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Novice School Principals' Sense of Ultimate Responsibility: Problems of Practice in Transitioning to the Principal's Office (WP-13-05)

James Spillane and Linda C. Lee

This working paper investigates the problems of practice experienced by novice school principals as they transition into their new occupation, focusing in particular on the first three months on the job—a critical transition period according to the literature. The researchers use a theory-building, mixed-method, longitudinal study to examine a random sample of novice principals from one cohort of new Chicago Public School principals. Using interviews at two time points, they systematically examine the “reality shocks” novices encounter as they experience their new occupation firsthand. Their findings show that a major “reality shock” for novice principals as they transitioned into their new occupation was a sense of ultimate responsibility. This sense of ultimate responsibility contributed to three core problems of practice—task volume, diversity, and unpredictability. While almost all novices experienced the responsibility shock as well as one or more of the practice problems, the conditions of novices’ transitions to the principalship either eased or exacerbated the level of practice problems they encountered. This paper demonstrates how the volume, diversity, and unpredictability of tasks emerge early and intensify over new principals’ first three months on the job, largely due to new principals’ sense of ultimate responsibility. The researchers conclude by entertaining various ways in which these problems of practice might be eased for novices as they transition into their new position.

James Spillane, Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Professor in Learning and Organizational Change, and Faculty Associate, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University

Linda C. Lee, Postdoctoral Fellow, School of Education and Social Policy, Northwestern University

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