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.



  1. Claire said:

    I have worked at a school where the principal only focused on the administrative end and it was not an inspiring place to work. My guess is this particular principal was very insecure in the position. That lack of confidence made this person very susceptible to ‘yes’ people and closed to any type of suggestions. For a while, I just felt frustrated. As I reflected, I figured out ways to make it work but I also realized that this principal was not not doing their part in creating a great culture. I don’t think this person did this me personally, but I do believe anyone with that opportunity and position has a responsibility to reflect and improve or move on. I wish there were two principals… One for admin stuff and one to create, develop, and improve upon a school’s culture. Or better yet, a business manager who handles the back end stuff, freeing the principal up to lead and inspire. Is this out there already?

    June 19, 2012
  2. Mariana said:

    I’ve been teaching for several years and have worked with many different administrators. I find it very telling of a school and its culture when a principal can go on maternity leave for a year and a half and the school is still running smoothly. This happened in my charter school. Thanks to the teachers and their strong leadership (inside and outside the classroom), our school was able to handle anything. One school registrar, one assistant, and 12 teachers managed our charter school amazingly well.

    June 19, 2012
  3. Alan said:

    I have been a principal for quite a few years now and I believe the biggest change was to learn to take satisfaction from all of the things that I enabled,led or helped talented staff do. We all help to run/make a great school and we all have a role. It’s important to know what your role is and to do it really well.

    June 21, 2012
  4. Mike Parent said:

    I recently completed my fourth year as a high school principal. When I took the job, I knew I could be no one other than myself. I am a teacher at heart – a people person – a defender of the professional educator – a plain spoken man – and someone who values time in the classroom and in the meeting room. I was different from my predecessors; they seemed to value law, order, tradition, and fitting the mold of the stereotypical principal. They were good people and I loved them. But I could not be them.

    Now I am off to another principal position at another high school in another district. People are vetting me (as I expect them to) and asking my staff about me. Only now – as a I am leaving – do I realize how different I really was… how much I affected the climate and culture of the building. In some respects, it was gratitude I wish I had heard over the past four years. But I appreciate the thank you I am getting now.

    During the interview process for my new job, one of the panelists said to me afterwards, “You know, teachers are institutionalized – they never really have broken away from the concept and culture of the institution of schooling. They want to be lead, not always asked to lead. Shared leadership and true collaboration are foreign concepts.” He told me this not as a warning, but as a response to my style.

    Regardless of the institutionalization of the teacher, I must be who I am – the rules of the game be damned.

    Thank you for the post. A little affirmation goes a long way.

    June 21, 2012
  5. George – thanks for such a thoughtful article. I would like permission to quote it in an upcoming book. Could you please let me know how you would like the work cited? Please email Thanks.
    Doug Reeves

    June 29, 2012
  6. Bev Booker said:

    What principals need to realise is that their schools are only as good as the people that teach in them. Unless we get to know our people and what it is they have to offer our school, we are sadly missing the opportunity to make our school a better place for the children. Taking time to build relationships is surely one of the most important tasks of a principal. Thank you for your most valuable insight to the real roles of a principal.

    July 2, 2012
    • Amen Bev! Relationships in house are the most important and vital to success!

      July 2, 2012

Comments are closed.