Hackman , D., Russell, F. S., & Elliott, R. J. (1999). Making administrative internships meaningful.
Planning and Changing, 30 (1), 2-14.
MAKING ADMINISTRATIVE INTERNSHIPS MEANINGFUL
By Donald Hackman, Faith S. Russell, and Robert J. Elliott
The role of field-based experiences as an integral component of principal
preparation programs has long been advocated within the educational administration
profession. During internship experiences, the student applies classroom theory to
real-life situations within the local school context. The internship’s purpose is “to assure
the leadership required to support our schools. Internships can link intellectual
competence with outstanding performance, if thoughtfully planned and conducted in
stimulating settings” (Milstein, Bobroff, & Restine, 1991, p. 6).
Carefully crafted clinical experiences provide multiple benefits for the student,
university, and school district (Milstein et al., 1991). As a result of their immersion in
administration, students learn practical applications of classroom knowledge. Through
observing field experiences, university personnel can design preparation programs that
include opportunities to experience best practices occurring in the field. School
personnel can observe and evaluate interns’ performance in the work setting while
considering them for potential administrative employment.
The typical principal candidate is a part-time student, employed as a fulltime
teacher, who is financially unable or unwilling to return to school on a fulltime basis.
Consequently, clinical experiences are frequently designed around working students’
schedules. As early as 1960, the American Association of School Administrators
expressed concern with the competing demands placed on the student, noting many
weaknesses in the instructional program could be traced to the part-time student
model. It is difficult to provide quality experiences that permit theory-practice
connections when the student is juggling employment, graduate study, clinical
requirements, and family obligations. Completing internship activities before school,
after school, during teacher preparation periods, and/or times when school is not in
session makes it improbable that the intern will gain a comprehensive understanding of
the principal’s multi-faceted role. Frantically shifting between teacher and principal
roles limits the intern’s effectiveness in either position. Erratic, sometimes unrelated
activities reinforce a mindset of going through the motions, as the intern passively logs
hours, rather than completing quality experiences designed to fully prepare her/him
for administrative challenges.
Over the past decade, educational administration faculties have devoted
increased attention to the clinical component as they contemplate the restructuring of
principal preparation programs. Underscoring the central role of this experience,
Milstein (1993) notes:
The establishment of a more structured set of field experiences for future
educational administrators is centrally important to the entire program
redesign effort. In particular, efforts must be made to increase the quality of
the experience and the time-on-task for the clinical component of the
program. (p. 193)
In a survey of member institutions of the University Council for Educational
Administration (UCEA), Paulter (1990) found internships ranged between 100 and
800-plus clock hours, averaging 280 hours. Institutions participating in the Danforth
Principal Preparation Program required an average of 632 hours of field experience,
roughly equivalent to one semester of full-time work (Cordeiro, Krueger, Parks,
Restine, & Wilton, 1993).
Although numerous publications have documented the importance of the clinical
experience, they typically have been authored by professors. This article provides a
fresh perspective by reflecting on one field experience by all three central figures in the
clinical activity-intern, mentor principal, and supervising professor. The article begins
by describing internship requirements used in Illinois, then shares one student’s
experiences through four “critical incidents” that occurred during her internship
placement. Suggestions for mentors, interns, and supervising professors are presented,
and the article concludes by providing educational administration faculties with
recommendations for improving internship activities.
The Internship Experience
The internship activities described in this article were completed in Illinois.
Although clinical experiences arc not a required component of this principal licensure
program, some students include it as an elective offering, earning three semester
credits and completing 144 hours of field-based experiences. In addition to on-site
experiences, interns engage in a program of professional readings directly related to
their field experiences, compile a journal documenting their activities, write four
discussion papers which reflect on critical incidents occurring during the internship, and
prepare a portfolio documenting the completion of goals and objectives collaboratively
identified for this experience.
As a student in the principal preparation program, Faith Russell selected an
internship experience to broaden her understanding of the principal’s role. An
experienced teacher, Faith was employed as a violence prevention/substance abuse
program developer for two school districts. Unlike most teaching assignments, Faith’s
position permitted a certain amount of flexibility for scheduling her internship hours.
Robert Elliott, the mentor principal, was completing his fourth year as a high school
principal; this was his first experience serving as an administrative mentor. Donald
Hackmann, supervising professor, had previously served as a building-level
administrator for 12 years.
