Administrative Internships: A Practical Approach
By David Nevill
SSTA Research Centre Report #98-03: 28 pages, $11
Table of Contents


What Does the Literature Say?  

The Practical Experience  

What I Learned About Internships  

Recommendations for an Internship Program  

Concluding Thoughts  


School principals play a vital role in school effectiveness. Principals manage school resources, encourage and help teachers be positive role models and facilitators of knowledge, as well as influence school climate and help students be the best they can be. But too many young administrators are overwhelmed by the tremendous perceived urgency and time requirement of management tasks and lose the ability to lead with vision and pro-active decisions. The very stressful position of learning the job, on the job, destroys the ability to be a visionary leader for the school. 

The purpose of this field-based study was to discover whether an internship for principals would have value in preparing aspiring school leaders for the rigors of school administration. By familiarizing and acclimatizing them to the job before they assume a position of their own, they could be more prepared to be pro-active change agents rather than reactive managers. 

This report outlines relevant studies of leadership internships, as well as an analysis of the effectiveness of this internship. It concludes with some recommendations for program coordinators who wish to pursue administration internships as a component of principal preparation. A complete copy of the practicum report is available from the University of Regina or Stewart Resource Center.


The role of a school principal is broad and difficult, but one that strongly impacts school effectiveness. Apart from large urban settings where it is generally accepted that the vice-principalship is a preparation ground for the principalship, aspiring leaders have to learn the job, on the job. It is a premise of this report that inexperience leads to less effective leadership decisions. The ability to lead instead of manage is lost due to the energy and time necessary to learn and perform general management tasks. The position of principal becomes one of reacting to urgent situations rather than looking to the future to what would make the school a better place. I believe that if aspiring administrators could become familiar with and learn the skills of management before assuming a leadership position of their own, it is possible to increase the effectiveness of Saskatchewan schools through advanced preparation "on the job" training. Interns could "learn the ropes" from seasoned principals and gain valuable insights into the realities of the job. It could also provide opportunities for teachers who aspire to be principals to determine whether the principalship is a position they wish to seek.

This resource was developed following an administrative practicum as part of the requirements for a Masterís Degree in Education at the University of Regina. It outlines a model and advocates for an internship approach to administrator training.

An internship for administrators would address the need for advanced training in administration. Through a cooperative relationship between an intern principal and a seasoned principal, the intern could focus on the following objectives:

a) acquire a basic understanding of human relations skills necessary to be a principal, practice them and determine to what extent their skills need to be developed.

b) experience a collaborative atmosphere in which theory from graduate programs could be discussed, applied and practiced.

c) observe and experience the role of principal on a day to day basis.

d) experience the difference between management and leadership.

e) learn the management tasks required for administration of schools.

f) learn how effective relationships are built between principals and the staff, students and community.

g) become familiar with various ways to supervise teachers.

h) reflect on oneís own abilities to be an effective administrator.

By participating in the internship program, interns would expect to increase their practical skills in the area of administration and enhance their experience. This would make them more qualified for a leadership position. In a day and age of tight competition, graduates from this program would be seen as more competent and confident first time leaders. A review of current literature makes the benefits of an internship experience more apparent.

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What Does the Literature Say?

Leadership development has traditionally been the responsibility of universities whose focus is predominately intellectual and theory based. A student learns to talk about leadership and management but never "walks the talk" in real life administrative settings. Real learning does not occur unless there is a practical complement to the theoretical thrust. New administrators lack clinical experience (Cordiero and Sloan, 1995). The internship addresses the void created by the emphasis on theory and gives graduates a feel for the real world of leadership. It also assists principals in becoming as effective as possible as soon as possible and makes it easier to break into the ranks of a ery demanding profession. With the increasing number of people moving into the ranks of leadership with little administrative experience, and the inherent weaknesses of graduate programs, many are not fully prepared for the job. By participating in field based internships with seasoned principals, aspiring principals are much better prepared and more confident to assume leadership positions ( Schmuck, 1993).

