Interims’ Role: Steadying the Ship

Interim principals are, by nature, lame ducks. But they can’t act that way.
"The 'interim' title shouldn’t dictate what the leader should be about," says Richard Flanary, director of the Center for Principal Development at the National Association of Secondary School Principals. ``They should accomplish things, go to events. They’re the principal regardless of how long they’re there.”

As school districts deal with a principal shortage that’s only going to get worse, using interim principals to handle vacancies likely will become increasingly common. Those are uncharted waters for some superintendents, who might be wondering how to make the best use of such a situation.

In some instances, interims might function as placeholders, only staying for a few weeks or months—at the most a full school year—until superintendents can find a permanent successor, says Eugene Haycock, executive director of the Kansas Association of Secondary School Principals. Other interims can end up staying for more than a year.

By their very nature, interim principals aren’t permanent appointments. Yet they must function as such. If superintendents choose to go the route of hiring an interim from outside the district, they and other district administrators should make every effort to provide a quick and complete indoctrination, advises David Erlandson, an educational administration professor at Texas A&M University.

That doesn’t necessarily mean just hooking up the interim with central-office staff, though. Incoming principals, interim or not, need to seek out information from all relevant stakeholders, Erlandson says. ``You need to make this person succeed. If they don’t succeed, everybody fails.”

Using retired administrators as interims often solves that problem, he says, because of their experience handling problems. And most aren’t looking to use the interim job as a stepping stone to further their careers. So if the number of work hours don’t cause problems for retirees collecting state pensions, they should make every effort to function as if they were permanent hires, Erlandson says.

That means remaining in constant communication with the district administration and putting in face time at school and district events – just like a district’s permanent principals, Erlandson says.

"This is not a half-time position," he says.

Realistic Goals
Many interims see themselves as utility players, able to keep a school functioning until the real team captain shows up. That’s the attitude Haycock took when he assumed the interim principalship at Halstead High School in Halstead, Kan., with an enrollment of 250 students?

Handling crises as they arise is part of the job description; instituting full-scale reform isn’t, Flanary says.

Haycock wholeheartedly agrees. "The most significant thing that an interim principal does is steady the ship," Haycock says.

With most interim appointments lasting a year or less, there’s scant time to implement full-scale reform. And using an interim to do so is risky, Erlandson says.

So there’s still the lame duck issue. The best way to solve that problem, says Eduardo Carballo, superintendent of the Holyoke, Mass., School District, is to use interim principals for as short a period as possible. Often their employment is necessary but requires prudent use, he says.

"Reform is difficult to do with interim principals," he says. "It’s hard for interim people to muster the support for change at the building level."