Do we need (great) principals?

Picture courtesy of Dean Shareski

I have had this post brewing in my head for a while to discuss Josh Stumpenhorst’s blog regarding schools and if they actually need principals.  I remember the first time I even read the title and I was offended before I even clicked the link.  As I read through though, my thoughts began to change on what Josh wrote as it seemed that my idea of what a principal does was quite different from what Josh saw.  Yes, there are those “management” details that need to happen in the role of principal, but they also happen in the role of a teacher as well.  If a principal is only needed for evaluation, discipline, and meeting planner, then I would actually agree with Josh that schools don’t need them.  I would also argue that if teachers only deliver content to students, that they can be replaced as well.  Khan Academy delivers content.  Teachers should build connections and relationships.  Technology will never be able to replace that.  To be great in either of these roles, there is so much more that should be done than simply the “management” portion.

So I thought back as my time as principal and what I aspired to be in that role.  The management portion was actually the worst part of the job for me yet I knew that it had to be done.  To help create a strong culture though, a principal needs to do so much more.  In Alberta, principals are evaluated based on the Principal Quality Standard and “management” is only one of the seven dimensions listed:

1. Fostering Effective Relationships
2. Embodying Visionary Leadership
3. Leading a Learning Community
4. Providing Instructional Leadership
5. Developing and Facilitating Leadership
6. Managing School Operations and Resources
7. Understanding and Responding to the Larger Societal Context

So instead of simply regurgitating the quality standards as defined in Alberta, I thought about some of my own experience and what I thought a principal should do in their school to help create a great culture.

  1. Culture Builder – I have said this several times already in this post, but the principal should have a huge part in helping to shape the culture of the school.  The way they treat children, the way they help to build capacity, the way they connect with stakeholders; these are all important aspects of this position.  But even with all of these BIG things, it is often the little things that really help to build the culture.  I remember hearing the story of a principal that simply went into the washroom and helped to clean it up that shook up the entire school.  Seeing the pride in keeping the school a clean place for kids to feel comfortable sent a strong message to all of those in the building.  I remember reading this Marci Laeven’s post discussing how she was impacted by watching a new principal spending a weekend planting flowers around the school and how it literally brought her to tears.  A school with a bad culture cannot be a good school.  The principal helps to set the tone.
  2. Visionary – The one advantage of having a principal in the school that does not teach is that they have the opportunity to see the amazing things happening in classrooms on a regular basis.  Teachers are often isolated and do not realize the strengths that their colleagues have.  Great principals will build upon these strengths that already exist in the building and help to build the vision of the school.  They will also understand when to take things off of the “plate” that teachers have to do that do not fit into the vision.  Leaders should be able to define the “why” of a school, and help to create ways to achieve this goal.  Although they are not the only representative of the vision, they can become a unifying voice for the school.
  3. Instructional Leader – I had a conversation recently regarding the daily “activities” of a principal and how someone was not interested in being out of the classroom and not teaching anymore.  My response to them was, “You are the principal.  You can lead however you like.”  I strongly believe that principals should be very visible in classrooms to not interfere with the teaching that happens, but to help build upon it.  As a principal, I often led workshops in areas of my expertise and how teachers can use these skills in the classroom.  If I am not willing to embody what I look for in a teacher through the development of my own instructional leadership, how can I feel good about asking our teachers to do the same.  Being an instructional leader is not something that I see as “optional” in the role of principal; it is a must.
  4. Connector – When I was a kid, the principal was seen as the “holder of all knowledge”.  Someone who was infallible.  When I became a principal, I knew that was WAY off!  My job was not to be someone who knew all the answers but I did quickly realize that I should be able to lead my staff and community to the people who had the answers.  There was certain expertise had by many different people on my staff and I believed that my role was to really find that expertise and help to connect others.  The idea of “connector” is not only within your own building, but with social media, it can be anyone in the world.  Principals should be networked because it helps to create connections to answers and opportunities that did not exist 20, 10, even five years ago.  I might not know the answer, but my job is to find someone who does.
  5. (Leadership) Capacity Builder – Principals are often moved from school to school, and I am not sure where I stand on that notion.  I do believe however that principals should create an environment that will miss the personality of the principal, but not necessarily the expertise.  If we are focus on building leadership within our schools and having great “systems”, schools will thrive long after any principal leaves.  If the school is dependent upon the skills of the principal, they have not done their job.
  6. Time Defender – I hate meetings. I always have.  I have as a teacher and I have as a principal.  I know that there are so many things that can be done that improve the quality of learning when we have professional development time and talking about whether kids should or shouldn’t wear hats is not something that we should talk about in great detail.  I am never able to pay staff more money but I am able to give them the gift of time.  This might fit in the “management” column, but the idea behind it fits in the “leadership” area.  I have always asked for agenda items from staff that they are willing to speak to, but if I feel it is something that can be quickly shared in an email or is not applicable to the majority of staff, it is something that can be saved for another time.  Staff meetings should rarely (if ever) be over an hour.  Most of your time should be spent on improving learning.  That is why teachers teach.  As principal, I have to figure out ways to give them as much time individually and collectively to improve their practice.

These are just some ideas of what I see as the roles of a principal but there are other things that we can do.  If we show up just to manage  a school, we will honestly probably do more harm than good.  People never want to be managed.  Principals should lead.  I believe that if we do that, schools will continue to need us more now than they ever have.