Faith’s internship placement site was selected because she had taught there
earlier and then returned as a Student Assistance Counselor. One of five high schools in
a community of approximately 100,000, the school serves a diverse student population
of over 1,500. The school’s student diversity, administrative structure with shared
responsibilities among four building administrators, site-based management, and
history of addressing student support needs were all attractive to Faith, since they
matched her beliefs about the characteristics of an effective secondary school program.
Operating under an administrative team philosophy, Faith worked closely with not
only the principal but also the assistant principals during this seven-month field
Faith participated in a variety of administrative experiences during her internship
placement, including observing the administrators function in a variety of situations
and settings, managing routine administrative procedures, and handling student
discipline referrals. To provide an intimate perspective of Faith’s experiences, four
“critical incidents” are shared below, in Faith’s words. These incidents were selected, not
because they are significantly different from those typically encountered by secondary
school administrators, but because they provided meaningful insights for Faith during
her internship placement and help to personalize this internship placement for the
Critical Incident #1
After a general orientation, my mentor invited me to a closed meeting the evening of
my first day. The superintendent and high school ad administrators were meeting with
the parents of several students whose suspected gang involvement had resulted in
numerous disruptive activities at school. When I arrived at the meeting, my immediate
observation was that the students and parents were minorities, and all but one
administrators were not.
The superintendent, who facilitated the meeting, experienced difficulty getting all
participants to honor the rules of order. The parents were upset. Although each parent
who attended the meeting had arrived with the goal of preventing their child from being
disciplined, the parents did not present a united front. Each was vocally and vehemently
advocating for his/her child, most often at the expense of the other students, and their
suspicion of the other parents and the district administrators was apparent. They
charged the other students with gang involvement, accused the administrators of
inadequate discipline, and intimated that race played a role in the identification of their
children as gang members.
No outcome could have been mutually satisfactory to everyone involved in that
meeting. Yet, oddly enough, each person seemed to leave that meeting with a common
conclusion–You can’t talk to those people.
Critical Incident #2
Midway through my internship my mentor assigned me the responsibility of
substitute administrator during the absence of two assistant principals, who were
presenting at a four-day national conference. I was provided with the office used by one
of the administrators and her walkie- talkie. I had mixed feelings about this assignment.
Although I was pleased for the opportunity to be an acting administrator and intimately
involved in the school ~ operations, I was uncertain as to what this meant. I had observed
several disciplinary sessions the assistant principal had conducted. I had listened to her
describe her approach to a teacher evaluation she was completing. She was the sponsor of
a program I was trying to develop for attendance improvement. Yet, I knew little about
her daily responsibilities or how she approached them.
On the first morning that I occupied her chair as the official substitute assistant
principal, I did little more titan sit. At one point, an attendance secretary asked if I knew
how to process attendance referrals. “No, ” I answered simply, and my inadequacy was
confirmed. I had not been trained to use the district’s computer attendance program.
One assistant principal duty that I knew how to do was to hold the walkie-talkie and
stand in the Student Center during passing time between classes. During the four days
of my substitution, I did not miss a passing time. I tried to speak with students and
faculty as they walked by on their way to their next class, but most students wondered
who I was and why I was there. This was one of iny more awkward internship
Critical Incident #3
The assistant principals and I were enjoying a calm lunch in the faculty cafeteria
when an extracurricular sponsor hurried in, looking for the administrators. She needed
their advice regarding an incident the evening before. During practice the previous
afternoon, one of the students had participated in a crude and vulgar act. (in the
interests of student confidentiality, the exact nature of the offense will not be described.)
The sponsor had initially informed the student lie would only need to write a letter of
apology, but now she was having second thoughts. The three administrators agreed a
more stringent response was necessary and decided to consult the principal for his
We marched to my mentor’s office with purpose. After learning the situation, he
agreed a stronger consequence was needed. He directed the assistants to determine an
appropriate number of suspension days for the student, then he left the room. One
assistant suggested five days, the others agreed, and he sent for the student to tell him
the news. After a 10-minute conference, the assistant opened his office door and asked me
to talk with the student, who was very upset. He suggested I use my counseling skills.
