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The Best and Worst Things
About Being a Principal


A recent study by Public Agenda documents principals' feelings about their jobs. Today, Education World does its own survey. Our Principal Files principals share their thoughts about the best and worst "principal tasks." Included: Join the "Best and Worst Things About Being a Principal" discussion on our Administrators message board!

ImageIt was the best of times, it was the worst of times ...

I doubt that being a principal was what Charles Dickens had in mind when he put pen to paper -- but that opening line from A Tale of Two Cities might describe the feelings many principals have about their jobs.

According to a recent study conducted by Public Agenda, most principals are overwhelmed with the workload associated with their job. The job, it seems, has so many facets that no Superman or Wonder Woman could do all the job entails and do it all well. Think about it -- it would be impossible for one person to be accomplished at a long list of "principal tasks" that includes

  • budgets
  • community relations
  • curriculum/professional development
  • dealing with parent issues
  • discipline
  • facility management/coordination
  • program/mission evaluation and strategic planning
  • school safety
  • student assessment
  • teacher evaluation

Some communities recognize that the principal's job has changed dramatically in the last decade or two. They have relieved principals by hiring administrative assistants or co-principals to share the growing list of duties.

So what responsibilities would principals never give up? What responsibilities would they willingly relinquish? The answers to those questions depend on the principals with whom you speak. We talked to our team of Principal Files Principals. We asked them to tell us which responsibility provided the most job satisfaction. Of course, we also asked which duty they would get rid of in a heartbeat. Here's what our Principal Files principals had to say.


Perhaps you will find it surprising to learn that several of our Principal Files team members enjoy their student discipline responsibilities most of all. "I enjoy the direct contact with children, steering them to make better choices," principal William Sheehan told Education World. "The issues that arise provide settings for real-life learning. Learning to make wise decisions in our roles as 'good citizens' is a process where caring and patient guidance and reinforcement are vital."

Discipline is among principal Jed Landsman-Yakin's favorite responsibilities too. "Because the work day of this administrator is so 'micro-scalpally' fragmented, the time I get to spend with students is the connection I have to what is really happening in my school. When they come to my office for a discipline notice, they are in serious need of an adult willing to listen to them and a voice they can believe in. I try to give that to every student."

Read More About It!

Read an Education World article about the Public Agenda study referred to in this article.

Thank You!

Education World sends off a big "Thank you!" to the principals who contributed to this article. Go to the list of those principals and their schools at the end of the article.

"I'm good at getting kids to confess their sins," added principal Lucie Boyadjian. "Rarely do I have to raise my voice to children. I express my disappointment in their behavior in such a way that they want to do better next time. I also make sure to check up on the students periodically so they know they are not forgotten, that I'm still concerned, and that I still care about them."

Working on curriculum and professional development is an area to which a number of P-Files principals gravitate. "Instructional leadership is what originally attracted me to the position of principal," Colleen McKee told Education World. "Working in an environment that is striving to continually improve student learning and achievement is what excites me.

"As a classroom teacher, I was able to directly affect only those students assigned to me for the year, but in the role of principal, I am able to support and positively affect all teachers and students in my school," added McKee. "I enthusiastically read to remain current with what is happening in the area of curriculum. I particularly enjoy the creativity, collaboration, and collegiality involved in the [curriculum development] process."

Curriculum/professional development is a favorite part of principal Betty Peltier's job too. "After a while you realize there is no one best method. You are able to see the big picture rather than jumping on some new idea as a solution," said Peltier. "I try to play on the strengths of teachers by exposing them to a variety of methods and 'tricks of the trade' so that they can find something that works for every child."

Principal Jim DeGenova's curriculum and professional development hat is one he especially likes to wear. Working in those areas is the reason he became an administrator, he told Education World. "I also work teacher evaluation into the professional development part of the job by aiming goals at the topics being addressed by the professional development," he said.

Strategic planning and program evaluation are the favorite role of principal Laura Crochet. "I guess I gravitate toward it because it allows me the luxury of creating a vision in a job that is so much day by day -- or should that be minute by minute?" said Crochet.

Principal Michael Miller loves strategic planning and evaluation too. "Our district has a three to five-year strategic plan," said Miller. "I have the same thing at the school level. All members of the faculty, staff, and community have had a part in determining the direction of our school." Miller's job is to keep tabs on whether the school community is moving toward its goal, or if it's standing still.

"The goal-setting helps keep me focused on what we need to do in order to reach the goal," added Miller.

Developing a good relationship with the community is principal Patricia Green's favorite principal task. She networks with many leaders in her community, from the operators of the local service station and latte stand to the manager of the bank and hospital complex. The world we are preparing our students for becomes more real by involving the community in the school, said Green. "Students have opportunities to find out about the community, and they learn to participate as citizens," she added. In addition, community members come to understand "how they can give back by donating money or equipment, by providing mentors, and by spreading good words about today's kids."