According to the theory of adult learning, an internship in conjunction with reflection enhances learning and leadership skills as well as cooperative and collaborative skills. As endorsed by the United States National Commission (1987), aspiring leaders need the matter of experience to apply, test and master skills and assumptions. It is through the real world of day to day situations that they learn in significant and lasting ways.

Preparing Leaders Through An Internship

The internship is designed so the intern can observe the functions of a principal, assume leadership in planning, implementing and evaluating programs, and acquire new knowledge and skills along the way. Interns are encouraged to observe a variety of effectively administered schools and expose themselves to various styles. From this exposure, they can develop a repertoire of superior practices.

To develop this experience to its fullest potential, interns are paired with experienced principals in a mentoring relationship. The mentor principal acts as a teacher, support system, encourager, role model and leader. They guide the intern through the world of leadership and assist them to function more effectively.

The development of an effective program that serves the needs of aspiring principals is the responsibility of both the training institution and the schools. While it is important for the internship to be preceded by a theory based program, it is just as important for schools and universities to tailor whole programs to the learning needs of potential leaders and help in the selection, training and evaluation of mentor principals. Strengths and weaknesses of applicants can be diagnosed before the internship is started. Alliances between schools and universities help clarify objectives and needs, set goals for the program and establish criteria to evaluate its effectiveness.

The chance to reflect on the experiences of the internship are a crucial part of the program. Time needs to be set aside for interns, mentors and university advisors to discuss issues, events and progress. Regularly scheduled meetings promote reflection and personal and professional growth by linking the practical with the theoretical and by providing support and encouragement. As one intern stated, "They were helpful because I got these little pearls of wisdom from each one of the mentors. I would walk out with this little string of pearls every time I left" (Kraus & Cordeiro, 1995, p. 16). Even experienced principals can learn from the discussions and are sometimes jarred into seeing a unique perspective.

The Value of Real Education

Internships have a valuable place in professional development of principals. They build greater skills in administrative tasks and teach beginners about supervision and evaluation, budgeting, use of staff, managing building resources, and communication. Leadership skills are enhanced through improved listening, better interpersonal skills and the ability to work with groups of adult professionals. The most valuable learning is seen in improved human relations skills and the ability to focus on leadership as well as management of resources. Interns rate the experience as an extremely important "real" experience. They find it is relevant, authentic and collaborative and it promotes independence, accountability and a tying of theory with the practical workplace. "Youíre not just reading about it - youíre living it" (Cordiero & Sloan, 1995, p. 11). Another intern stated, "Iím not saying that course work wasnít important, but if I hadnít had the opportunity to try out new things I was learning in my courses, a lot of the tie would have been lost" (Cordiero & Sloan,1995, p. 12).

Internships also provide a union with adult learning principles. Interns are able to set their own goals as well as decide and be accountable for their own learning activities. As a result, interns are much more confident in their professional competence as opposed to their theoretical counterparts in university programs. They develop an appreciation of the big picture of leadership as well as the talent necessary to do a good job in the role. They know by the end of an internship whether a leadership position is right for them. According to White and Crow (1993), " They evolve into enthusiastic aspirants, imbued with new visions, and a new appreciation of the challenges and opportunities that confront principals in running schools" ( p.33).

Interns are not the only ones to benefit from the experience. Mentors express a greater satisfaction and a renewed enthusiasm for the job and feel pleased with the opportunity to teach and collaborate. Mentors feel affirmed in their professional competence for being chosen as mentor and feel increased recognition from their peers. It seems that the role of mentor is its own best reward as mentors learn as much as they teach. "These interns really forced me to do a lot of thinking about why I do the things I do" (Cordiero & Sloan, 1995, p. 13).

Even districts can benefit from these relationships through more compatible staffs, higher motivation and job satisfaction and the promotion of the principles of life long learning.