When I entered the office, the student was hunched over sobbing deeply. He looked like a
vulnerable, frightened child. I explained who I was and asked if I could sit next to him. I
told him I was sorry for the situation, but he had done a “dopey” thing, which kids his
age sometimes do. Now he would need to take the consequences. I said that it probably
felt like the end of world now, but it would be okay again. The student replied that, the
had never been in trouble in his life and that his birthday was the following week.
Because he was suspended, he would be unable to finish Driver’s education and would
not receive his license. Also, his relatives were coming from out-of-state to watch him
participate in the extracurricular activity from which he was now suspended. I told him I
would share that information with someone but not to get his hopes up that anything was
going to change.
I asked the principal if this new information made a difference; it did. He said he
would take care of Driver’s Education. The student might get his license a few days late
but would still receive it. I told the administrators this student was vulnerable to the full
weight of their sanctions; he had no defenses, no toughness built up. I then returned to
the student. He explained the sponsor had said her sanction was the only one he would
receive. I once again told him I needed to leave for a few minutes. I returned to the
principal and shared this new information. The administrators reduced the suspension to
three days, thus making the student be eligible for the activity that weekend. The
assistant principal who had originally spoken with the student then left the office to share
the good news.
I later asked the assistant principal if he was satisfied with the outcome. He said he
was and that the student was very happy with it. A three-day suspension was a reprieve
after the threat office. I also spoke with another assistant who had jokingly suggested that
I was overly protective of this student. I said, “I am not soft. I’m fair ” I truly believed
that I was advocating for affair response to this student’s situation. But I suspected that
some of the administrators thought I might not be tough enough for this job.
Critiacal Incident #4
As an important component of my internship experience, I attempted to develop a
program that addressed some of the school’s attendance problems. Attendance
Improvement Motivation (AIM) had a worthy goal and some worthwhile components,
but it never fully bloomed In November, the second month of my internship, two
assistant principals approached me with the attendance project idea. This suggestion
suited my counseling background, and I immediately undertook an education literature
review. This search revealed little useful information, so I worked from the risk
minimization literature. AIM would include a peer goal setting group, a teacher mentor
for each student, and attendance incentives.
The sponsoring assistant principal identified all students who had missed 15 or more
days by mid-December I then asked the administrators to deselect any students they
believed would be inappropriate. The remaining 120 students were my candidates. I
presented the program’s framework to the school ~ Student Responsibility Committee.
These teachers provided some good insights and suggestions, which I incorporated into
My first obstacle hinted at the difficulty of the task I had undertaken. I could not
contact the students at school because, more often than not, they were absent. I then
began calling students at home, where I had much greater success reaching them. I
described the program to them and invited them to attend an introductory meeting. Some
agreed As the first meeting date approached, I appraised the building administrators of
my progress. I sent a memo-, .,) teachers describing the program and inviting referrals.
Finally, I arranged a meeting location and the first incentive of a pizza lunch.
Out of the pool of 120 student candidates, I was able to contact 40. Although 37
agreed to attend the first session, only 13 did. The second session had fewer students
in attendance, and the third, interrupted by three weeks of achievement testing and
spring break, had none. I wrote a final report on the demise of the program and reflected
on the experience, trying to identify what I would do differently next time.
Infusing Meaning into the Internship
As the three participants in this clinical activity reflected on the critical incidents
described above, as well as Faith’s internship experience in its totality, we identified
several observations that would improve the quality of future internship experiences.
These observations are categorized as suggestions for the mentor, intern, and
Suggestions for the Administrative Mentor
•Transition the intern formally into and out of the school environment. As an
outsider to the school, the intern should be gracefully introduced into the school
environment. Interns will be interacting with students, faculty, staff, and parents, who
will want to know about them, their professional background, and their school
responsibilities. Introductions may occur at a faculty meeting, Open House, student
assembly, and through the school newsletter. The school community should also be
informed when the intern completes the experience. As noted in the second critical
incident, Faith had not been formally introduced to the student body when she served
as substitute assistant principal for four days. This resulted in a certain amount of role
confusion for both Faith and the students.
•Provide quality, challenging experiences. Mentors must be willing to delegate
responsibilities (Milstein et al., 199.). Before assigning a task, the mentor must ascertain
if it will be a product learning experience or if it is merely “busy work.” Clerical activities
do not make appropriate intern assignments. In addition, one or more long-term
projects should be assigned, such as updating a crisis-management plan, assisting with
construction of the master schedule, or working with the department chairs to develop
budget requests for the upcoming year.
