Preparing Iowa's Principals

Photo of a Principalship student participating in "A Day in the Office"

Imagine you’re a principal sitting behind your desk and seated across from you is a parent irate that their child was not selected for the National Honor Society. Or perhaps you’re sitting across from a teacher who believes that a colleague was selected for a position simply because he or she is your friend outside of work. Maybe it's a teacher's husband convinced that his wife is having an affair with a colleague.

Whatever the situation, you know you’re facing a challenge. But for students in UNI’s principalship program, this is literally just another “Day in the Office.”

The “Day in the Office” practice began ten years ago at UNI and was created to provide principalship students with an authentic experience handling a difficult conversation. It is but one component of a principalship program that has helped educate school leaders from across the state of Iowa.

The volunteers who fulfill the roles of office visitors consist of campus faculty and staff and even former principalship students, and each have been prepared with a different pre-determined scenario – while the students have no idea what to expect.Each student is assigned the role of a principal and placed in a mock office set up on stage in one of the theater spaces available on campus. The students then spend 5 to 7 minutes navigating a conversation with a visitor to their office, while their professor and peers observe from the audience. Practicing administrators are also invited to observe and provide insight and feedback.

“I think it has developed into one of the foundational pieces of our program,” said Nick Pace, the department head for Educational Leadership and Postsecondary Education. Pace served as the coordinator for the principalship program before handing the reins to associate professor Timothy Gilson a year ago, and was instrumental in introducing “Day in the Office” to the program.

Assistant professor Susan Alborn-Yilek is currently transitioning into the program coordinator role, taking over for Gilson.

Tara Estep, now the principal at Hansen Elementary School in Cedar Falls, was among the first principalship students to experience “Day in the Office,” and it remains an indelible part of the education that she received here.

“We were anxious. We were excited. We were a little scared,” said Estep, recalling her experience. “The most learning came from the reflection, conversation, and opportunity to process situations. I left that day feeling more prepared than I had the day before and felt ready to tackle the situations in real life.”

The two-year principalship program takes place largely online via video conferencing, so the program coordinators have taken advantage when students are on campus for nine days during their first summer in the program. The practical experience provided by “Day in the Office” has proven invaluable.

“If we send you out into a principalship somewhere and you’re able to cite all of the right authors and all of the right ideas and all of the right things that are popular to talk about, that’s really good,” said Pace. “But if you can’t do something with that on a Tuesday afternoon, we haven’t really done our job.”

This fall, the principalship program will see its second highest enrollment ever, which is undoubtedly a by-product of the program’s statewide reputation for providing meaningful learning experiences.

And “Day in the Office” is just one example of a program dedicated to ensuring its students are well prepared for the career path ahead of them.