The Role of a Principal
I admit that, as a teacher, I’m guilty of looking around the school and wondering what all the other people do all day. You know, those people who don’t spend all day in the classroom trying to cram knowledge into young minds as quickly as those same young minds are determined to go home and jettison it all. I often think, “must be nice to have that job” as I lug home yet another set of essays to grade. I think it when I end yet another frustrating conference with the parent of a child who can do no wrong, at least in that parent’s eyes. And I think it every time I fork over another few hundred dollars for classroom supplies, books, and other teaching materials.
In an attempt to understand these people and what it is they do all day, I’ve decided to begin a monthly series exploring the jobs of people who work within the school, but not within the classroom. For my first installment, I would like to focus on the principal--the oft-maligned, overworked figurehead of the school.
Almost every time I write the word “principal”, my mind flashes back to the grade-school mnemonic about how to remember the difference between “principal” and “principle”—the principal is someone who is supposed to be your pal.
I find this device cute, if somewhat trite, but occasionally I stop and think about it more closely. Is the principal truly someone who teachers can think of as a pal? Or is he or she instead an authoritarian figurehead, uncompromising and unwilling to try and understand issues from a teacher’s point of view, driven by some esoteric and ethereal bottom line that always seems to be out of reach? What drives people to take on a job that looks, at least on the surface, so thankless? And how can the oft-present animosity between teachers and administrators be reduced?
The origin of the word “principal” dates back to the 15th century, and initially denoted a ruler, leader, or foreman. In the mid-1800s, it came into common use to describe a person in charge of a public school. According to researcher Joseph Murphy, in the 19th century, “educational administration was not recognized as a distinct profession. In this "ideological era," school leaders were simply learned authorities whose insights into the truth provided guidance to teachers, students, and the public. Little training was required.” As the educational system in the United States developed, an increasing focus was placed on the training of school administrators, and at the dawn of the 20th century, schools for training school administrators were established. These early schools focused on educational administration using a technical and business model. As these schools evolved, the approach shifted to a theoretical one, and from there, to the current focus on problem-based learning.
In early grammar schools in the United States, teachers often took on many of the roles associated with principals today--student discipline, school-community interaction, management of the school environment, and ordering supplies. As the years passed and schools grew larger and catered to a broader student population, the role of a principal evolved as well. According to a September/October 2000 piece by Millie Pierce in Harvard's EdLetter titled "Portrait of the 'Super Principal'", a principal only 15 years ago worked an average of 40 hours a week with most of the summer off, belonged to a principal's union, and aspired to ascend the career ladder.
Principal's union? Granted, I'm only heading into my 5th year in the classroom, so I'm a young'un yet, but I can't even imagine such a thing existing, especially in a district with as strong a CTA as mine has.
According to the same article, a principal in the year 2000, when Pierce wrote her column, worked 10 hours a day and another 8 on weekends or evenings, and probably will retire by the age of 57, exhausted by the longer hours, greater responsibilities, and increased accountability. Aside from managing the staff and dealing with major discipline problems, principals are now expected to complete state-mandated paperwork, attend IEP meetings, develop and coordinate the master schedule, and attend district- and county-level meetings, school activities, and even community functions. In my district, the principal is even expected to join the local Rotary organization and attend Rotary meetings. Because of all of the other duties, managing the staff and promoting faculty development and support has become almost an auxiliary function of the principal, one to be done when time permits.
In order to handle this wide variety of jobs, California public school principals are required to have at least one bachelor’s degree, a teaching credential in any subject, and a minumum of three years of teaching experience (this can, however, be as a librarian or a school counselor--it doesn't necessarily have to be a classroom placement.) Then they must complete a state-approved educational services credential program, which gives them a five-year preliminary credential (same as any California teaching credential.) Within that five years, they must complete a state-approved program to receive their professional clear credential.
According to the California department of Education, in 2005-2006, approximately 76% of school administrators had a master's degree or greater. It should be noted that this statistic includes *all* people with an active administrative services credential, not just principals. In reality, the number of principals with at least a master's degree is likely much higher, due to the nature of the job.
