Plan a Principal for a Day Program

By Meredith Barnett Communicator January 2014, Volume 37, Issue 5 Principals wear a variety of hats, especially in the midst of today’s rapid changes in education. One way to help your community understand that is to give visitors a chance to try on those roles for a day.

By Meredith Barnett
January 2014, Volume 37, Issue 5

Principals wear a variety of hats, especially in the midst of today’s rapid changes in education. One way to help your community understand that is to give visitors a chance to try on those roles for a day.

This November, nearly 50 officials from the U.S. Department of Education did just that. In the second annual Principal Shadowing Program, jointly organized by NAESP, policymakers shadowed K-12 principals to understand the daily challenges principals face. Carl Bencal, principal of Seven Locks Elementary in Bethesda, Maryland, says hosting a shadow gave him the opportunity to showcase his school, staff, and students.

“The visit was a fabulous experience,” says Bencal. “[My shadow] saw what I see every day: small group instruction with differentiated tasks, collaborative learning, creative and critical thinking challenges, and engaging learning opportunities.”

Organizing your own shadowing day or a Principal For a Day program allows community leaders, business owners, and any other interested individuals to experience the realities of your school. Most importantly, visits can be helpful tools for strengthening relationships with local and state elected officials. It’s important for lawmakers to connect names and faces to education policies, says principal Emil Carafa, who’s hosted visitors in his school, Washington Elementary in Lodi, New Jersey.

“Lots of principals do not realize they are leaders of their community, not just their school building,” he says, stressing that by engaging with lawmakers, principals can be educational spokespersons.

Hosting a shadowing day is the easiest way for you to tell your school’s story, on your home turf. Keep the following tips in mind when planning your own Principal for a Day program.

Planning Checklist

When planning your event, first consider your objectives. Is it to boost awareness in your community about your school’s accomplishments? To inform business leaders about partnership opportunities?

The objectives of the Principal Shadowing Day NAESP organized with the Department of Education were:

  • To learn how work at the Department of Education gets implemented at a school;
  • For officials to learn what principals do to improve instruction and increase student performance in classrooms; and
  • To honor the work of education policy and practice.

Next, select a date that works with your school’s calendar. A shadowing day can be held any time during the school year, any day of the week, so long as you feel it offers a “typical” schedule.

Draft a list of potential guests to invite, perhaps calling on your superintendent for input. Lawmakers, in particular, have busy schedules, so make sure to contact them far in advance.

Provide visitors with detailed logistical information: where they should park, where to enter the building, when lunch is served, and whether they can take pictures or not. Give guests a general schedule for the day.

Give your staff a heads-up when the visit is to occur, but don’t ask them to deviate from their typical schedule. “I told staff to do exactly what they had planned for Friday and not to prepare anything special for the visit,” says Bencal.

Arrange your week so that on the shadow day your guest can see a full snapshot of your responsibilities. For instance, if you typically spend all day Wednesday in back-to-back collaborative leadership team meetings, consider switching your schedule to include activities you would normally do on other days, such as meeting with your PTA president, conducting walkthroughs, and so on.

“The most valuable part of the visit was when we were moving around the school and visiting classrooms,” says Bencal. “I believe [my shadow] was best able to see instructional leadership in action when observing teaching and learning.”

Invite local media for your Principal for a Day event. Local newspaper or television reporters may want to cover the visit, especially if a lawmaker is present, which gives you a chance to highlight good news about your school.

Visit Dos and Don’ts

Once the planning is complete, the actual visit should be simple: Allow your shadow to see you in action, following you to meetings, talking with students, and working with teachers. If any situations arise that demand privacy (for instance, if a parent wants to discuss a sensitive issue with you), designate someone for your shadow to spend time with during that window—your vice principal, technology director, or counselor, for instance.

Josh Klaris, resident principal at the Department of Education and an organizer of the Principal Shadowing Day, offered these additional Do’s and Don’ts.


  • Be open, honest, and authentic. Share your personal experiences, your challenges, and successes.
  • Ask lots of questions and be prepared to answer a lot of questions.
  • Bring your shadow on all routine formal and informal responsibilities, including morning line-up, building rounds/walkthroughs, leadership/cabinet meetings, and grade-level meetings.
  • Allow your shadow to speak to and interact with teachers, students, and families.
  • Allow your shadow to read student work.
  • Schedule time at the end of the day to debrief and answer questions, share thoughts, and make connections.
  • Within reasonable limits, have your shadow by your side throughout the day.


  • Worry that you’ll be judged.
  • Plan a special event for the shadow.

Follow Up

At the end of the visit, debrief with your visitor. Revisit your goals for the event and make sure to describe any activities that you didn’t have time to observe during the visit. Follow up with a written correspondence (a note or email) or phone call after your event, and thank your visitor for attending. This is especially important if your shadow was a lawmaker; in your communication with an elected official, you can offer to be a resource on education issues or to provide additional information on any topic discussed.

Consider inviting your shadow to future special events, such as your school science fairs, fundraisers, and volunteer projects. Carafa, for instance, invites elected officials to participate in a literacy program at his school each March.

“It is so important for them to see a familiar face. They respond quicker to my invitations and know that they will have such a positive experience when they visit my school,” he says.

Finally, don’t forget to thank your school staff after the visit, too. Inviting visitors into your school sends your team members the message that you’re proud of the work they do each day. Highlight the visit on your website, in your parent newsletter, or on social media.

Copyright © 2014. National Association of Elementary School Principals. No part of the articles in NAESP magazines, newsletters, or website may be reproduced in any medium without the permission of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. For more information, view NAESP’s reprint policy