Obstacles to Overcome

With the apparent benefits of internships, they seem like a crucial experience for all aspiring principals. But they may not be everything to everybody. It may not fit with the learning styles of all individuals or adequately prepare interns to see the real picture. For many it is only a chance to play at administration where tasks are reduced to the mundane. Many interns handle only repetitive tasks and have limited authority to make real decisions. Some are used for the benefit of the school and their skill development suffers.

The quality of the mentoring relationship is a considerable factor in the personal and professional growth of an intern. Good principals may not be good mentors. Mentors may be to protective of their school or control, or have a personal agenda to fill. The intern may see only a limited perspective of leadership promoted by the mentor. On the contrary, interns may be asked to do too much or become too dependant on their mentor.

There is no real data on the long term benefits of internships either. There is no certainty beyond the comments of the interns themselves that such activities build better leaders. Even with an excellent internship, nothing can totally prepare the intern for the realities of administrative life. An intern and now a practicing administrator states, "This job breaks over your head like a wave. Every two seconds thereís another one. You never get your breath" (Cordiero & Sloan, 1995, p. 20).

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The Practical Experience

I proposed to spend several months with an experienced principal to test the validity of the premise that an internship could serve as a practical preparation ground for leadership training. In participating in this experience, I hoped to increase my qualifications and gain practical knowledge that I could apply to my own position as principal. After a month of searching it became increasingly difficult to find a mentor who was totally comfortable with the objectives for the experience. As a result of the search, I agreed to serve as intern to the principal of a large rural Grade 7-12 school even with reservations about the amount of authority I would be given and his uneasiness with my presence at the school. I was told that I would probably not be too involved with the students, I would have limited authority and in no way would he permit me to jeopardize the relationship he had built with the students, staff and community over the last two years. He suggested that I remain flexible and see how things worked out.

The practicum began in late August and concluded at the end of November. I spent twenty five days at the school, averaging about three days a week although I did spend five days at three other schools as well to gain a different perspective of leadership. The total amount of time for the experience was thirty one days.

All of my administrative duties were performed at the initial school of choice. At the end of a day in the field, I prepared a journal entry, reflecting on what occurred and my feelings concerning the dayís activities. The journal became a most compelling document of


As result of the entries, I was able to make sense of the wave of information and experiences I was introduced to in the field. In addition, I would also reflect with my wife, an experienced teacher and counselor, or other administrators when I found it necessary to pursue another perspective on decisions or issues related to the internship.

As a result of my leadership of three supervision processes, the performance of management tasks as well as observation, discussion and reflection, I discovered three themes:

1) Learning by Doing : Management and Supervision

2) Learning by Observing, Discussing and Reflecting

3) The Importance of Building Human Relationships

1) Learning by Doing

I learned many aspects of the principalís role by actually practicing the tasks of principal. The freedom to supervise three teachers provided an excellent forum to apply different strategies of supervision at three different grade levels. I established a process of supervision where teachers themselves critiqued their own practices and I acted as facilitator of the analysis of their practices. I learned that an administrator can be a constructive supervisor at any grade level and the involvement of the teachers in planning the mode of supervision allowed for creative strategies to formatively help the teachers. I was also able to tie some theory from a graduate class in supervision into the process. From this experience, I became very aware of the overall benefits of clinical supervision as well as its shortcomings. It proved to be a real affirmation of abilities in effective teachers, but was inadequate in changing ingrained habits of teachers if their current practices seemed to be working.

I had the opportunity to become familiar and skilled with many management tasks as well. I became very aware of all the necessary paperwork that needs to be completed for Saskatchewan Education and the Saskatchewan Teachersí Federation as well as Saskatchewan Educationís graduation requirements and class prerequisites. Through the planning of a school academic program and teacher assignment outline for the following year, as well as the construction of a semester timetable, I was able to become skilled in the creation of a total school program. Correspondence letters to the community provided some practice with human relations.

