Principals Research Paper

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The principal is often viewed as the key leader of the school. Principals are expected to be master teachers, coaches, human relations experts, food managers, protectors of teachers and students, occasional bus drivers, disciplinarians, and many other things. With the advent of standardized testing emphasized by No Child Left Behind, the role has shifted toward instructional leadership where they are expected to have expertise in every subject field along with superior pedagogical skills to guide classroom teachers through systematic staff development. The principal-ship also represents the logical career step for classroom teachers who wish to have greater influence on the school. They are paid from two to three times the beginning teacher’s salary, and the position carries some amount of prestige in the community. Principals also work long hours and are sometimes under great pressure from unions, demanding parents, unruly students, and central office administration. This research-paper presents an overview of what principals actually do in schools, what they should do according to some national standards, an overview of historical research about the principal’s leadership role, career advice about becoming a principal, and a slice of life as a principal. It concludes with a reference section that includes cited references and information not addressed in the research-paper but of potential interest.

What Principals Do

Of the many different models that have been proposed to help understand the schooling process and the jobs of principals, Parsons’ (1960) model of how organizations function seems to be the most useful tool for examining the work of principals. From Parsons’ perspective, schools have four major functions and can best be understood in terms of how they address these organizational processes.

Maintenance Activities

Maintenance activities are defined as the school’s ability to create and maintain its motivational and value structure. For a school to function effectively over extended periods, there must be a certain sense of client and employee loyalty to the organization—its goals and its culture. Often these values are defined as job satisfaction, staff motivation, job commitment, and central-life interests and are sometimes included under the generic label “climate.”

As leaders of schools, principals must establish desirable cultures that support desirable norms in various ways. Honors banquets, teacher-of-the-week designations, student honor role, awarding of varsity letters for athletics as well as music groups, teacher recognition days, and so forth are all established and intentionally staged activities specifically designed to promote a positive school culture. Principals also do things to suppress activities that threaten climate. Suspending students for disruptive behavior, disciplining employees for reporting late to work, and establishing rules that promote positive behavior are examples of principal activities designed to curtail negative cultural influences.

Cultural maintenance is both a planned and unplanned part of the principal’s day. Planned activities such as pep assemblies, awards ceremonies, and staff parties are included in the school’s normal schedule and reflect the principal’s beliefs about what is important. Unplanned cultural reinforcement might include a principal’s comments during a faculty meeting, conversations with parents, the selection of the type of discipline given to students for inappropriate behavior, attendance at afterschool activities, and the choice of outfit to wear during a school pep assembly or spirit day. These types of activities convey to the staff and community what the principal believes is important, and they typically occur throughout the workweek for the principal. All that he or she does is regarded as setting and reinforcing the norms for the school; thus, the principal and sometimes close family members are on stage at school and in public. He or she is the leader and conveys what is expected and important.

Adaptation Activities

Adaptation activities are defined as the school’s ability to accurately understand and accommodate the external environment. The school’s success at offering programs consistent with its community’s norms and expectations is related to its success in sustaining community support. Schools and school districts lose support and respect if they lose touch with their community. Schools must constantly adapt to deal effectively with environmental pressures and must employ sensitive monitoring mechanisms that provide reliable and timely information on the external environment.

The principal must build a cohesive staff that understands and effectively communicates with the community—a staff that adjusts its programs to match the needs of the children, parents, and the larger community. Principals often read the community by joining social and business groups where they interact with community members and unobtrusively discern their wishes. Through active membership in organizations, principals can understand and interpret the community more effectively and alter the school’s programs and activities to align with community wishes. Other typical activities initiated by the principal and designed to anticipate community wishes are community surveys, school newsletters, open houses, curriculum nights, parent-teacher conferences, and parent advisory groups.

A second part of this adaptation function is to engage in multiple public relations efforts to persuade the public to support the programs, teachers, and goals of the school. Schools must convince the public of the need to support the local school with tax dollars and volunteer help and must especially emphasize the overall concept of the importance of education to children. Newsletters directed to the community and public displays of the school’s activities such as band concerts, art displays, and athletic events play major roles in building community support for schools. The principal’s role is to stage these activities as information for parents and demonstrations of the school’s excellence.

