From the misadventures of Ferris Bueller’s principal Mr. Rooney, children’s books (Ramona) discussing how to spell principal vs. principle, and the hapless principal archetype in most teen sitcoms, the school principal is an integral part of American culture.
We all have our own impressions of a school principal from our school days. Some of us had helpful principals, others experienced stern or power hungry autocrats. Many may have never even interacted with the principal, instead seeing a distant individual wandering the halls, or remaining in the office.
Being the principal of a school is like no other job I’ve ever had – and I’ve had some strange ones. It’s a balance of rewarding, frustrating, isolating, and sometimes outright overwhelming. I came to realize that everyone I interacted with had very different perceptions, misunderstandings, and expectations about the school principal.
In this post, I’ll take a dive into the principal role and answer some common questions. If you have others, drop them in the comments below – I’d love to build a resource!
What Is a School Principal?
The school principal is usually the person with the most authority, and responsibility in a school. It is their job to operate and manage the school.
Sometimes, this responsibility is held by a head teacher. In the United States, the principal is usually an administrative role requiring a specific license.
The School Principal Is Not the Ultimate Authority
One of the biggest misconceptions is that a principal is the highest authority for a school. This may be true in a charter school or a very small school district. In most cases, the principal reports to someone at the district level.
To those in the school, the principal appears to have all the power. This is rarely the case, as principals are often part of a larger administrative structure. They may make the majority of the school-based decisions, but can be overruled.
The reporting structure varies by district and is usually impacted by district size. I’ve been in districts where principals report directly to the superintendent, and others where they report to an administrator by school level. For example, a middle school principal may report to a “Director of Secondary Education.”
I’ve been on a team as small as 7, and seen districts with as many as 150 principals. My level of autonomy varied, but in no case was I an absolute authority.
School Principal Duties / What Do Principals Do?
The principal is responsible for effectively operating the school.
Exactly what that means, how much control they actually have, and which responsibilities are centralized will (again) vary by district.
There may have been a time when the principal role was primarily about keeping the school calm and stakeholders happy. The modern principal role has evolved considerably.
Most principals are responsible for the following duties:
Overseeing the Instructional Program
The principal’s primary responsibility is the instructional program of a school. Often, this means implementing the district instructional framework and curriculum at the school level. In some cases, the principal has autonomy or discretion regarding the school instructional program.
The instructional program encompasses structure (grades/classes), schedule (how much time in each subject), curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and supplemental learning supports.
Ultimately, the principal is (or should be) held responsible for how students perform.
School-Wide Student Management
THIS is what most people think a school principal does. It’s how many of us experienced our principals and it’s what all of the cultural messages regarding school principals emphasize.
Some principals even believe this is their first duty. It’s important, but student management is just one component of an effective instructional program. Good teachers know this, and so do good principals.
A school principal will monitor common areas, support classroom management, and apply school-level consequences, such as suspension and expulsion. (Note: The latter have been overused in recent years, effectively undermining student achievement for a number of students.)
A good principal is visible during the school day and employs a variety of management tools, not just discipline, to ensure the safe and effective operation of a school.
Speaking of safety, the principal is responsible for all aspects of student and staff safety. Duties here include operating safety committees, working with facilities staff to ensure safe building conditions, and conducting the needed safety drills.
For obvious reasons, this responsibility has grown tremendously.
The principal is responsible for creating and implementing the operational schedule of the school. In most districts this requires collaboration with operations departments.
This includes staff working schedules, bus schedules, supervision schedules for cafeteria and recess (at primary), class schedules, and school events.
Hiring / Staffing
The principal is responsible for hiring new staff, assigning staff to specific roles, and ensuring positions are filled (substitutes) during staff absence.
In a few districts, all staff are assigned to a school by central office. Stakeholders may believe that principals have total staffing autonomy and blame them for moving teachers around, even if it’s outside their control.
In most districts, the principal does have some control over staffing decisions. Hiring and supporting good staff is an incredible responsibility.
Most states now have specific requirements for teacher evaluations in education policy or even state law. These evaluations often require multiple formal observations, student performance data analysis, and rubric rankings.
Evaluations for paraeducators and other support staff are less well-defined but also must be done according to district policy and union contracts.
Some principals have dozens upon dozens of evaluations to conduct annually. It takes time and effort to do these well. Unfortunately, many principals don’t spend (or have) the time to do them well and they just end up as compliance tools.
That is a mistake. Evaluation when done well, and for the right reasons can be empowering and make a huge difference in a school.