Faith’s intern activities included a wide range of experiences. She attended
Weekly administrator meetings, initially listening but eventually contributing to
discussions on policy, discipline, building renovations, budget considerations, and
school improvement activities. She shadowed administrators, observing the assistant
principals engaged in activities related to scheduling, budgeting, and discipline. She
observed the teacher evaluation process and then conducted evaluations of two student
teachers, including pre-and post-conferences, and participated in interviews for staff
positions. For a long-term project, Faith assumed responsibility for the Attendance
Improvement Motivation program described in the fourth critical incident. Even
though this program was not completely successful, Faith was provided with an
invaluable opportunity to develop a program from its inception. By reflecting back on
unsuccessful components of the AIM program, she also learned pitfalls to avoid with
The second critical incident illustrates the pitfalls of part-time internship
placements, since they are limited by time constraints. Invariably, there must be
tradeoffs of depth versus breadth of experience. School administrators must become
proficient in a vast range of skill areas, but it is not possible to train the part-time intern
in all areas. Consequently, the mentor, intern, and supervisor must collaboratively
identify a limited number of internship goals, so that the intern will be sufficiently
trained in these initial skills.
•Assume the role of a true mentor. The intern should be included in activities
that provide an insider’s perspective into the principal’s life. The mentor must be a
teacher, explaining the reasoning behind any actions, so the intern can follow the
mentor’s decision-making process. Mentors should discuss openly the rewards and
sacrifices inherent in their positions, sharing how the job has affected their personal
lives, both positively and negatively. Sharing personal anecdotes can illustrate common
mistakes made by beginning administrators. Being accessible also permits the intern to
seek the mentor’s advice.
Over a two-year period, the previous high school administrative team had
relocated to other positions, so Faith had a unique opportunity to observe a new group
of administrators discovering how to work as a team. In addition, each of the three
assistant principals had been assigned significant curricular responsibilities as well as
other major assignments, such as budget development, master scheduling, and school
improvement. Consequently, conversations in administrative meetings involved team
decision-making, consideration of various options, and active reflection on problems
facing the school. Faith was included in this circle, where she was able to observe the
administrators’ thought processes, gain their trust, and seek out their advice.
Suggestions for the Intern
•Be a “sponge.’ The intern must be open to new experiences that advance
his/her professional development, even though these activities might be challenging,
distasteful, or stressful. Faith’s first intern activity involved observing the emotionally
charged parent meeting described in the first critical incident, which provided a frank,
uncensored introduction to one of the less desirable duties of administrators. Observing
experienced administrators’ skills with handling difficult situations can be illuminating,
especially when a reflective discussion is held between the mentor and intern after the
activity. The intern can later be provided opportunities to practice the learned skills
through appropriate structured experiences.
• Be professional, efficient, and dependable. The intern will occasionally be called
upon to represent the school at meetings or through supervisory responsibilities, such
as when Faith was called upon to serve as assistant principal for four days. Even though
she was not fully trained in all aspects of administration, she fulfilled her assigned
responsibilities professionally and to the best of her ability. This experience made both
Faith and her mentor aware of gaps in her on-the-job training, so she could learn these
critical skills during the remainder of her internship.
• Be proactive and assertive. At the initial stages of the internship, the mentor will
closely supervise the intern work. As the intern becomes acclimated to the school and
increasingly proficient, the mentor should gradually reduce the amount of direct
supervision, ultimately expecting the intern to be self-sufficient and a fully contributing
member of the administrative team, For example, as noted in the third critical incident,
the high school administrators recognized that Faith possessed exemplary counseling
skills, and she was called upon to talk with the student who was being disciplined. She
became intimately involved in this disciplinary procedure, became an advocate for the
student, and was successful in having his suspension reduced. Through her
participation in previous disciplinary referrals, she had gained confidence in her ability
to work with students and was willing to express her views regarding disciplinary
consequences, even though they might be in conflict with the views of other
•Consult with the university supervisor for support or advice. Sometimes the
intern may wish to consult persons outside the building for their perspective, and the
supervisor is a natural resource. Occasionally tile intern may decide he/she is more
interested in a different level (for example, a middle level assignment instead of high
school), and a change in placement may be appropriate. It is important to communicate
with the university supervisor, who can decide whether to intervene, to help the intern
work through areas of misunderstanding, or to initiate a change of placement.