Adaptation is also defined in terms of the ability of schools to keep up with the changing technology. This means that the staff actively experiments with new instructional methods and constantly surveys available resources for new curricular material. Planned and meaningful staff development activities that focus on keeping the staff current are signs of a school ready to take advantage of potential opportunities.

Goal Attainment

Goal attainment is defined as the ability of the school to define objectives, mobilize resources, and achieve desired ends. Goal attainment is widely recognized as an important measure of effectiveness. The billions of dollars spent annually on standardized achievement tests and continuing emphasis on No Child Left Behind are evidence of this recognition. Typically, goal attainment is defined by productivity, resource acquisition, efficiency, and quantity and quality standards. In addition to processes that might lead to goal attainment, such as establishment of quality control or resource allocation systems, actual outcomes typically defined in student terms are also important dimensions of school effectiveness. The most common is academic achievement, however, student affective outcomes such as student self-concept also play critical roles. For example, Brookover, Beadie, Flood, Schweitzer, and Wisenbaker (1979) found that student measures such as academic norms, academic futility, future expectations, present expectations, and teacher expectations seem to be intertwined with overall school climate and to account for a significant amount of variance in student academic achievement.

Increased pressure from state departments of education, superintendents, and many community members to increase student academic performance has forced principals to take a more active role in the instructional process. Now expected to be the instructional leader, principals must engage in many activities: guiding the selection of effective curricular content, diagnosing individual and group student academic needs, assigning students to teachers and programs that will increase their chances of academic success, selecting teaching materials and methods that will help increase test scores, and motivating students to do well on the tests. In many ways principals are the head coach and motivator within the school. This calls for the principal to have genuine expertise in the psychology of teaching and learning and to be a teacher of teachers, not simply the building manager.


Integration is defined as the ability of the school to organize, coordinate, and unify the various school tasks necessary for achievement. Integration is the extent to which the component subsystems or people trust others’ competence and work together in a coordinated fashion. In this sense, integration as it applies to schools typically refers to a pattern of organizational and interpersonal mechanisms that serve to link the various human subcomponents of the school. When integration is loose or trust and respect are absent, the result is often that the staff and students are exposed to repetition (because the staff doesn’t believe the material was adequately taught in the previous courses or the principal generates an excessive number of rules to ensure compliance), significant gaps or overlaps in the curriculum (because few people are aware of what is taught at the other levels), and a general absence of a developmental sequence that capitalizes on prior learning. Other indirect measures of integration are the extent of cohesion-conflict among and between different school groups. As conflict arises, coordination of the educational program and social development suffers and inefficiency happens.

The principal’s role is to ensure that all the entities within the school function together in a desirable direction.

Thus, principals may spend weeks coordinating the curriculum between the math and science department or between the second- and third-grade teachers to ensure students experience a meaningful and coordinated program of study. They might also spend considerable time sequencing a program for an individual special education student to make sure that when the student is mainstreamed, instruction is not interrupted or out of step with previous learning. Scheduling various activities within the building is a common principal activity that helps maintain integration within the school and smooth functioning of the building. Successful integration also involves the delivery of noninstructional services for children such as lunch programs, bus transportation, safety programs, and a host of mundane services such as heat, light, computers, textbook services, and lawn and building maintenance.

Examples of typical behaviors in which a principal might engage in each of the four clusters can be observed in Table 4.1. For example, a principal’s attendance at a convention where the techniques of cooperative learning are being demonstrated would fall into the cluster of behaviors that would affect the adaptation category. Working with a curriculum committee to help define school goals and select tests to measure the accomplishment of these goals would fall under the goal attainment cluster.

principals-research-paper-t1Table 4.1 Examples of Specific Tasks Within Four Generic School Organizational Processes

What Principals Should Do: The ISLLC Standards

In the mid-1990s the Council of Chief State School Officers formed the Council’s Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium (ISLLC) as part of a partnership with the National Policy Board for Educational Administration. Together with other major leadership organizations throughout the nation, they developed and published a set of six model standards (see Table 4.2) reflecting the group’s consensus on what principals should know and understand; what they should be able to do; and what they should believe and value (Council of Chief State School Officers [CCSSO], 1996). These standards became widely adopted in state principal licensure programs and have become the generally accepted norms around which many educational administration preparation programs have been formed.