For all the job entails, the average salary for California principals in 2003-2004 ranged from $78,686 for an elementary school principal in a small (ADA < 1000) school, to $109,001 for a high school principal in a large (ADA > 4000) school.
In the four years I have been with my district, we have gone through seven principals/assistant principals. This is, in my way of thinking, a ridiculously large turnover which benefits no one--staff, faculty, students, or community. Some never wanted the job in the first place--they were transferred in at the whim of district office. Some looked at the job as a stepping stone to a better job elsewhere in county or state educational administration. Some quit to go back into the classroom or to an administrative position at an elementary school, where the demands of the job were less. And some, thankfully, were released by the district for failure to perform. According to a 2003 article in Leadership by Katherine Cushing, Judith A. Kerrins, and Thomas Johnstone, titled "Disappearing Principals", most principals cite low pay, job stress, long hours, and lack of systemic resort as the overwhelming reasons why they leave the profession, or at the very least, transfer schools.
So what can be done to combat this high turnover rate and give all schools and teachers the stable, strong leadership they need? Both "Disappearing Principals" and "Portrait of the 'Super Principal'" cite systemic support as the most important factor in attracting and retaining qualified candidates. While both articles advocate a two-leader approach, in "Portrait", Pierce brings up the idea of having a principal teacher, a person with many years of classroom experience and whose main responsibility would be student and teacher performance, as well as a principal administrator, whose primary focus would be plant management, data collection, and parent relations. A main difference between Pierce's and Cushing's approaches is that with Pierce's model, the principal administrator would be subordinate to the principal teacher, whereas Cushing envisions a co-principal role, where leadership, responsibility, and accountability are equally shared among both partners.
I'm more inclined to lean toward Pierce's model, simply because I like the idea of having an experienced teacher as my primary evaluator. I'm going into my fifth year of teaching, which means, according to the state of California, that I already have one more year of teaching than the minimum required to become an administrator, which also is more classroom experience than three of the seven administrators I've had in the past four years.
I spent my first three years teaching just trying to get my head above water (although, to be fair, I had other duties within the school outside of my classroom that made that a much more difficult process), and it wasn't until last year that I felt like I wasn't struggling on a daily basis with basic planning and management. I can't imagine only spending three years in the classroom and then going into administration, and I don't blame teachers for resenting being evaluated by administrators with less classroom experience than their own. In my (admittedly narrow) view, this is one of the main causes of friction between teachers and administrators--the perceived lack of understanding by administrators regarding classroom management and individual instructional styles of teachers.
This is something that can be combatted in two ways. First, the state needs to increase the number of years a prospective administrator is required to have spent in the classroom, and second, administrators need to spend more time in the classroom--not just as teachers, but watching teachers and getting to know their styles. I can count on one hand the number of times I've seen an administrator in my classroom for something besides a formal evaluation, and even when I was being evaluated, it was always scheduled well in advance, started late, and ended early. I've invited many an administrator to drop by, but they rarely ever do. I can hardly blame them, because I know and respect how much work they have to do, but at the same time, I don't believe it benefits anyone to have so little oversight over teachers. Although I'm in my principal's office on a regular basis for feedback and meetings regarding the programs I run, I'd really like more feedback on my teaching methods. Since that's not a possiblity, I rely on peers, students, and parents, and while all of these are definitely beneficial, I would like input from the people responsible for designating my teaching assignment.
Despite not getting my wish to have more administrative input into my teaching methods, I've been fortunate in that I've always had a good rapport with my principals. While I wouldn't say that any of my principals have been my pals, I have felt supported in my teaching and my programs, and have really felt like I've had the ear of all of the principals with whom I've worked.
There are many more things I would like to discuss in this post, such as length and quality of educational administration programs, disparities in administration between wealthier and poorer districts, and novel ways of attracting and retaining administrators that some districts have tried, that would require far more time than I currently have--there's another school year brewing on the horizon, and I have to meet with my own principal regarding... well, everything but my teaching methods.
In next month's installment in the "what do they do" series, I'll take a look at the role of guidance counselors, and especially at the detrimental effect of the average guidance counselor ratio in California public high schools of 1:966.