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Advice for New Principals: Make Sure You Have a Mentor

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Advice for New Principals, Part 3

In our third installment of advice for new principals, Education Week talked to Sue Park, the head of school at Yu Ming Charter School, a high-performing K-8 dual-language Mandarin immersion school in Oakland, Calif.

Park started her career as an elementary teacher in the Los Angeles school district, and until about four years ago, she served as the equivalent of Yu Ming's principal. But as the school's enrollment grew—it now has about 450 students—the program was split into two campuses, with one serving kindergarten to 2nd grade and the other 3rd to 8th grade. Park now serves as the executive director— or head of school—a role akin to that of a superintendent, though she collaborates with the two principals on the academic program.

Previous installments in this series include an interview with Kevin Armstrong, a middle school principal in the Nashville, Tenn., district, and Melissa Hensley, a high school principal in Woodstock, Va.

The interview with Park has been edited for brevity and clarity.


Sue Park has had a slightly unconventional path to the principalship.

She started her career as a 3rd grade teacher in Los Angeles, where some students entered her class not knowing how to read or write, including in their home language. While Park was able to raise their achievement level during the year students spent with her, she worried that the rest of the school system was not similarly set up to ensure that her students would stay on track and succeed.

She thought that was a civil rights violation. So, she decided to go to law school, with a plan to sue school districts to force them to provide students better access to quality education.Thumbnail image for Sue-Park-headshot.jpg

But while she was studying law, Park wanted to return to schools. Within a year of graduating law school, Park enrolled in a principal preparation program at UCLA. 

She practiced for a year before giving two-weeks' notice to take an assistant principal job at Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, which was in its infancy at the time.

"I want to make systems change, but I want to do it from building things that work," Park said. "There are people out there who probably should challenge and tear down things that don't work and that are unjust, but I realized that what feeds me is building things."

At Yu Ming, Park draws on her background in corporate law, her stint as the vice president of state and district relations at Teach For America, and her work as executive director of the Hong Kong's Women's Foundation.

Her commitment to equity helps to frame the work that she does in schools every day, Park said.

"I don't see barriers," Park said. "I see possibilities because I've haven't been in one industry."

EDUCATION WEEK: What's the best advice you received in your first year as a principal or before you started your first principalship?

PARK: It was just how important and critical establishing a culture of learning, improvement, and collaboration is.

Before you can do any substantial work around student outcomes and teacher practice, creating that culture and buy-in among folks—that learning and improvement—is what we do. We are learners. We are constantly in a cycle of improvement, and we do it together. We collaborate. That is truly baseline, most important.

We dedicated [blocks of time] to be able to make that happen. I think we had one morning a week—maybe two and a half hours—that was dedicated professional-development time for the whole team. We also had weekly professional learning time set up for departments and grade levels. We also did a lot of the protocols around the National School Reform [Faculty] practices—creating a "critical friends group"—and those practices among our teachers.

I think it really, really made the difference. And that has been a baseline practice for me ever since, wherever I go. We are getting a lot more sophisticated these days in understanding what we look at to improve our practice. At the time we were using a lot less hard data. We weren't able to collect up-to-the minute, weekly, or trimester reading levels or standard mastery level data like we can now. But we were actually looking at real work samples from students, having teachers bring in work samples from students on a regular basis and doing analyses of them.

We did a practice of peer observation, where we would move the faculty professional learning to a different classroom every week for a dedicated time. The host of that classroom would be able to share a high-leverage instructional practice with the group and that's how we opened the meeting. It was very much about tearing down the walls and doors between each other's rooms, and learning from each other, and seeing each other as a team. These, at the time, were revolutionary. Now this is what everyone does. Anyone who is worth their money at all in any administrative position should be doing this. But at the time it was quite revolutionary.

EW: What do you know now that you wish you'd known in your first year or before you started your first principalship?