Subsequently, the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) added to this list based on a review of the existing literature they conducted (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, 2004). The expanded list is termed “Balanced Leadership Framework” and currently is the field’s best representation of what principals should do, believe, think, and know. Obviously, the original ISLLC standards and the reformulated list represent current thinking and are not the ultimate answer to what constitutes effective leadership. Moreover, conforming to all or most of the expectations contained in either list will not guarantee success as a principal. As illustrated below, the important thing is to know which behaviors are important in a given situation to achieve the desired goal and then successfully execute those particular sets of behaviors.

Research About Principals’ Leadership

Society is always searching for the perfect leader: one who will overcome challenges, lead the people to prosperity, serve as the community’s moral or spiritual guide, and generally help them achieve their dreams. Such individuals sometimes emerge and accomplish remarkable things; however, most have emerged unpredictably and effectively served for only short durations. In the past century, there has been an attempt to scientifically identify these prospective leaders and systematically groom them for leadership roles. These identification efforts are often classified into four phases: the search for personal characteristics of great leaders, the search for effective leadership styles or clusters of behaviors, the search for effective leadership behaviors in particular contexts, and lastly, more contemporary views of leadership based on examining the desired outcomes and the context within which this leadership might occur. (See Immegart [1988] for an extended discussion of this topic.)

principals-research-paper-t2Table 4.2    ISLLC and McREL’s Balanced Standards

Personal Characteristics of Great Leaders

Early studies of leadership were characterized by a search for personal qualities that separated superior from average leaders. They tended to focus on such factors as intelligence, dominance, self-confidence, energy level, educational background, philosophical orientation, sex, age, and so forth. This psychological approach to leadership was based on the assumption that individual behavior is determined in part by each unique personality structure. That is, what a person is may be as significant a determinant of leadership behavior as what one is expected to do. One theme in this approach is the “great person” view which holds that leaders are born and not made, that nature is more important than nurture, and that instinct is more important than training. While these early studies laid the foundation for subsequent work, they were of limited value. After 50 years of research, about all that could be concluded from these studies is that effective leaders tended to be taller than the general population, generally White, male, possessing dominant personalities, self-confident, with high energy levels and above average intelligence. Boyan (1988) concluded that the exploration of the association of personal variables with administrator behavior must be assessed as disappointing and to date has contributed little that enlightens present understanding or directs further study of administrative behavior. Results from these early studies have, however, promulgated more complex views of leadership that spawned a series of studies on leadership styles.

Behavioral styles of Effective Principals

If personality variables were poor predictors of principal effectiveness, researchers reasoned that perhaps, if they examined clusters of behaviors or principal leadership styles, more productive results would be discovered. Thus, between 1950 and 1980 major research initiatives were launched to examine a wide variety of styles ranging from those more precisely defined (consideration, aggressive, directive, initiating structure) to those with great appeal in the popular press (heroes, princes, supermen, democratic, autocratic). The overall goal of these studies was to find the most effective leadership style. In these studies, style generally referred to a disposition for action where a set pattern of behaviors would be exhibited by the leader in a specific situation. Typical examples described by Immegart (1988) are the nominal idealized categories such as the characterization of leaders as heroes, princes, supermen, tyrants, nerds; topological categorization exemplified by terms such as participatory, employee-centered, humanistic, idealistic; and the dichotomous or continuous style categorizations typified by the popular concepts of initiating structure versus consideration, nomothetic versus idiographic leadership, and democratic versus autocratic control. However the style was conceived, the overall goal of this set of studies was similar to previous ones on leadership traits—to discover the optimum set of behaviors that was the most effective.

Similar to the trait tradition of inquiry, the leader behavioral style research tradition has, for the most part, been abandoned. As Immegart (1988, p. 262) pointed out, the research paradigm has generated much conflicting evidence and “it has become apparent that most effective or successful leaders demonstrate style variability: that is, they score high on both or all style dimensions employed in studies.” Methodological shortcomings of these studies include an overreliance on reputed or reported data rather than actually observing in schools what principals did; relying on subjective information from subordinates of the principal who might not be in a good position to actually know what the principal does; frequent use of convenience samples; and endless repetition of studies of the same type.

