Why be a School Principal?


There seems to be fewer and fewer people these days who aspire to be school principals. In this article Craig D’cruz, National Education Consultant at CompliSpace, asks: Why is this?

In 2013, Berry, Bird and Weider in their book “Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers Who Lead but Don't Leave”, surveyed teachers and found that nearly 25 percent of the respondents were interested in a hybrid role of teaching and some sort of leadership position and that 84 percent of them were either “not very” or “not at all” interested in becoming a school principal.

The seemingly conflicting desires of wanting to advance in a career while remaining a classroom teacher is one that many teachers seem to face. If you ask them, teachers will invariably tell you that to help children to learn and succeed in life is the core of what it means to be a teacher. Accordingly, they may also tell you that to serve others knowing that much of what you do will go unnoticed is a reality in their lives.

Many teachers want to lead both within and outside of their classrooms and there are a number of pathways that they may choose to follow, including becoming a senior teacher or lead teacher. Many may also choose a more traditional approach to school leadership and they may aspire to be a head of department, deputy principal or eventually, a principal. While the position of principal typically provides a greater opportunity to lead and to guide teaching and learning, the perception of many classroom teachers is that it moves the person further away from the students.

However, it is also acknowledged that being a school principal is not easy. Traditionally, the role is like being the chief executive officer and the face of the school. The principal hires the staff, evaluates them and manages professional development, interprets directives from the board, manages risks and balances the budget. Day to day, the principal also wrestles with innumerable smaller tasks such as disciplining unruly students, playground or carpark duties, negotiating the new menu in the canteen and figuring out what to do with the dodgy air conditioner in the staff room. In addition, principals have to know and help every student, cope with parental, staff and community demands and ensure that their school scores highly on standardised tests such as NAPLAN.

The author has heard anecdotal evidence from teachers that they see their principals as being:

  • ‘chained to the desk’ and working 24/7/365 - this affects their personal life;
  • held accountable for everything that happens at the school- including for the actions of students, teachers and employees- basically ‘the buck stops’ in the principal’s office;
  • occasionally stymied by a board or parents’ association that sometimes choose to interfere in day to day school matters;
  • separated or distant from students, and sometimes staff too, due to the demands on their time during the school day;
  • required to deal with parents who have concerns for their child that, for whatever reason, cannot be dealt with by the child’s teachers; and
  • required to be a ‘font of all knowledge’ including in areas such as policy development, risk management, HR matters, public relations and so on.

So why would teachers want to ascend to this position?

It can be argued that teachers don’t know the answer to this because they have not been in the position to experience it. In his opening comments in Advice to Aspiring Principals, Simon Murray (AHISA National Chair 2009-2011) states: “Most new Heads say they had no idea about the complexity of the role of Principal until they actually took on the job.”

The principal, even with a healthy work/life balance, devotes the bulk of his or her waking hours to the best interest of their school. Dr Judith Hancock (Principal Brisbane Girls Grammar School 1977-2001) once stated: Your role as Head of an independent school- of any school- should really be a vocation, not just a job. That implies that you should be modelling the values you adhere to whether you’re at home or at a school.”

However, there are still teachers who aspire to be principals. They look beyond the day to day, the politics and the perceived lack of time. They look at how they can develop, lead and drive the culture within the school.

If you speak with principals about their jobs, many will tell you that it is the ‘best job in the world’. They feel that they can make a difference in the lives of so many young people. Their actions drive the culture within the school and hence can affect every member of their school community. If principals are given the autonomy to build a culture of learning, and ensure that they have the right staff to support that culture, then students have the opportunity to grow to reach their potential. Cultural leadership is a major driver for principals.

Principals realise that although they are no longer in the classroom, if they place the interests of their students first and foremost in their planning and thinking, that they will have a far greater effect on the lives of the children because they reach every class through every teacher.  John Moody - Headmaster of Guildford Grammar School (1979-1996) was quoted as saying; “Know and attend to your students, your staff and your parents in that order. If a student, a member of staff and a parent are all asking to see you, choose to see the student first. Students are what it’s all about.”

According to About Education, the Characteristics of a Highly Effective School Principal are:

  • A principal must be a visionary.
    • The principal needs to enact the Mission and Vision of the School and needs to plan for the future, not for today. That is the job of the deputy principal.
    • The principal must be the cultural instigator, leader and driver.
  • A principal must exhibit leadership.
    • A school without a leader will likely fail and a principal who is not a leader will find that the job is simply beyond their capabilities.
    • The principal, as the school leader, must model the standards, the values and the vision that forms the basis of the school’s culture.
  • A principal must be adept at building relationships with people.
    • Principals who have to work hard at building relationships will find it difficult to keep up with the myriad of other day to day tasks that need to be completed.
    • Relationships within a school ensure that the culture is inculcated in all aspects of the school- it is a people focussed phenomena.
  • A principal must balance tough love with earned praise.
    • The role of principal includes being able to promote and reward the staff and students who are fulfilling the school mission whilst dealing with those who are unable to, or do not wish to adopt the culture within the school.
    • This means that there are decisions that sometimes have to be made in the best interest of the students or of the school.
  • A principal must be fair and consistent.
    • Anecdotally, principals make up to 250 decisions every day. They need to be fair and consistent in every decision made.
    • Principals who do not or cannot practice fair and consistent decision making very quickly find that this will cause dissension and angst amongst, students, staff, parents and the board.
  • A principal must be organised and prepared.
    • Given the complexity of the role and the myriad of interruptions within a school day, a principal must be organised, must prepare for matters that require thought and preparation and must accept that the daily interruptions are actually part of the job!
  • A principal must be an excellent listener.
    • Principals will love to talk with you about their school. They can, and often will, promote their school and their school culture at every opportunity. However, they also have to be able to listen- to their board, their parents, their staff, the community and above all, their students. Without the feedback, the principals would be unable to adequately serve their schools.

Researchers also say that getting principals out of the office and into the classroom is also central to driving schools forward today. “The desire for principals to focus and work with teacher and students on the quality of teaching and learning is really spot on to what the research says should provide meaningful improvements in student achievement,” says Ellen Goldring, Professor of Educational Policy and Leadership, Vanderbilt University.

So why would a teacher not want to aspire to having these characteristics? When you look closely at the headings, they are exactly the same characteristics that make a teacher a good teacher- perhaps with the exception of having curriculum mastery. However, at principal level, these are practiced at a much higher level with far more reaching implications because they will drive the school culture.

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About the Author

Craig D’cruz

With 37 years of educational experience, Craig D’cruz is the National Education Lead at CompliSpace. Craig provides direction on education matters including new products, program/module content and training. Previously Craig held the roles of Industrial Officer at the Association of Independent Schools of WA, he was the Principal of a K-12 non-government school, Deputy Principal of a systemic non-government school and he has had teaching and leadership experience in both the independent and Catholic school sectors. Craig currently sits on the board of a large non-government school and is a regular presenter on behalf of CompliSpace and other educational bodies on issues relating to school governance, school culture and leadership.

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