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It's Time to
Reinvent the Principalship


The idea of a single principal who can do everything may have to be replaced by leadership teams that share responsibilities to reduce stress on current administrators -- and entice new candidates to the profession. Included: Eight recommendations for recruiting and retaining principals.

The idea of a "super principal" who can do everything and be everywhere must be replaced with another model for administrators -- or else talented principals will continue to burn out and no one will be willing to replace them.

"Some principals said they don't know how much longer they can do this," Karen M. Dyer of the Center for Creative Leadership said. "Putting all that responsibility onto one person doesn't seem to work."

Dyer was one of the speakers at a presentation, "Retaining and Attracting Fantastic Principals: Eight Research-based Factors," at a recent convention of the Association for School Curriculum Development (ASCD).


Five studies done between 1998 and 2005 disagree on the severity of an upcoming principal shortage, according to Linda O'Neal of Appalachian State University. A 2005 study done by the University of Washington Center on Reinventing Public Education indicated in part that the image of a multi-talented, ever-responsive administrator that many have come to accept is failing to keep good principals and discouraging potential new ones. "The model of the 'super principal' is not working, and we need to rethink the idea of the person who can do this," said O'Neal.

Many potential principal candidates think the pay increase they receive from switching from teaching to administration is not nearly enough to make up for all the extra hours they need to put in, according to the presenters. Others fear the move to administration will have a significant impact on their personal lives, because of the long hours required, limited encouragement and support they receive, and conflicts with family time.

"The model of the 'super principal' is not working, and we need to rethink the idea of the person who can do this."
Those factors have led to a large pool of teachers with administrators' credentials who are not applying for jobs or who do apply but do not have the skills to be administrators.

"Some assistant principals are afraid they will be made principals and they are not ready," Dyer noted.

Dr. Leo Egan, an assistant superintendent in the Weymouth (Massachusetts) Public Schools, said his district had 40 people with the credentials to be administrators. The district recently held a workshop for aspiring administrators. Eleven people showed up, and two left after the first day, Dr. Egan said.

"They broke down the daily rate, and said they would earn less than teachers," he noted. "Most said they were not willing to work 60 to 65 hours per week."


Another issue surfacing in administrators' offices is the different perspective on work between some current administrators and newly-minted or potential Generation X principals, who are in their late 20s and early 30s.

People in that age group were the first to grow up in families with two working parents. They watched their parents work long hours, and they want more balance between their work and family lives, said Roma B. Angel of Appalachian State University.

"Many of them grew up in homes where both parents were working full-time and they had frantic home lives," noted Angel. People that age often regard administrators' positions as underpaid, thankless, and stressful and shy away from them. Individuals that age also look for challenging work for which they receive feedback, the presenters said.

Veteran principals sometimes resent that the younger ones are committed to working fewer hours, but that is something current principals need to accept. It is an approach that may reshape the expectations for principals.

"We have to respect and not look down on their insistence to have balance in their lives," Dyer said. Added Angel: "We need to listen to the voices of another generation -- they might have something to teach us."

"There is no reason that being an administrator should be a job that kills you."

The idea of one principal-fits-all may have to be abandoned in favor of co-principalships or shared leadership with teams of credentialed leaders. Another possibility is making the position more appealing for younger workers by offering more flexible hours, challenging assignments, and increased feedback and communication from superiors.


Based on their own research and reviews of other studies, Angel, Dyer, and O'Neal developed eight recommendations for recruiting and retaining principals:

  • Increase the pool of potential candidates by working with university programs to recruit people.
  • Do more to invite people who have the credentials to apply for the jobs.
  • Provide adequate compensation to keep current principals and recruit new ones. "That's important, but the money isn't always enough to make people stay," Dyer said.
  • Look at ways to involve different types of leaders to oversee a school, building on peoples' strengths and preferences.
  • Provide mentoring programs for new principals.
  • Have support and leadership development systems for administrators at all phases of their careers. "You have to have a safe place for them to talk about school issues," Angel said. The support programs should include skill and leadership training and formal support for principals in high-need schools.
  • Re-tool the working conditions to make the job more attractive. "There is no reason that being an administrator should be a job that kills you," Angel said.
  • Find ways to keep highly-qualified people committed to educating children working beyond traditional retirement age.

Principals also need to talk about the positive aspects of their jobs. "We need principals to explain to teachers what they do," said Angel.

David Schuler, the superintendent of Township District 214, in Illinois, added, "You have to remember that every principal should be a recruiter. You have to keep the focus on hope and optimism."

Despite all the talk of stress and long hours, Helen Guenther, a resource teacher and aspiring principal from Angus McKay School in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, said after the presentation that she is ready for the challenges.

"I'm encouraged by what I heard [about possible changes in working conditions]," said Guenther, who has served as an acting principal. "The district is making an effort to put things into place, with leadership training and opportunities to shadow principals. The district also has some support and resource teachers to help with special needs students."

As Guenther weighs applying for a permanent principal's position as her next career move, she is optimistic about the initiatives her district has undertaken so far to relieve some of the burdens on administrators. "I'm just trying to keep things balanced," she added.