Principal Jon Romeo agrees that building community relations is the best part of the job. He's attracted to the role because "above all, I enjoy interacting with people young and old.

"Building a community among students, staff, and families is the foundation that everything else is built on," added Romeo.

Principal Chris Rose enjoys many parts of his job, including dealing with building issues. "All the maintenance [people] are very pleasant and helpful, and there is no emotion in maintenance," said Rose. "It makes a nice break from the tasks that carry so much high emotion."


More Principal Files Articles

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* Has Accountability Taken All the Fun Out of Teaching and Learning?
* Principals Offer Advice to Job Seekers
* The Principal Shortage -- Why Doesn't Anybody Want the Job?
* The Principal Shortage -- What Can Schools Do to Attract a New Generation of School Leaders?

Our informal survey reveals that dealing with budgets, teacher evaluations, and upset parents top the list of principals' least favorite tasks.

"Budgeting consumes too much time for the buck," says principal Laura Crochet.

Jim DeGenova agrees. "The uncertainty of the budget has become my biggest nightmare," he said. "Just when a program seems to be working, the funding disappears and we end up back at square one." The lack of adequate funding can have many ramifications, DeGenova added. It affects community relations, parents, discipline, and school safety, he said.

William Sheehan finds building a budget to be mundane and agonizing. "There is never enough money to go around, so the process of narrowing priorities becomes all-important," said Sheehan. "I do try to include teachers in the budget process as much as possible, but the final decisions about how monies are to be allocated are up to me."

Several principals expressed exasperation with teacher evaluations. "It's at the bottom of my list," Jon Romeo told Education World. "I have yet to work with an evaluation instrument that truly works to improve teaching and learning. Too often, the evaluation process is a ritual that has minimal impact on student achievement and teacher growth."

Lucie Boyadjian sounded off about teacher evaluations too. "We conduct a 30-minute classroom observation prior to writing a formal evaluation on tenured teachers," said Boyadjian. "We all know that a snapshot photo conducted that way does not reflect what a teacher truly knows or does."

"The paperwork and time spent doing the pre-conference, observation, evaluation, and post-conference seems redundant to me," said Betty Peltier. "I know we need documentation on file, but I feel I keep up with the teachers almost daily. I pride myself on knowing what is going on in classrooms. I often conference with them individually and in grade-level groups."

Managing a facility is at the bottom of Colleen McKee's list of principal responsibilities. "I don't feel this is a good use of my time," McKee told Education World. "My expertise is in the area of leadership and curriculum, not whether or not the building is properly maintained."

"My least favorite principal task is the police person role I daily must play," said Patricia Green. "While I understand and accept the importance of this school safety role, it is truly one I wish schools didn't have to spend so much time and energy focusing upon."

Upset parents, parents who confront teachers, and parents who drop the ball when it comes to their responsibilities top principals' lists of least favorite things. "The thing I like least is dealing with non-supportive parents -- ones who express shock at the misbehavior of their children and maintain steadfastly that they are no problem at home," said one principal. "I almost bought a lie detector once. I still regret not purchasing it."

"I get tired of dealing with parents who want everyone's child but their own disciplined," another principal said. "Many parents want the rules bent for their child. ... The students know the parents will come in and bail them out of every situation that is unpleasant. When did the school become 'always wrong'?"

"I have had conferences stopped when the parents became verbally abusive," said another principal who has had it with rude parents. "My teachers work hard every day. They don't deserve verbal abuse from parents. I had another parent arrested the other day for physically coming onto a bus and threatening a bus driver. Enough is enough."

"Generally, the staff wants the maximum punishment -- and if you don't hand it out, you are not supportive of them," said another principal, "and the students and parents generally are on the other side, arguing just as persuasively for leniency."

Adults, in general, can be aggravating, according to another P-Files principal. "Power struggles, lack of communication, micro-management, political upheavals, backstabbing, and resistance to change are issues I have seen entirely too much of during the past several years," the principal said.

Thanks to This Month's P-Files Contributors

  • Lucie Boyadjian, principal, Glen Oaks School, Hickory Hills, Illinois
  • Laura B. Crochet, principal, Genesis Alternative High School, Houma, Louisiana
  • Jim DeGenova, principal, Reed Middle School, Hubbard, Ohio
  • Dr. Patricia Green, principal, Cedar Heights Junior High School, Port Orchard, Washington
  • Jed Landsman-Yakin, principal, Belfry High School, Belfry, Montana
  • Colleen McKee, principal, Stillwater Elementary School, Carnation, Washington
  • Michael D. Miller, principal, Saturn Elementary School, Cocoa, Florida
  • Betty Peltier, principal, Southdown Elementary School, Houma, Louisiana
  • Jon Romeo, principal, Bradford Elementary School, Westerly, Rhode Island
  • Chris Rose, principal, Plymouth School, Yarmouth County, Nova Scotia (Canada)
  • William A. Sheehan, principal, Allen Avenue School, North Attleborough, Massachusetts