At one point during her experience, Faith questioned whether other schools
might be addressing similar is–s as those she had experienced. In addition to the female
gang activity, at) aberrations that year included tensions between the teachers’ union
and administration, two student deaths, and a threatened lawsuit. With her approval,
her professor arranged for her to observe administrators of two high schools in
communities with characteristics different from her placement. These visits proved to
be very revealing for Faith. She learned that every school has its
own culture and unique challenges. She returned from these observations with
renewed confidence in her ability to effectively lead a school and was reinvigorated as
she continued her internship experiences.
Suggestion s for the University Supervisor
•Maintain open communication channels. while being unobtrusive. The
supervisor should clearly define all parties’ responsibilities at an initial meeting before
the placement is confirmed, then monitor progress, remaining accessible to the intern
and mentor if needed. Reynolds (1997) discovered that less than one in five
administrators need or desire close university supervision of the internship process, no
doubt due to their all-consuming workloads. However, the supervisor should
intervene promptly if the intern is not participating in experiences related to identified
goals or if the intern is not fulfilling program expectations.
After an initial goal-setting meeting with Faith and Robert, Don’s on-site visits
were limited in deference to their workloads. Robert and Don maintained contact by
telephone and e-mail communications. Faith and Don met at regular intervals, with
Don carefully reading her journals and reflective papers, providing written responses
or telephone calls, and occasionally suggesting professional readings and additional
activities to enrich her experiences.
•Provide constructive feedback to the intern and the mentor principal. The
intern’s journal can be a highly effective means to reinforce learning experiences and
pose reflective questions. If the principal is not providing adequate feedback to the
intern or is not assigning high quality tasks, or if the intern is not completing his/her
responsibilities at a satisfactory level of proficiency, the supervisor should tactfully
Since this internship experience represented a first mentor experience for Robert
and the other three administrative team members, it was as much a learning experience
for them as it was for Faith. Providing a list of potential activities assisted with the
process of identifying and selecting quality tasks and was especially helpful for Robert.
Improving the Quality of Administrative Internship Programs
Because of the major time investments in the clinical experience by the intern,
mentor, and supervisor, educational administration program faculties must continually
examine methods to improve the quality of this activity. The following suggestions are
offered to help ensure that internships will prepare individuals for success as school
1. The internship must be an integral component of the principal preparation
program. Milstein (1990) cautions that clinical experiences are frequently an
afterthought, are typically not preplanned, and are rarely well coordinated. Successful
participation in an internship experience must be required for completion of a principal
preparation program and subsequent administrative licensure, since the field “is where
interns learn how site administrators manage and lead” (Milstein et al., 199 1, p. 45).
Since most individuals enrolled in administrator preparation programs are
employed as full-time teachers, educational administration faculties should structure
internship requirements in Ways that strike a balance between the demands of the
university and the employer. In light of the nationwide shortage of certified individuals
willing to assume principalships (Barker, 1997), school district administrative personnel
may consider establishing paid intern positions or providing release time for teachers
enrolled in administrator preparation programs to complete internship activities.
2. The internship must provide a longitudinal and complete perspective
the principal’s responsibilities. Clinical experiences must be of sufficient duration to
provide a comprehensive understanding of the principal’s multiple roles and
responsibilities. The National Policy Board for Educational Administration (NPBEA,
1989) recommends that internships should last a minimum of one year, while Gresso
(1993) recommends one-semester placements. Year-long internships permit the intern
to experience activities at both the beginning and end of the academic year. Blocks of
time devoted exclusively to clinical activities are necessary to help the intern develop a
comprehensive understanding of administrative routines and daily tasks; learn to
identify and solve problems within the context of a dynamic, changing organization;
see projects through to completion; and experience the consequences of one’s decisions.
Senge (1990) cautions, “we learn best from experience but we never directly experience
the consequences of many of our most important decisions” (p. 23). Recognizing that
old problems can resurface throughout the semester or year in new forms is a skili best
developed through experience.