While results of these studies yielded important findings about the relationship of certain principal behaviors to teacher satisfaction and task accomplishment (primarily measured through the Leader Behavior Description Questionnaire [LBDQ] developed at Ohio State), the results seemed to be dependent on the desired outcome and context. For example, if the principal wanted to increase staff morale, a consideration style of leadership was most effective. If the goal was to increase test scores, then more initiating structure behavior seemed to work best. Results from these studies of style clearly indicated that most effective or successful principals could demonstrate a wide repertoire of styles and appropriately select the style that matched the task at hand. A secondary finding was the revelation of the importance of the congruence between the leadership style, the expectations of the group, and the nature of the task. The match between what was expected by the staff in terms of leadership style, what was executed by the principal, and what was needed to address the problem often determined the satisfaction level of the staff and the degree to which the goal was met. As Immegart (1988) concluded, the implications of these results from principal style research are twofold: first, effective leaders need to exhibit a repertoire of styles; and second, the optimal style is related to situation, context, and task. In summary, no leadership style is preferable or more effective in all situations.

Contingency studies

Current investigation in educational leadership has shifted to situational studies that consider many variables and their possible interacting influence. These approaches focus on characteristics of the leader and the situation. They describe and attempt to measure characteristics which can provide the leader with useful behavioral guidelines based on various combinations of personal and situational contingencies. Contingency theories not only highlight the interactive complexity of leadership phenomena, but also provide potential leaders with useful concepts for assessing various situations and for demonstrating leadership behaviors that are situationally appropriate.

Contingency studies have provided guidance about leadership in general and have demonstrated the importance of simultaneously examining the interaction of context, leadership style, and outcome definition when drawing conclusions about what leadership is appropriate for a given situation. These studies show promise but are still plagued with methodological problems. Among these issues is an endless litany of small sample sizes, a focus on a handful of variables—often excluding extremely important variables—and a general limitation in their ability to link multiple variables together in meaningful ways. Clearly, they represent a step forward but still offer only limited guidance for principals in their daily leadership activities.

Contemporary views of Leadership

Historically, principal effectiveness research progressed from an examination of a small number of variables (height, educational background, personality variables) to multiple systems of style variables (autocratic, considerate, forceful), to the study of how these variables interact in given situations with different outcome variables. Current research emphasis extends this trend by simultaneously examining multiple systems of variables and their interactive effect on each other and the outcome. Figure 4.1 illustrates this complex view of leadership around which contemporary studies are focused.

Decision Context

Decision context is defined as the environment in which the principal’s action must be taken:

  • Transformational—where the focus is to get the staff to work toward the greater good
  • Moral—where the focus is on making sound judgments based on some moral principle
  • Managerial—where the focus is on making the most rational decision for the school
  • Participative—where participation of the staff is most important
  • Outcomes—the end result of the leader’s actions
  • Political—the focus is on gaining power and influence
  • Symbolic—the focus is on setting examples and presenting images
  • Structural—the focus is on attaining goals (typically test results)
  • Humanistic—the focus is serving the needs of the staff, parents, and students

Obviously, not all the variables suggested above would be considered in each study; rather, most researchers select sets of variables from one or more domains for investigation. For example, a researcher could examine how various principal personality traits (confidence, directive, conscientiousness, openness) influence specific belief systems (autocratic vs. participatory) that influence a principal’s perceived leadership style, which ultimately influences the extent to which the principal is effective in gaining political power within the school. Examples would include Bacharach and Mundell’s (1993) examination of how various groups come to agreement over the political values underlying school practices, Blase’s (1993) examination of the politics of school groups and how they use their influence to affect the daily behavior of the principal, and Snyder and Ebmeier’s (1992) study concerning how parents influence the principal’s behavior and consequently the overall climate of the school. Heck and Hallinger (1999) provided a comprehensive review of this literature.