Staff Performance Management
As in any profession, educators will make mistakes. These may be minor policy violations or major professional violations. In either case, the principal is responsible for identifying, investigating, and applying the appropriate outcome for staff.
These incidents may not be frequent, but handling them badly can be catastrophic for all involved. Reputations and careers can be ruined if performance management is done badly.
Contract Maintenance / Labor Relations
If district staff are unionized, the school principal is responsible for meeting the terms of the employment contract and working with union representatives on contract issues.
Smart principals will make this part of their regular responsibility and resolve issues before they become a problem.
Improvement Planning / Mission
Simply maintaining the current state of a school isn’t enough. The school principal is responsible for developing, implementing, and driving the mission and improvement of the school. In most districts, annual improvement plans are required.
The successful principal integrates this duty in with the others, rather than creating a compliance document that no one knows, or uses.
The principal is responsible for communicating about the school with all stakeholders. Frequent internal communication with staff, keeping parents and students informed, and engaging the larger community to form a positive impression of the school are all ultimately the job of the school principal.
Community Partnerships / Events
The principal is the primary liaison with parent and community groups. This requires meeting with leaders of these groups, attending (and sometimes helping organize) their membership meetings, and supporting public events and fundraisers. These are generally after-hours or on weekends.
Another area that has grown significantly in recent years. The principal is the primary recipient of any complaints that are directed at the school level. Examples include complaints about books, discipline, teachers, class assignments, and the school’s appearance. I could go on forever with examples – but you get the idea. Virtually every facet of a school is open for challenge these days.
The principal must field, and respond, to these complaints according to the relevant policy. Staff complaint procedures are in the contract, most districts have complaint procedures, and some complaints require following the licensing agency complaint and reporting procedure.
A principal is responsible for knowing, and following, all of these. Most important, the principal must work to resolve the complaint effectively to allow for limited impact on the instructional program. This is not easy.
Compliance Paperwork / Reporting
Reports to the school community. District program reports. Data reports to accountability systems. Assessment data reporting to the district and parents.
Reporting is a significant duty for the school principal. These reports may be useful to keep stakeholders informed and help define the direction of the school. Often, they are simply required for compliance.
In either case, significant time and energy is required to meet the reporting demands of the modern school. The principal is often responsible for gathering the important information, vetting and correcting data, and preparing it in the appropriate format.
The principal is responsible for the school-level budget. Exactly what this means, and the extent of responsibility, will vary by district and level.
In some districts, the majority of the school budget is determined and assigned at the district level and the principal is only responsible for ensuring that discretionary portions are not overspent. In others, the principal has significant responsibility for determining staffing, budget categories, and monitoring expenditures.
Regardless of the level of responsibility, the principal is part of a system of financial controls to limit fraud and abuse. Where they fail, jobs are lost.
This info video (not made by me) actually does a good job of capturing the complexity of the job:
How Much Do Principals Get Paid?
Average School Principal Salary
According to the National Center for Education statistics, the average salary of all school principals for 2017-2018 was: $92,900.
This amount was brought down by private school principal positions which often pay less and averaged $72,500. The average public school principal pay was $98,000.
School principal salaries also vary by level of school with high school principals making the most ($104,600) and elementary the least ($97,000.) Size of school also can be a factor.
Most experienced public school principals in the United States will make six figures.
What It’s Like to Be Principal of a School
A very experienced colleague who has served at all levels of the education career ladder once told me that being a principal was the hardest job in education. He described it as “standing in the middle of a boxing ring with people on all sides punching you.”
While this is a bit dramatic, it does capture the experience of trying to meet demands from all stakeholder groups. A principal is responsible to the staff and students. They must mediate conflict between teachers and parents. A principal is expected to implement district requirements while also supporting local context. They must build strong staff relationships while also implementing furlough days and RIF (reduction in force) during budget downturns.
In most circumstances, the goals will be contradictory. It’s a job that requires personal commitment and belief in the mission to be worth it. It’s an incredible job, but not for those looking for easy power or money.
Preparation and Starting Out
Given the extensive duties outlined above, you’d think new principals would receive significant training and support. This has not been my experience, or the experience of other principals I’ve talked to.
Licensure training is surface exposure at best, and it’s ultimate impact depends heavily on having a high-quality practicum experience. (In this, it’s much like teacher training.) I was well-prepared for some aspects of the job, and completely untrained for others.
Then, you are given a school building without much onboarding or support.