3. Careful selection of the field site is critical, and placement at multipl field sites
should be encouraged The intern must be matched with a compatible mentor and
placed in a school that provides appropriate growth-evoking activities (Cordeiro &
Smith-Sloan, 1995). The mentor should understand his/her vital role in serving as a role
model and preparing the intern for the challenges of administration. Daresh and Playko
(1992) caution that “field-based programs are valuable only if they avoid the temptation
to show newcomers ‘how we do it around here,’ without giving an opportunity to
construct better ways of ‘doing it”‘ (p. 51). The mentor must be committed to
providing- an outstanding learning environment.
The majority of clinical experiences occur in the same schools where the intern
teaches (Daresh & Playko, 1992), most likely because this convenient arrangement
allows the intern to maximize the time available in a normal workday. However, in
order to provide broad-based experiences, students need to observe administrators
working in a variety of settings, including those outside the intern’s place of work.
Milstein (1993) notes, “This diversity permits interns to observe different leadership
styles and gain clearer understandings of aspects of leadership that are unique to
different schools and those that are universally important” (p. 198). Placement options
should include rural and metropolitan settings and a variety of grade levels, with field
sites complementing and expanding the intern’s previous work experiences. Exposure
to multiple administrators working in varied settings assists interns in determining
leadership styles that best match their philosophy and personality.
4. Activities must be authentic administrative experiences, increaring complexity
as the internship progresses. In order to maximize the effectiveness of the clinical
experience, activities should provide interns numerous opportunities to get their hands
dirty, since “it is simplistic to think that merely putting people out into school settings
more frequently will automatically improve the quality of educational leadership in this
country” (Daresh & Playko, 1992, p. 16). Acculturating the intern into the profession
cannot merely be left to chance. Quality hands-on experiences must be identified, with
the intern expected to complete these assignments.
Cordeiro and Smith-Sloan (1995) advise mentors to scaffold opportunities for the
intern, increasing the complexity as the intern gains skill and experience. There is value
in asking the intern to initially shadow the mentor, observing such duties as presenting
at a board of education meeting or handling a crisis situation. These observations can
be infused with meaning when the mentor debriefs with the intern, explaining his/her
thought processes. However, as the internship progresses, the time devoted to active
experiences must far exceed that devoted to passive observations (Milstein, 1990).
5. Connections must be made between knowledge learned in the classroom and
practice in the field. “Learning, in the context of preparation of educational leaders,
takes place most meaningfully when there is opportunity to apply concepts” (Milstein et
al., 1991, p. 5). This theory-practice connection can be facilitated in several ways. First,
the mentor should be asked to relate assigned tasks to the 21 domains of the
knowledge and skill base for principals identified by the NPBEA (1993) or the Interstate
School Leaders Licensure Consortium (1996) standards. At the commencement of the
internship, the student should complete a self-assessment, identifying activities
collaboratively with the mentor that will complement prior experiences and strengthen
perceived weaknesses. Secondly, professors can identify activities that interns are
required to complete during their courses. For example, for a Personnel Administration
course assignment, the intern may be asked to interview teacher applicants alongside
their mentor principal. As interns engage in reflective writing in their daily journals,
they should also connect their field experiences to classroom knowledge. Additionally,
professors can provide opportunities for interns to discuss their ongoing experiences,
either in their university courses or during reflection seminars (Cordeiro &
6. A realistic view of the principal, s responsibilities must be provided. Milstein
(1990) notes that the core purpose of the internship “is to assure the leadership required
to support our schools” (p. 6). This preparation cannot happen if the intern is insulated
from the harsh realities of the principalship. Potential administrators need to experience
confrontational situations, such as conferencing with a hostile parent or working with a
manipulative or marginally competent teacher. They need to know these interactions
occur with some degree of regularity, because they are deciding whether to embark on
an administrative career based on experiencing administrative life through their field
placement. They also need to observe veteran administrators skillfully handling
explosive situations so they can reference these approaches when confronted with
The internship is a valuable experience in the preparation of future
administrators. Each of the three key players must perform his/her role thoughtfully
and effectively in order to serve well the affected students, teachers, school community,
and the profession itself. The descriptions and suggestions in this article are intended to
assist the intern, the mentor principal, and the supervising professor in creating an
optimal experience and a well-prepared administrator for tomorrow’s schools.
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