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College of Education pairs K-12 principals with mentors

Illinois Board of Education initiative connects experienced leaders with first-year principals

School hallway
Being a school principal is a demanding job. More than 1 in 10 public school principals left the profession​ between 2020-22, with higher-poverty and rural districts seeing greater numbers of departures. In response to the growing challenge, DePaul’s College of Education was tapped in 2021 by the Illinois State Board of Education to participate in the New Principal Mentoring Program, which pairs new principals with experienced ones.

The program aims to build leadership capacity and reduce principal turnover, particularly for diverse leaders and in schools serving diverse student bodies. So far, DePaul has shepherded 52 new principals through the program across three years.

Barbara Rieckhoff
Barbara Rieckhoff, an associate dean and associate professor of leadership, language and curriculum in the College of Education co-directs DePaul's chapter of the Illinois State Board of Education's New Principal Mentoring Program. (DePaul University/Jeff Carrion)
“There’s this expectation that leaders have all the answers, and even new leaders come in with high expectations,” says Barbara Rieckhoff, an associate dean and associate professor of leadership, language and curriculum. “The truth is there’s so much a new principal is juggling from meeting teachers, staff and students, to learning a new school culture, and getting to know parents and the school board.”

Rieckhoff spent 15 years as an administrator in public and Catholic K-12 schools before joining DePaul, where she now co-directs this program. “There are so many stakeholder groups, it’s a tough transition from school-to-school or from teacher or assistant principal to principal,” she says.

DePaul has been awarded nearly $300,000 in funding to coordinate this program so far. Principals have joined from as far north as Waukegan, all around the Chicago suburbs and into western Illinois. New principals receive 40 hours of mentoring throughout the course of the school year and participate in monthly networking and professional development opportunities with DePaul’s Office of Innovative Professional Learning. Led by Donna Kiel, an instructional assistant professor in the department of leadership, language and curriculum, this office has built a strong reputation throughout Illinois for supporting teachers and schools through customized training.

“It’s been very helpful to have an experienced principal to reach out to and discuss various topics tailored to my school’s needs,” says Dimitra Georganas, an early childhood principal participating in the program from Lemont, Illinois. “I highly recommend that this program remains active as it was extremely helpful for me as a new principal. I am very fortunate to have someone that I can turn to throughout the school year with questions that arise and be provided with sound advice that supports the multi-faceted and unique experiences that a principal goes through.”

Dimitra Georganas
Dimitra Georganas, an early childhood principal in Lemont, Illinois, is participating in the DePaul chapter of the Illinois State Board of Education's New Principal Mentoring Program. (Photo courtesy of Dimitra Georganas)
Rieckhoff says DePaul’s approach is rooted in research and inspired by research, including that of longtime educator John Daresh. He found the experience of being a mentor increases overall job satisfaction, while mentees benefit from increased confidence about their professional competence. The effects ripple out through schools, into staff and administrations.

Already, principals who participated in the Illinois mentoring program report feeling supported by their mentors and appreciated having a non-evaluative person to go to for situations and processes they were unsure of how to handle, Rieckhoff reports. New principals also indicated they were comfortable sharing with the mentor and asking for advice and guidance or preparing for an upcoming decision or meeting, she adds.

Rieckhoff remembers how important her own mentors were in her development as a school administrator.

“I continue to champion principal mentoring because I believe it’s such an incredibly important role. Being a principal is the best job in the world. There’s good research that indicates an effective principal can have a positive impact on student achievement. So, I’m happy that DePaul can play a role in helping to mentor the next generation of principals,” she says.

Russell Dorn is a senior manager of media relations in University Communications.