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ImageWhat's the Most Frustrating Part of Being a Principal?


What are the biggest challenges faced by school principals? Our "Principal Files" team members recently reflected on the downside of principaling. They share their thoughts about unfunded mandates, kids who fall through the cracks, a lack of parent support, and more.

"I get frustrated when some teachers pass in to me substandard work that they would never accept from their students. Some of those same teachers want me to make exceptions when I've set a deadline -- but they complain about students who don't turn their work in on time. I'm not sure we always hold ourselves to the same high expectations that we expect of our students."
--- Anonymous principal

In the first part of this article, principals shared the best part of being a principal. But, love their jobs as they do, every principal faces frustrating moments. In the interest of balance, we asked out "Principal Files" team of principals to share some of the drawbacks to life in the principal's office. Here are some of their reflections.


While Washington spins the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law one way, many principals see it in a different light. Often, they see new rules and regulations that are not backed up by the funds necessary to make them work.

"Not having the resources to be effective at the job" is one of the biggest frustrations faced by John Jones, principal at Bynum Elementary School in Kinston, North Carolina.

"One of my greatest frustrations is increasing expectations on the state level but decreasing assistance," added Lee Yeager, principal at the S&S Middle School in Sadler, Texas.

One of principal Deborah Harbin's biggest frustrations is trying to carry out rules and laws made by people "who don't understand public schools."

"Growth is one of the biggest problems I face. In the first half of the school year, we received 31 new students due to new home developments in the area. Schedules have to be created and the new students have to be caught up on procedures and assessed academically. This creates a lot of work for the staff and it causes overcrowding in some grade levels. Of course it also creates opportunity. Our school district is fast-tracking a new school that will house K-8 students. I have been selected to be the principal of this new K-8 school, and what a challenge it will be!"
--- Larry Davis, principal, Doctors Inlet Elementary School in Middleburg, Florida

"Laws created by people who have never tried to teach a child, never seen how out-of-control behavior can disrupt learning, and never even been in a school building since their own school days make the principal's job harder every year," said Harbin, principal at Duryea Elementary School in Houston.

And new rules sometimes add to the paperwork required of school administrators, added Bonita Henderson, assistant principal at the Parham School in Cincinnati. "That paperwork is one of my biggest frustrations," said Henderson. "I could be reaching more children in a positive manner if I wasn't completing forms."

Most frustrating of all for principal Phil Shaman of the Neepawa Area Collegiate Institute, Neepawa, Manitoba (Canada), is knowing what is required to provide supports for kids but not being able to do that due to budget or staffing constraints or the lack of community support. "When students' needs are not met, we end up losing some of those students, which, in turn, results in further loss of community support, staffing, and budgeting" said Shaman.


"Some of the biggest frustrations that I face as principal range from a shortage of quality teachers and under-funded federal and state mandates to aging facilities," said principal Roy Sprinkle of the Bay Haven School in Sarasota, Florida. "Another issue that frustrates me would be families who do not value education and support their school's efforts. Family support is required in order for education to be successful."

When it comes to parent involvement and support, Sprinkle considers himself fortunate. "I am currently at a school where families are required by contract to cooperate and support the school's efforts or they can be dismissed.

"One problem I face that drives me totally crazy is the lack of authority to make critical decisions. Some districts do a good job of portraying the principal as a school's final authority, but the reality in public education is that most principals lack the authority to make the decisions necessary to ensure that outcomes can be directly attributed to their leadership abilities. Matters such as personnel, budget, and specific strategies to improve student behavior should rest with the instructional leaders who spend their days with the staff and students in the building. If we want principals to be more effective, it is my belief that they need to be granted more responsibility for that which they are held accountable."
--- Dr. Layne Hunt, principal at Fair Plain Renaissance Middle School in Benton Harbor, Michigan

"With parent support and quality teachers we have been able to close the achievement gap."

Principal Tim Messick of the Providence Day School in Charlotte, North Carolina, is always disappointed "when the partnership between parents and teacher becomes broken and I can't get it back to the place I'd like. Whether the parents feel let down or they don't want to hear or understand the real issues, I want to be able to help bridge that gap in an effort to turn things around and make the situation a win-win."

At St. Martin's Episcopal School in Atlanta, elementary school principal Sue Astley emphasizes that the joys of her job far outweigh the frustrations, but she does get concerned when parents make excuses for their children. "I think some parents are interested in 'fixing' everything for their children. They never let students suffer the consequences of their actions. I see them begin to play the 'blame game' -- others are at fault; their child has no responsibility for a poor grade or the unfinished project."


John Durkee's biggest frustration as a principal is "losing a student."

"By that, I mean that a student -- for whatever reason -- decides that their education here has no relevance to their lives and leaves school without a diploma," explained Durkee, principal at Marcellus (New York) High School.

"I know what kind of job and existence awaits those students, and I want more for them than they want for themselves."

Michael Shaffer of McCulloch Middle School in Marion, Indiana, is another principal who gets most frustrated when he sees good kids fail. "I hate it when I know a student has potential to excel, but not the motivation to do so," he told Education World.

But Shaffer has a special reason for that being his greatest frustration: "I was one of those at-risk, non-motivated students in sixth and seventh grades. Had I not changed schools in the eighth grade, I would have been in what were euphemistically referred to as 'bonehead' courses back in the 70s. At the new school in which I enrolled, teachers refused to accept the high end of below average as acceptable for me. They pushed me to excel in eighth grade and beyond."

"What is my biggest frustration? That's an easy one. The joys are definitely the kids and the challenges are mostly the teachers. Students are so resilient, but teachers sometimes forget that our students are still kids. Teachers are hard to change and can't always go with the flow."
--- Anonymous principal

By the time Shaffer graduated from high school, he was ranked first in his class. "I thrived because teachers cared," he added.

Helping all students thrive is principal Nina Newlin's goal too. "When we have tried every strategy we know and a child is still routinely failing classes or regularly showing up in the alternative classroom, it really gets me down," said Newlin, principal at Rock Hall (Maryland) Middle School.

"Our staff expends so much energy on building relationships, putting supports in place for kids, and setting up and improving strategies to produce more positive behavior that it seems we should be able to do something positive for every single child," Newlin added.

"Of course, sometimes it is not until years later that you find out that you did have a positive effect in spite of all current evidence to the contrary."

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