2) Learning through Observation, Discussion and Reflection

The opportunity to observe a principal in action was valuable to discuss practices, reflect on their value and think of possible alternative strategies. Initial observations of my mentorís supervisory approach gave me a basis to compare my own attempts at supervision. I realized the difference between an informal mode of supervision and its benefits as opposed to helping teachers improve their performance as a clinical process tries to address.

My mentor and I had several opportunities to discuss philosophy of leadership and the advantages and disadvantages of different approaches as my practicum unfolded. I tried to

objectively consider the value of a collaborative administrative style, an approach that current literature supports. After observing this style in a school setting, I was convinced it was the kind of style I would be most comfortable using. Teachers responded with enthusiasm if given the opportunity to participate in any process. Many other human relationship issues arose that I was able to reflect about and determine if the interaction or strategy to solve the problem was effective. These provided for me a multitude of experiences that helped me develop a set of guiding beliefs about administrative practice.

Observation and the ensuing discussion with my mentor provided the forum to examine several leadership issues such as goal setting and development of a vision. Just having the opportunity to watch teachers at work, I came to realize the merit of preparation time as teachers without any struggled to prepare lessons from new curriculum and adapt for individual students. By spending a morning with a vice-principal of a large high school, it became obvious to me that attendance issues are a worthwhile choice of time.

At times, I addressed issues that I would have seen from a totally different perspective as a teacher and fully understood the difficult position a principal has to face. In the area of supervision, I always thought a principal should be supportive and helpful, but I now understood that competency also has to be considered. I realized that administrators have to walk a tightrope at times and make some very difficult decisions.

Reflection proved to be a key component of my experience, through journal writing and discussions with my mentor, other teachers and other administrators. At times I would have been lost without the opportunity to reflect with my wife, an experienced teacher and guidance counselor. She helped me see different perspectives on my experiences and encouraged me to seek out different opinions when I was not comfortable with a given method. Other professionals helped me see different perspectives on various events, and encouraged me to think about other avenues of handling a situation. Many times I would ponder over several different opinions. Without the opportunity to reflect with other professionals, I ran the risk of becoming mired in rigid thinking.

Unfortunately, the emphasis on observation also proved to shortchange the experience. I was not given the opportunity to experiment with many of my newly formed beliefs about leadership in a real life administrative setting to see if they were realistic and productive alternatives to existing practices. My mentor could have been the safety net to help me explore my ideas and guide me toward using practices that work best for me. By assigning me to the role of observer, he was confirming how his methods were the best alternative rather than coaching me to discover my own beliefs. As a result of the observation emphasis, I was not able to truly experience the role of administrator for myself. I had the opportunity to "play" at some management tasks, but not live the total life of a principal.

3) The Importance of Building Human Relationships

I was able to build some human relationships through my work with the supervision process. It forced me to practice my ability to motivate, inspire and critically analyze other professionals in a way that would help them become better teachers. I was successful in developing a close working relationship with the teachers in the supervision process because I worked collaboratively with them. However, I was unsuccessful in developing a close professional relationship with other staff members due, I feel, to the limited responsibility I was given in dealing with students, staff members and the community.

Authority was a concern even before the internship began. I felt I needed some power of responsibility to effectively work through real administrative situations. Without the ability to make

some decisions within the school autonomously from my mentor principal, I felt I would be relegated to a "puppet" position, acting under the will and direction of the principal. It became clear as the internship progressed that my concerns were justified. I was given no responsibility for the operation of the school due to my mentorís concerns about jeopardizing relationships he had built, and I was not invited to assume any role in situations that involved the director. I became the shadow of the principal, following him around in various situations, observing and collecting information, eventually discussing my thoughts with him or other professionals. Because of the ambiguous nature of my position, it appeared to me that the staff did not accept me as a staff member, or as an administrator. .I was more like a research visitor, gathering information for a university study. My relationship with them never solidified into a professional working association based on trust. They accepted my presence in the school, but not into their inner circle of confidence.

