“The constant communication and productive collaboration provide continuous feedback that ultimately helps to improve student outcomes – it promotes an ‘iron sharpens iron’ mentality.”
–Dare’ra Spragg, first-year principal, Brownsville Collegiate Middle School
The power of peer mentorship
Authentic collaboration is one of the pillars of Uncommon Schools’ culture, and that extends to our Principal Fellowship. We design our principal-preparation program with the intention that our Fellows will be able to leverage the strengths of each member of their cohort for personal and professional growth. Authentic collaboration – through peer mentorship, specifically – helps aspiring leaders gain knowledge and skills from many others while building their confidence and self-worth as they share their own expertise.
How to cultivate peer mentorship
Peer mentorship benefits principals in ways that lead to greater success for students, as Dare’ra Spragg’s evocative reflection suggests. In particular, Uncommon Schools’ Principal Fellowship features forms of peer mentorship that help aspiring leaders strengthen their ability to give and receive feedback in meaningful and supportive ways. Whether you are someone who supports principals or you are a principal yourself, you can leverage the power of peer mentorship to foster authentic collaboration with the leaders around you.
Create (and refine) leader pairings
At the core of collaboration is effective communication. At the beginning of the Principal Fellowship, we get permission from each Fellow to share contact information with their entire cohort. This is a simple step with an immense impact. By opening lines of communication between aspiring principals, we create a network of support that dramatically increases Fellows’ access to ideas, techniques, and resources that will improve their efficacy. In addition to facilitating formal collaboration, building a tightly knit cohort allows for community-building in the form of team dinners, social interactions, and other kinds of camaraderie that builds a strong foundation of support for mental and emotional wellbeing and leadership development.
Additionally, we pair aspiring principals up for many aspects of their professional learning and practice:
- Fellows participate in professional development in pairs;
- They practice what they’ve learned in grade level pairings; and
- They give and receive feedback in that pairing as well.
Try using the two resources below when you check in with a partner or when you lead a check-in between two peer partners.
- “Iron Sharpens Iron” Meeting Protocol: This protocol is used to facilitate the principal/fellow partnership check-in.
- Fellow Check-in Agenda Template: This template is the principal/fellow partnership check-in agenda.
“Community is at the heart of the fellowship. We push each other to strengthen our craft by providing targeted feedback and practicing to strengthen our implementation of skills.”
–Gail Sexius, Principal Fellow, Lincoln Park Elementary School
As Fellows work together to consider and apply new knowledge and skills, and increase their effectiveness in giving and receiving feedback, they build on their strengths and gain support in their areas of growth. As such, we survey Fellows periodically and create new pairings that reflect the ways in which those strengths and growth areas evolve over time. Together, the connections that Fellows forge across the cohort and in multiple forms of pairings create a community of practice as well as relationships that sustain them in the challenging work of school leadership.
“The collaboration we do as fellows will go beyond the fellowship because we are truly invested in the growth of each other.”
-Minal Patel, Principal Fellow, Central Ave. Middle School
Celebrating aspiring principals who share resources with one another is another easy-yet-impactful action that builds authentic collaboration. We praise leaders who proactively share information as well as respond to others’ questions and requests, demonstrating our belief that growth and success can be collective rather than competitive. We also cultivate resource-sharing by facilitating:
- Opportunities for fellows to visit and observe one another in practice; and
- Small-group practice sessions to address areas of growth and build community.
Foster mentorship among leaders of color
Leaders of color often find themselves searching for mentors who share some of their life experiences and background. Because leadership across sectors does not yet represent the diversity of our communities, Uncommon Schools’ Principal Fellowship intentionally cultivates mentorship among leaders of color and offers opportunities for them to draw inspiration from other leaders. This takes place both in the series of leadership pairings that Fellows experience, as well as through interactions with panels of leaders that include strong representation from communities of color.
“Working with other leaders of color is the equivalent of passing a baton. It is a relay of cumulative lived experiences that build the blueprint of best practice for the collective, and ultimately the collective’s success is the goal.”
-Gail Sexius, Principal Fellow, Lincoln Park Elementary School
Putting it all together
Whether you support principals or are a school leader yourself, you can tap into the power of peer mentorship.
- Create or join a leadership pairing or small group to gain knowledge and skills in a way that’s supportive and meaningful and builds confidence and community
- Celebrate the sharing of resources amongst peers, emphasizing collaboration over competition
- Incorporate diversity, equity, and inclusion into mentoring relationships