Making better Principals, making Principals better

The job of being a Principal is vastly different from that of a teacher.  Completely different skills are needed to lead a school, compared to those needed to directly support learning.  But too often there is an assumption that a good teacher can transition easily into being an effective Principal. 

This assumption is clearly wrong.



Teachers mostly work with children and youth over whom they have both authority and power.  Their focus is on learning.

Principals work almost exclusively with adults over whom they have little to no authority.  Their focus is on fostering a school culture that promotes student well-being and achievement, staff cooperation, budgets, accountability, parental complaints, staff evaluation and mentoring, community relations, implementing policies set elsewhere, compliance to a wide variety of laws (labour, child welfare, education, human rights, and work-place safety, among others),  compliance as many as a dozen different collective agreements, building condition, and protecting the school from negative external influences. And they must perform this complex set of tasks largely isolated from their peers who work in other schools, often many kilometers away.

Principals are subordinate to senior board management and often have to answer to elected board members.  Family or community members with concerns are completely outside school-system structures.  Even with school staff a Principal must work within the considerable constraints set by collective agreements.

Teachers usually get to command their students.  Principals almost always have to negotiate with adults.

The job of school Principal requires a far greater range of skills and accountability than managerial positions in almost every other sector.  Despite this many teachers receive little relevant preparation before being promoted to leading a school.  Many jurisdictions mistakenly seem to believe that moving from the classroom to the school office isn’t such a big leap.

The certification requirements for a Principal vary wildly between jurisdictions. Kentucky allows a teacher to assume the job of Principal for 5 years without any additional training Principal Certification.  Ontario requires only 129 hours of basic overview courses (PQP1 + PQP2), Michigan 240 course-hours, Arizona and New Jersey at least 450, and Texas 585. (In contrast Ontario, more than 200 hours are needed to become a licensed Real Estate Agent.  A typical Executive MBA program involves as many 400 or 500 class-hours.)

Ideally, a Principal candidate would have 12 – 14 months of full-time training combining formal managerial courses geared to the job of Principal and in-school placements followed by a rigorous pre-certification evaluation process.  This would allow a new Principal to be more effective from day one, also and ensure that only those with the necessary skills and temperament are given the responsibility to lead a school.

This sort of intense immersive process would give the candidates an opportunity to decide if they actually would enjoy being a Principal.  One study found that one-fifth of Principals would prefer to be back in the classroom.  It would have been better for them, and much better for the students and staff in the schools that they lead, if these teachers had been able to avoid giving up a job that they enjoyed for one that they didn’t.



A lot rides on the shoulders of a Principal. 

An incompetent elementary teacher is likely to stunt the learning of at most 1000 children over a full career, and that influence would last for only one year.  An incompetent Principal can damage the prospects of success that many children each year, and that damage could be repeated year after year for a decade.

Monitoring and mentoring managers in any decentralized organization is very difficult.  There is little opportunity for a senior manager to observe the nuances of daily interactions and competence.  Most oversight comes from formal reports, standardized measures, and complaints from staff or parents.

At best these provide only a limited indication of the effectiveness of the Principal and what further training is needed.    At worst this feedback is misleading: a Principal can suppress unflattering information from reaching senior management or a disgruntled member of the school community can work to unfairly undermine the reputation of the Principal.

In addition, educators tend to remain in their school systems for 25 to 30 years.  As a result it is natural for mentor/protege relationships to form, meaning that it is fairly common for a Principal to report to a mentor or to a close friend of the mentor.  This can distort the evaluation process – both for Principal performance and for suitability for promotion to Principal.  In boards with a history of management-union conflict, senior management can be tempted to support a marginal Principal in the face of negative feedback from school staff out of a feeling of solidarity.

It is not clear that any Principal evaluation process has managed to overcome these obstacles.


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RESOURCES Evaluating the Principal.pdf