The amount of time I spent in the school was also a factor in developing positive human relationships. The flexible time schedule for the internship seemed to work out on the surface, but deep down, because I did not attend the school regularly, the staff and students really did not accept me as part of the team. Trust develops over time and I was not there long enough to develop trust to a high level.

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What I Learned About Internships

The purpose of the internship was to discover whether it had any value in the preparation of school principals and whether it could complement the leadership development of graduate university programs. Even though it had some limitations, it demonstrated that internships can be a valuable training ground for aspiring principals.

The internship was an excellent opportunity to practice and evaluate some leadership strategies within a collegial environment. Even though my leadership role was limited to the supervision process, it was valuable in allowing the experimentation with several different types of approaches in a non-threatening relationship with teachers. It allowed for the tying of theory with practice and some opportunity to try some innovative ideas of my own. I felt I sharpened my human relations abilities in a leadership capacity, and feel more confident now to assume that role.

The internship was also instrumental in providing the forum to reflect on management and leadership issues which has helped me develop a repertoire of beliefs that will guide me in future leadership positions. I had the chance to practice and become competent and familiar with front line administrative duties critical to the operation of a school as well as assess my strengths as a school leader. The freedom to shadow several administrators provided numerous occasions to reflect on leadership style and encourage the formation of my own preferred style.

Several facets of the internship as it worked out were a disappointment. It appeared that my internship was not taken as seriously as teacher internships -- a concern for legalities prevented it. There are legal concerns in teacher internships, but that does not obstruct the intern from assuming responsibility in the classroom under the guidance of a cooperating teacher. Teacher interns are given this responsibility because it is needed to gain the knowledge, skills and confidence to adequately learn the job. The same could have been true for my internship. I needed a broader base of experience actually living the position to build my skills and confidence to a high level. According to the literature, many interns are given only a limited perspective on the real world of principal. I feel I discovered less about leadership than I could have because I was on the outside much of the time. I was not given the opportunity to perform many leadership functions that are instrumental in the big scheme of school leadership nor much responsibility in dealing with people. My mentor brought to my attention late in the practicum that I needed to strengthen my skills in human liaisons. I would have liked to have had more opportunity to actually practice my skills in this area if this were the case.

The importance of ongoing evaluation was neglected somewhat in my internship. Interns need the feedback necessary to improve their skills in effective leadership or human relations and time to improve those skills. It was unfortunate that my mentor brought to my attention so late in the internship what he considered was a weakness when I had no opportunity to work on improving my skills in this area.

The literature purports that a mentor can learn as much as he teaches. In my situation, I feel my mentorís goal was to teach me the skills of effective administration. We discussed very little theory from my completed university graduate courses and I had little opportunity to apply that knowledge to the school setting. Consequently, I do not think my mentor learned very much from the process.

Another key element of successful internships are mutual and agreeable expectations. My expectations were clear but I was convinced to remain flexible. In doing so, I ceased to control my own destiny and left my mentor to decide what tasks I should perform. I often waited on a daily basis to see what I could accomplish. It was difficult to assume a leadership role when I was working under my mentorís lead. As a result, I did not accomplish or learn as much as I could have. Despite its limitations, the internship has helped me become much more accustomed to the role of principal and I feel much more confident in securing a position of my own. It provided the "hands on" experience necessary to prepare me for realistic concerns that principals face on a daily basis, concerns that were discussed in my graduate classes but not truly understood until they were lived. I have practiced many of the skills necessary to be an effective principal and reflected on management and leadership of schools from a practical real life perspective. The internship has prepared me to assume a leadership position of my own with the confidence and familiarity of experience. I realize that administration is indeed a challenge, but a challenge that I am willing , able and looking forward to facing. I propose that all aspiring principals be given the opportunity to "try on the hat" of administrator through a internship program to adequately prepare them for the rigors of the job.

