WELS Principal Credential Cohort

Written by Laurie Gauger-Hested

A Crucial Need
The WELS loses 20-30 principals every year. Some retire. Some resign. Some want to devote their time to full-time teaching again.

Unfortunately, we have nowhere near enough new principals to fill those vacancies. In fact, we are preparing only five per year. Five new principals cannot replace 30 departing principals.

The Causes
Why do some principals resign or go back to full-time teaching? Why do so few enter the position to begin with? The answers to both these questions are similar. Being a principal is incredibly demanding. The principal’s position today requires an abundance of leadership skills, organizational skills, teaching skills, and people skills.

“WELS school leaders are more than administrators,” says Dr. John Meyer, MLC Director of Graduate Studies and Continuing Education. “They are educators and educational visionaries. They foster Christ-centered cultures, create sustainable budgets, market their schools, lead school boards, develop curricula, supervise teachers, assess student learning, and teach.”

Some principals’ responsibilities have emerged only in the last 20 years. They include accommodating student diversity, planning for crisis management, complying with safety regulations, developing long-term master plans, providing thorough assessment of learning, responding to new social and political pressures, developing community marketing plans, and maintaining daily communication across multiple platforms.

Meeting all those demands can wear a person down—especially if their congregation doesn’t give them adequate administrative time, expecting them to teach a couple grades and maybe coach a team or direct a choir too.

And if the principal has scant leadership experience and enters the office with no training beyond their MLC education degree, the job can be overwhelming.

When a principal is underprepared and overworked, everyone suffers: the principal, the faculty, the students, the parents, the congregation.

A Timely Solution
Martin Luther College has partnered with the Commission on Lutheran Schools to offer a solution to the principal problem: the WELS Principal Credential Cohort.

The Cohort is designed to address the principal shortage from two sides. First, it equips veteran teachers to serve as principals—before they receive a principal call. Second, it asks congregations that call these principals to give them the time and compensation they need for long-term, faithful service.

How It Works
Eligible candidates for the Principal Credential Cohort are educators who have three or more years of successful teaching experience, who are not currently serving as principals, and who possess leadership gifts and characteristics.

They can be nominated by another educator, or they can apply on their own.

Once a member of the cohort, they can customize their pathway to the principalship based on previous coursework, degrees, and experiences. Most will enroll in MLC’s Master of Science in Educational Administration program, and they’ll receive a fifty-percent scholarship for all their graduate work through MLC. Ideally, their congregation will pick up the other fifty percent.

They’ll also attend at least three leadership training events, including a national leadership conference, and they’ll demonstrate competence in the WELS Principal Standards.

A significant component of the program is the cohort concept itself: Throughout their training period, they’ll receive support, encouragement, and insights from mentors and fellow cohort members.

“The default WELS approach to principal vacancies is to call a nice guy with little or no leadership experience or preparation to fill the spot,” says Dr. Meyer.

“Today’s principalship is not a place for a beginner. The Principal Credential Cohort program gets people ready for success from day one.”

A Case in Point
While teaching at St. Mark in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Phil Gustafson turned down two principal calls. Although he had a wide range of experience—teaching grades 7-8, assisting with athletic director and technology director duties, and serving as assistant principal—he didn’t feel ready for the principal’s office. “I wanted to be fully trained before stepping into that role,” he said.

So, after finishing his MLC MS-Education degree, he turned right around and enrolled in MLC’s MS-Educational Administration program, in conjunction with the Principal Credential Cohort. The MS-Ed Admin program has courses specifically devoted to the principalship, including Leading the School Community, Leadership for Change, School Business Administration, and School Law.

Gustafson completed the program in 2019, just in time to receive—and accept—a principal call to Trinity-St. Luke in Watertown, Wisconsin.

“I feel like the MLC master’s program did a great job training me for this call!” he said. “The courses were outstanding. They prepared me spiritually, as the focus of every course is the mission of our schools. That’s something you won’t find in other programs. Personally and professionally, I am more confident in my called position. I could not have handled the call I currently have before taking these courses.”

Our Schools—and Our Students—Need This
Our schools need principals like Gustafson, educators who receive professional training for their responsibilities, who are given adequate time to fulfill those responsibilities, and who receive take-home pay commensurate with those responsibilities.

When a principalship meets all these standards—training, time, and take-home pay—the principal and the school can thrive. And a thriving school makes a mark in the community, bringing in more students, reaching more souls with the gospel.

“Being a called worker is an honor, and it’s important work,” Gustafson says. “The next generation needs to hear God’s Word. We need qualified teachers and principals.

“While God certainly can do his work in his church without me,” he continues, “I am confident God led me through the Principal Credential Cohort so I could be properly prepared for the principal role. Thanks be to God!”

Would you be interested in joining the next Principal Credential Cohort? Contact the Commission on Lutheran Schools at Lutheranschools@wels.net or 414.259.4354.

To learn more about Phil Gustafson’s journey, read “Prepared for the Office.”