16 thoughts on “Do we need (great) principals?

  1. Sue Dunlop

    This post captured the true important aspects of what principals do. Operations and management suck time from these. Thank you!

  2. Shawn Blankenship

    Great post as always George. I’ve read Josh’s post and understand his point of view. I think you hit the nail on the head when you use the word (Great) Principals. I also love the comparison to teachers and the fact that we need (Great) teachers or they could become obsolete as well.

    As principals, we must understand that the title of “instructional leader” is not automatic when you become principal. Many times principals see themselves as instructional leaders, but when you ask the teachers, they don’t. If you really want to be seen as the instructional leader, you’re going to have to work at it.

    As teachers, we must understand that it’s all about building a strong relationship with every student. When teaching, quit looking at the SMARTBoard and instead, look the students in the eyes. Teach the student rather than the lesson. Otherwise, there are some pretty good virtual learning happening all over the world.

    I could not agree more George. We are going to need (Great) Principals more than ever. We are also going to need (Great) Teachers!


  3. Bill Ferriter

    Hey Pal,

    Here's the thing: I can honestly say that I've worked for a SMALL handful of principals who actually do ANY of the things that you describe here.

    I wonder sometimes if our view of principals is skewed simply because we are so flippin' lucky to network with some of the most remarkable people.

    Is the average guy ever lucky enough to work with folks like this?


    Rock on,

    1. mkomorris

      There are likely a few complex 'the thing"s in play here.
      My perspective is that of an educator currently in the role of principal, and was in the role of classroom teacher (who has only worked for handful of principals) for 16 years before coming to this role. Before reading replies, I added each of those elements George named as dimensions of the work and role of principal to my professional journal to give some thought and do some writing about how I might (or might not) be contributing to our school in that way. I, too, strive to be the principal I wanted to work with as a teacher – and now know that I work w/ teachers who need and want something very different than I did. While I know too many days I fall short of effectively living these elements for each teacher, student and family – I struggle when I read the perspective that there are few principals who do ANY of these things. I offer a word of caution – over statements like "ALL, always, and never" can mischaracterize reality.

  4. Matt Renwick

    Nice post! I am a principal that needs to give more time to teachers to improve their practices. I concur with your opinion on meetings as well. Also, I like Shawn's statement – "Teach the student rather than the lesson." Wise words.

  5. Josh Stumpenhorst


    I see you perspective and agree with you that we do need "great" principals. My post was more to stir the pot and raise some questions about the role of administrators in general.

    To push your thinking more, I would ask how many administrators you have worked with that exhibit the things you outline above? I think great principals should/could do those things. However, in my own experiences and of those I speak with, I have to say very few have the luck of working with such leaders you describe. In fact, a majority would argue they have never had the pleasure of working for people of this caliber and experience quite the opposite.

    With that in mind, is it better to work for a bad administrator or not have one at all?


  6. Josh Stumpenhorst

    I knew you were going to go there… :)

    There is surely credit to be given on both sides of the argument. I agree we need good people going into the administrative ranks that are doing it for the right reasons. You know my thoughts on this and my own hesitations. It also may not be fair for me to cast stones but I merely raise questions for discussion. We do need good administrators but we also need good teachers…so for now I will stay in the classroom and push those around me to be better, admin and fellow teachers.

    At the end of the day we need good teachers, good administrators, good parents and good policy makers…we all play a part in making learning good for kids. I feel the best way to do this is to push and challenge each other to promote improvement and growth like we do in spaces like this.

    Thanks for the conversation George.

  7. Dan McGuire

    #5 in the Alberta list is the biggest failure in most places, I think, and administration's complete dependence on meetings and paper as a means of communication. Email, power points and PDFs are only a very small step removed from the paper passing culture.

    Poet points and PDFs are one communication tools. Searchable Group forums should be used instead of emails for everything but the most personal. Eliminating all forms, well, at least, most forms of hierarchical communication will go a long in facilitating growth in all of the Alberta Principal Quality Standards

  8. Dan McGuire

    I meant to say power points and PDFs are one-way communication tools. ( re-reading before submitting is important.)

  9. D. Parker

    Here is a question, in our culture of "blame the teacher", how do faculty effectively deal with a principal that is staggeringly deficient in all of the areas mentioned above, except for the bureaucratic machinations of management. In my experience, if one is skilled in the bureaucratic efficiency required of a building level administrator, a principal can survive with poor or nonexistent skills in all other areas until the damage done to the school culture is nearly irreparable. In two or three years, turnover, absenteeism, community and detachment and poor relationships with stakeholders can create a death spiral. Yet, the credibility of teachers has been so undermined that appeals through official channels, including the marginally helpful exit interviews, often fall on deaf ears.

    In the US, since NCLB in 2001, the collective data-fetish seems to have elevated a generation of education managers whose skills are more akin to those of contract attorneys or accountants. In other words, we know what skills an excellent principal should have, yet the reform culture so overvalued the least important aspects of the job you identified that we are seeing the "Peter Principle" magnified ten thousand times in American education. It's no wonder that many have said that the colossal failure that is NCLB will be remembered in history as the Dark Ages of US public education.

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