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Recommendations for an Internship Program

1) Reflection is a crucial part of any internship to provide time for evaluation of situations and actions. Every effort must be made to ensure that interns, as well as mentors and advisors, have the opportunity to discuss and reflect over workplace questions, situations and problems. This allows the intern the ability to evaluate different models of thought and attach some meaning to their experiences. They can then transfer those ideas to a position of their own. If several aspiring leaders are interning at the same time, the opportunity exists to bring them together to discuss workplace situations.

2) Mutual and agreeable expectations and on-going evaluation are essential to ensure the internship is encouraging the professional development of the intern as well as the mentor. Interns need to be clear of their responsibilities and parameters so they can take control of their own learning in accordance with adult learning principles. Furthermore, interns need the assurance that the internship will involve activities and duties which will enhance their professional growth before committing to a particular mentor. After successful initiation of the process, evaluation needs to occur on a regular basis. A prearranged meeting between faculty advisor, intern and mentor should occur at least twice before the end of the internship to discuss progress and plans for future experiences. Meetings can assess current strengths and weaknesses and suggest areas of improvement.

3) Authority and responsibility are important components of living the actual life of a principal. An intern cannot experience the role completely by simply observing and discussing events. Interns need to be given the authority to perform the duties of a principal under the guidance of a mentor, and the responsibility to take charge of their own experience. They must be trusted to have the capability to operate as an administrator. To assure directors and boards of education worried about legalities associated with a non-employee having responsibility within the school, universities need to assure potential partners in the program that the internship is a legitimate practical complement to existing programs such as Masterís Degrees in Educational Administration. It could be viewed with the same confidence as teacher internships.

4) Mentor selection must be considered when planning a program because it will strongly impact the quality of the experience for the intern. The university needs to discover potential mentor principals who come recommended for their excellent leadership and management capabilities and who are willing to give an intern an enlightening experience. As a result of the search for potential mentors, the university could develop a pool of candidates and more easily match interns with compatible mentors. As an added incentive, cooperating principals could be given graduate class credit for their participation in the program.

5) University coordinators of internships cannot assume that once interns and mentors are paired that a successful experience will result. Mentors and interns need to be involved in training programs to build a strong relationship and help them develop goals for the experience. Internship seminars can focus on topics such as effective communication, mentoring relationships, goal setting, leadership and decision making. In this way, interns and mentors are very clear about expectations for the program.

6) The period of time an intern spends in the field must remain flexible but needs to be established prior to the start of the internship. A full time internship for a semester (four months) would be ideal for the development of trust within the school. But this might be difficult to achieve when it is a non- paying proposition. I recommend the experience be a minimum of two hundred hours to a maximum of a semester. Interns and mentors can select the time option that best suits all parties involved.

7) The Masterís Degree requirement for the mentor may limit the chance of finding a suitable and compatible mentor. The intern needs to learn from the practical experience of the principal, gleaned from years in the field. Technically, a principal with only one year of experience could qualify for the position of mentor, whereas a person with twenty or more years might not. Interns could be missing valuable sources of knowledge and practical expertise with the universityís requirement. I recommend that the potential mentor have at least five years of administrative experience, with any post graduate training a bonus. This would also help the mentor as they could gain some insights into current graduate theory.

8) The opportunity needs to be made available to interns to work with and observe a number of experienced principals. They are then exposed to several different leadership and management practices that can help them develop a philosophy of practice that will be their own.

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Concluding Thoughts

With the growing number of experienced administrators reaching an age of retirement in the next ten years, it is becoming vitally important to examine the need to prepare new administrators as well as use the knowledge of experience to our best advantage. The administrative internship can provide the practical complement to existing academic programs. Through participation in such a program, aspiring administrators are better prepared for the tasks of management and are more likely to develop a vision and lead toward school improvement. Mentors can share their knowledge of leadership and help with practical solutions to current problems. By building better leaders, educators have a better chance of addressing the ever increasing demands for improvements in education.

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