas at Austin’s Linda Lee, examines what new principals face when transitioning into their positions, and offers recommendations for easing this process.

Spillane and Lee followed two cohorts of novice principals in the Chicago Public Schools system over the first two years after becoming a principal. Through questionnaires, interviews, and other data, they catalogued the issues faced by the principals surveyed, as well as how their experiences varied among schools.

A consistent theme in principals’ accounts was the “responsibility shock” they experienced upon starting work and becoming responsible for an entire school. 

“They said they were surprised by little else on the job, because they had done it before as vice principals and assistant principals, but they were not prepared for this,” Spillane said.

James Spillane

The responsibility shock contributed to principals “engaging in behavior that is counterproductive for them,” he continued. “These principals want to involve others in the work of leading and managing the school. But because of this sense of ultimate responsibility, they report engaging in micromanaging, because they have this sense that they’re ultimately accountable.”

Spillane and Lee offer several recommendations aimed at improving novice principals’ transitions. These included changing the way policymakers set up school accountability policies—having a broader array of people who are held accountable for school performance, rather than just holding the principal accountable.

They also recommend providing principals with adequate time to learn about the schools they will be leading. When principals were thrown into their positions in schools about which they knew little, rather than rising through a school’s ranks in a “planned transition,” they had more difficulty integrating their new positions.

“Research suggests that the principal is really critical to the wellbeing and performance of the school,” Spillane concluded. “We want to minimize the interruption of that during transition times.”

James Spillane is Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Professor in Learning and Organizational Change and an IPR associate.

Photo credit: Eric E. Castro