As a grade school student, you probably thought of your principal as a remote but awesome power. When you saw them, they were typically tucked behind the podium at school assemblies or sitting calmly among unfamiliar faces when the local broadcasting station televised board meetings. If you remember them for any particular quality, it’s probably their consistency. They were even-keeled and professional in all situations, whether dealing with an unruly janitor or announcing their plans to revamp your school’s curriculum.
As an adult, you presumably have a more comprehensive image of the professionals who fill this essential leadership role. You know that all school principals want every member of their school to be successful. They aim to provide students with teachers who will make the most significant difference in their learning and development. Their responsibilities extend beyond students and teachers to every supporting member of the school system, from coaches to counselors to aides, secretaries, and school nurses.
Throughout the year, principals also plan school events, guide disciplinary best practices, and foster community relationships. They do more with less by deciding which school services are most relevant and how to combine resources without losing out on efficiency. When a budget is tight, they make up for it by championing their school, rallying support for increased funding or donations.
The responsibilities of a principal make up an enormous, ever-changing collection of demands. How can you be sure that you’re cut out for this job? Being a genuine school leader requires more than a daily checklist. Here are some signs you’ve got the characteristics to meet the prerequisites of the job.
According to a 2019 occupational overview from the Department for Professional Employees, most school principals and administrators need teaching experience before moving into school leadership positions. On average, public school principals have 12.2 years of teaching experience, while private school principals opt for 13.9 years before making the jump.
Given the initial requirement, you’ll need to earn at least a bachelor's degree in education along with teaching certification. School counseling is another possible education path for principals. During a counseling bachelor’s program, you’ll learn about human behavior, interpersonal communication, crisis intervention, social policy, and psychology.
As a principal, you’ll be expected to volunteer to head a committee or spearhead new projects. You might become a department chair or receive training in behavior reform initiatives to support students in all areas of the school community, from classrooms and hallways to buses and athletic facilities.
It’s not uncommon for a school to keep certain practices in place for years or even decades simply because of their historical status. In contrast, it will be your responsibility to challenge the status quo and methodically consider new and better ways of doing things, whether that’s through a new reading program or informal after-school discussion sessions during which teachers can discuss their concerns. Ultimately, you’ll be the one to set the direction for your school and invest time into developing a shared understanding of what it should “look like" and what needs to be done to get it there.
Whether facing issues related to student attendance, parent involvement, or class schedules, principals know that the right answers don’t always come easily and that a quick fix is seldom the right solution to any significant concern. Any issue that puts the needs or interests of their school at stake requires them to put their situational awareness, critical thinking, and communication skills to work so that they can discover the underlying problem and correct it.
The most successful principals don’t work alone, but seek out perspectives from faculty in staff to help ensure the most effective possible solutions. A 2017 study from Rutgers University and the Industrial and Labor Relations (IRL) School at Cornell University on educator collaboration in U.S. public schools proves the effectiveness of this approach.
In it, researchers analyzed over 400 schools, reporting that principals and union leaders who involve teachers in their decision-making process are more likely to see significant and essential gains for students. On average, 12.5 percent more students performed at or above standards in English and 4.5 percent more performed at or above standards in math at schools with the highest level of collaboration than students at schools with the lowest level of collaboration.
A principal’s day is virtually an endless list of expected—and unexpected—events and activities. For one, they spend lots of time thinking about their students, whether trying to get to the root problem of one student’s home situation or brainstorming ways to help another overcome a learning disability.
Principals also make a load of decisions every day. The small ones are often made swiftly to benefit their school and avoid conflicts related to anything from staffing and budgeting to overcrowded classes and bullying issues. In the event of staff meetings, principals see their participation as an opportunity to strengthen dynamic relationships with their staff rather than one that relies on authority.
They’re responsible for budget planning, too, crunching numbers on how and where to spend money and working to find grants and other funds to keep specific programs afloat. They also work with parent groups to help them understand the complexities of education and balance their needs with what teachers think is possible. And even in the most well-managed schools, principals deal with unhappy people, whether staff, students, or disgruntled parents.
Principals are responsible for continuously improving their approach to their profession through study, reflection, practice, and hard work. With educational technology, school district guidelines, and curriculum standards continually changing, professional development is key to their ability to keep up with the trends and best practices in their field. It also encourages teachers to pursue professional development opportunities of their own, not only to ensure the best learning outcomes for students but also to be more effective in their roles.
While principals often receive credit for their school’s successes, they must also take ownership of its failures, whether a series of damaging hires, failing to protect a bullied student, or keeping on an ineffective teacher.
With as much negativity as positivity landing in their offices, how principals handle conflict and criticism plays an immense role in their success. Better yet, they’ll tell you that the rewards they reap by receiving feedback—happier teachers who stick around, a school that genuinely meets the needs of students, and the priceless knowledge that they’re doing a good job—are worth it.
The academic path to becoming a principal varies mainly by state, the job market in a given area, and school type. Despite this, it’s common for aspiring principals to pursue a master’s degree in education or a more specific field like educational leadership or education administration.
Many of these degree types offer elective courses, which aspiring principals may opt for to receive specialized training for careers in certain school types or learning environment. Others may get involved in their community by volunteering for planning groups or committees to add work experience that may come in hand as they seek out employment in the field.
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