I vividly remember my first day as a new principal. I reported to the school and my predecessor gave me keys and a binder. Then he left for retirement. I had no follow-up from the district, and no communication about expectations or activities for the first six weeks of my job. Staff were off for the summer and only I and the custodians were in the building.
I had done my research in order to get the job, and carried a strong personal vision so I worked to use the time effectively. Had I been less experienced, or had the school needed significant change, it would have been a disastrous summer. As it was, I was fortunate enough to only need to rethink/redo about 50% of my work when staff arrived and we began school preparation.
As a principal, you are learning constantly. After my first three years, I felt comfortable with all aspects of the job, but still had significant work to become good at it.
The job is often lonely and requires personal networks of support. I described this while musing about going from teacher to administrator.
You can expect to face new, and challenging situations on a daily basis. People will be angry at you virtually every day. Oftentimes, they are angry about something else, but it will be directed to you. This is part of leadership.
However, there are also moments of incredible reward. When you work with a student who is struggling and support them through, the connection you build is incredible. Creating change in a building to improve student results, reduce inequitable discipline, or increase staff morale is satisfying. You can feel progress in those moments.
After years as a principal, I started getting invites to graduations for students I’d served. Hearing them thank me, or the school, is an indescribable feeling.
Being a principal is challenging, but not impossible. It’s worth it.
How to Be an Effective School Principal
A school principal matters. Some studies find it to be second only to classroom instruction in determining student outcomes. Educators, and parents, have all experienced the difference between a good principal and a bad principal. It’s dramatic.
There are countless leadership books that provide lists of characteristics, behaviors, or actions that determine principal effectiveness. I’ve read many of them in my quest to become an exceptional principal. I’ll always be working at it, but I’ve come to believe it doesn’t need to be as complicated as we make it.
The Wallace Foundation identified 5 key practices:
- Shaping a vision of academic success for all students, one based on high standards;
- Creating a climate hospitable to education so safety, a cooperative spirit and other foundations of fruitful interaction prevail;
- Cultivating leadership in others so teachers and other adults assume their part in realizing the school vision;
- Improving instruction to enable teachers to teach at their best and students to learn at their utmost; and
- Managing people, data and processes to foster school improvement.
These 5 capture relatively well what I’ve found to be effective.
Here is what I tell new principals:
Focus on student learning. Always. It’s easy to get distracted by the list of duties above (did you see how long that is?!?!) and end up responding to crisis after crisis. Instead, always look for the highest and best impact on student learning.
A good principal avoids the solo hero approach to leadership. They include, and trust, the educators in the building to help create and drive school improvement. Educators have the daily interactions with students that are required for learning. Trust and empower them.
Create a supportive and inclusive environment among staff, students, and community. This requires honest engagement, an orientation towards learning, and the ability to change practices that are not effective.
Be transparent with results. Name, measure, and report what the school is trying to achieve. Look for the gaps and ask “who is our school failing?” Then, include those voices in finding solutions.
Spend the vast majority of your time on school environment and instruction. Prioritize those things and do the compliance/bureaucratic tasks at a “good enough” level. Too often, careers are built by excelling at the bureaucratic and failing at the work that matters. Don’t do that.
Accept responsibility for failure. Don’t blame others. Own it, and do what it takes to make the school better. It’s not easy, but it goes a long way with people.
If you trust those you work with, empower those who have the solution, and de-center leadership as the answer – you’ll become an effective school leader.
How to Become A School Principal
If after reading this, you are thinking about becoming a school principal, I’d be glad to help. I discourage those who think it’s easy, but support unequivocally those who are ready to dedicate themselves to changing student outcomes.
The most common path to becoming a school principal looks like this:
- Work in a licensed education position (teacher, counselor, school psych, etc.)
- Take additional coursework to attain an administrative license
- Perform a practicum
- Apply and interview until you get a job
Those four bullet points summarize years of work. Being a school principal is an incredibly important position that should take effort and dedication.
I’ve written extensively on how to become a school principal. If you are interested in learning more, here are some resources for points along the journey:
- Is It Worth Going from Teacher To Administrator?
- Teacher Vs. Administrator (A Financial Analysis)
- How To Become A School Principal
- School Principal Resume
- School Principal Interview Questions to Help You Prepare
The school principal job is iconic and often misunderstood. A good principal makes an incredible difference in a school. The modern principal isn’t just focused on discipline, but instead has an incredible array of responsibilities to create an effective school.
We need good principals who focus on student learning, empower others, and work every day to make the school a better place.
What did I miss? What other questions do you have?