PARK: I talked about the importance of the cycle of improvement in learning. But I think what I know now is the importance of relationships and having relationship-based practices and approaches in a school. Deep authentic relationships are the foundation for students, and adult wellness, and academic success.

We have these active relationship-building protocols in our classrooms. These circle practices. Our faculty do these circles. Our students—if you are a kindergartner or an 8th grader—you are in a weekly circle.

We are providing the actual scaffolding and coaching to teachers and students on how to grow in your self-awareness and how to actually build authentic, deep connections and relationships with people.

I think that is a skill that needs to be taught, and that is a skill that students need to get a chance to practice. Adults, too. By doing that we get to the core of what human beings need to do their best risk-taking and learning. If you don't get to that core then everything stays [on the] surface, then no one takes risks, and that means learning and success are not maximized.

I think that I could have accelerated student improvement and learning and academic outcomes even greater than we did if I had known how to build these protocols and practices in every classroom.

Instinctively, I understand—it's just who I am as a person—why building relationships is so important. I work hard to make connections with people, but I thought that's my personal leadership style. But, actually no. It needs to be a sacred practice of all leaders and teachers and students, in rooms, and schools, and learning environments. I just didn't know how to do it. If I had known, I think it would have made even greater gains.

EW: What resource(s) would have made a difference for you in that first year?

PARK: I think the one thing [that would have made a difference] is a dedicated mentor or coach, which I didn't get. Someone who might have been observing my meetings with teachers or my leading a professional development and giving me active feedback after the observation.

I created my own network and my own mentorship. That is what my advice answer is. I had a couple of networks of people that I thought were critical. I had my cohort, who were my parallel people, who were like learning leaders. That's important. But I also had people that I sought out.

If you don't have a coach or a mentor assigned to you or somebody that you think you can learn from, you need to go out and find who you admire the most, who is doing the most inspiring, visionary, cutting-edge things, and highly effective things, and go and make friends with them. I did that.

I found this amazing principal who had multiple gains in South Los Angeles. I was located at the time just west of downtown, but I went to South Los Angeles on a regular basis to observe him in his typical day, to ask him questions. I made my own informal mentorship, but I think that was critical.

I had a supervisor, my boss, who was wonderful. But I think sometimes getting other perspectives helps you really hone your own practices, so that you are not just taking one roadmap, but you've got a couple of roadmaps to choose from.

EW: What words of wisdom do you have for a first-year principal?

PARK: That's the most impactful thing [finding a mentor].That also helps with not letting the job overwhelm you: it's finding that wiser person who is a few years ahead of you, who has been through it.

Making sure that you make the time and space for your professional people but also your personal people, and commune with them frequently, so that you are maintaining your sense of self and values.  And making sure that you are making space for the activities that feed you—whether it's practicing mindfulness or yoga or cooking or the things that keep perspective.

EW: What advice do you have for new principals on how to avoid being overwhelmed by the job?

This profession can be so consuming. You can always be doing something for a child and a family. So learning [that] it isn't a sprint, it's a marathon; you are building a cathedral not a shack. Cathedrals take a hundred years to build, even more. And if you are going to stay in this for the long game, you need to be doing good work, you need to retain that sense of urgency...but also make space for the things that feed you.

I can't say enough about a mindfulness practice. I wish I did a formal meditation sit. But I actually just take mindful moments all the time. [At Yu Ming], we call it a true north practice. It's about mental focus and taking some breaths before a complicated meeting or an irate parent or something that is really stressful. I take some moments for myself, and then I can usually enter in a space that's more empathetic. I also practice yoga. I like cooking. I like spending time with my kids.

The big overarching thing is—I heard someone wise say it— 'we are building cathedrals' right now.  It takes a long time, and there is a lot craftsmanship that's involved in each section. Or you can talk about the marathon versus the sprint analogy, balancing that sense of urgency with understanding what you need to be able to be sustained for the long-haul work.

Photo caption: Sue Park, head of school, Yu Ming Charter School in Oakland, Calif. 

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