On most days, one can find Meagan Fields teaching a room full of first graders. But this fall, for the entire semester, she has left the classroom behind to experience what it is like to be a school principal.

Fields, a student in the UAB School of Education’s Educational Leadership Program, is one of 11 students in Alabama selected for the state Department of Education’s Principal Candidate Semester Residency for the 2015-2016 academic year. The program provides $25,000 to pay salary and benefits to a highly qualified teacher to substitute for an aspiring school leader in the residency program. Aspiring leaders like Fields are then able to spend an entire semester shadowing local public school principals. The program is promoted by the state Board of Education’s Plan 2020 that says every school should be led by “a well-prepared, resourced, supported and effective leader.”Meagan Fields

Fields, a teacher at Memorial Park Elementary School in Jasper, already has a dual master’s degree in early childhood and elementary education from UAB. She says the opportunity to spend an entire semester in residency will give her insight into the job of a principal that she could never obtain in a standard, 10-day residency program.

“I think that it will give me the opportunity to not just learn how to manage day to day, but how to build relationships and manage in a long-term situation,” says Fields. “I’ll be able to see all aspects [of being a principal] rather than just a snapshot.”

Through the residency program, Fields spent several days this summer working in the school system’s central office. During that time, she assisted new teachers who participated in an orientation session. She also worked on a project to reevaluate Jasper’s report card system and examined alternatives like the standards-based report cards, she says.

“So, I will be leading a discussion with kindergarten and first- and second-grade teachers on how we may want to move from grading with numerical grades to standards-based report cards,” she says.

Fields is the third UAB educational leadership student in three years to win the state Principal Candidate Residency. Marla Matthews won in 2013. Ira Sullivan, now an assistant principal at Maxwell Elementary School in Duncanville, won the principal candidate residency in 2014.

Fields’ education leadership instructor, UAB Assistant Professor Keith Gurley Ed.D., says research has shown that sustained, uninterrupted time in residency is an important part of a future school principal’s training.

“It is just a much more effective model than residency programs that are ‘tacked on’ to other teaching duties,” Gurley says. “It’s really much closer to the way a school leadership residency ought to be done for everyone. … This program helps students develop strong leadership capacities which, we believe, will result in strong leadership skills when they matriculate to formal school leadership positions.”

For her residency, Fields will spend six weeks working alongside the principal at Maddox Middle School, four weeks at Walker High School and a couple of weeks shadowing the principal at Memorial Park.

“Some of the most surprising things I’ve learned have been the differences between what I have seen in my classroom as a teacher and what the educational leadership side encompasses,” says Fields. “Scheduling, for example, is a huge undertaking for a principal. For a classroom teacher, when we’re making our classroom schedules, it’s easy for us to say, ‘Well, if I had a break here, or if we had lunch here at a certain time, my schedule would work easier.’ But, when you’re looking at 44 homeroom teachers, that’s something else.”

Fields, who is married with two children ages 7 and 2, says she will return to her classroom after the first of the year with a new perspective on the myriad of skills one must have to be an effective school leader. One of those skills, she says, is knowing how to communicate with different constituencies within the school system, including staff, parents, administrators and even the public.

“It has been an eye-opening experience,” says Fields, “but I’m thankful to be afforded such a wonderful learning experience.”