This complex view of leadership promises more definitive findings but also contains problems. The first and most difficult is the lengthy number of potential variables to be examined at any given time. Selecting the most important ones and accurately measuring their presence is time-consuming and expensive. The more variables included in any study, the larger the sample size, the more instruments must be employed to collect the data, and the more complex the analysis. Given limited time and resources, well-designed studies of needed complexity have been few in number and have declined in recent years.

principals-research-paper-p1Figure 4.1 Contemporary Conceptions of Principal Leadership

 Advice for Principals From the research

As one can deduce from the discussion above, the last 100 years of educational research do not offer principals much specific advice about how to effectively lead organizations due to the complexity of leadership itself and the relatively brief period during which research has been conducted. Current research offers principals some guidance for understanding how organizations function, thereby indicating what actions might be appropriate in given circumstances. For example, if the problem faced by the principal calls for quick action, then current research would call for a more directive leadership style. In contrast, if the problem is poorly defined or the solution not apparent, then a more collaborative leadership style is preferable. By understanding the crux of the problem (transformational, moral, instructional, strategic, participative) and the intended outcomes (political, symbolic, humanistic, structural), a more rational sample of possible principal actions can be selected. The current research can help the principal frame the problem more effectively which should lead to better solutions and actions. Fortunately, some emerging literature in the field of educational leadership offers advice and examples of how this analysis might take place and how it can benefit the principal’s leadership (see Bolman & Deal [2002] and Johnson [1996] for examples).

How Teachers Become Principals

Career Paths

Nationally, there are about twice the number of certified administrators as available administrative positions. However, almost half of these administrative certificate holders are not actively seeking positions for a number of reasons. Many find contentment as classroom teachers, others are unwilling to relocate to areas where jobs are more plentiful, some are not interested in assuming the time demands and stress associated with being a principal, and still others never had any intent to become administrators when they obtained their administrative credentials. They did so mainly to advance on the teachers’ salary scale. Thus, overall the need for quality new principals is relatively high across the nation and many school districts lament that they are having great difficulty finding good candidates for building leadership roles. This is especially true for urban districts and schools located some distance from major metropolitan areas. In contrast, competition for available principalships in wealthier suburban districts is keen.

The majority of principals began their educational careers as classroom teachers. Some principals enter the office from paths that took them through the classroom, curriculum, or subject matter supervisory roles in central offices, and then to the principal’s office. Others may have moved from the classroom to the assistant principal’s role, then to the principal’s office. Smaller numbers of principals began their careers as school psychologists or speech pathologists. Fewer still have become principals through alternative routes to licensure from non-education roles.

If you are an aspiring teacher who’s thinking about becoming a principal, go to the Web site of the state department of education in any state in which you are interested and read the requirements for principal’s licensure or certification. Incorporate those requirements into your planning for your ongoing professional preparation, degree work, and licensure preparation. You might also want to check with the state department of education to see if supply and demand employment studies have been conducted in the state of interest. These studies will give you good information about the availability of principalship positions in the state, the locations of these vacancies, and starting salaries.

Educational Expectations

In order for an aspirant to pursue a license to qualify for employment as a principal, it is not unusual for the state in which the principal’s license is sought to include language in the licensure requirements stating that the aspirant will have successfully completed a teacher preparation program at an accredited institution and will have had varying periods of successful experience as teachers (typically 3 years).

There’s a statistical concept known as degrees of freedom that may help clarify your thinking about career alternatives and educational expectations. This concept says that every choice one makes reduces opportunities— degrees of freedom—to make other choices. You should begin to consider carefully that teachers may decide to become counselors, school psychologists, subject matter supervisors, principals, or other kinds of administrators. Once you’ve decided, you either close the door on becoming something else or make other options more time-consuming and expensive to pursue.

If you decide to become a principal, you’ll need to obtain a license that prepares you and provides the required credential for the role. A majority of aspiring principals choose preparation programs on the bases of proximity, cost, and perceived convenience. To gain an understanding of the work and expense involved in obtaining your principal’s license, check the Web sites of education agencies in any states in which you have an interest. Generally speaking, you’ll find that a master’s, specialist’s, or doctoral degree in educational administration is required. If you earn a master’s in curriculum, reading, or some related field, you may be able to complete a certification or licensing program in fewer hours than you would need to complete for a graduate degree. In most states, you will also need to complete the PRAXIS examination for principals and a field experience or internship.

Getting Needed Experience

A principal’s primary obligation is to ensure that the school is safe (Marzano, 2003). It follows that any experience having potential to improve the principal’s ability to establish and maintain a safe school would be beneficial. Teachers who complete an effective program of preparation for licensure as principals will study safety-related content and, more importantly, will complete a well-designed internship which addresses school emergency planning and drills, the location and operation of master controls for utilities, emergency codes and warning systems, and so on.

In addition, the aspiring principal should devote concentrated effort to the acquisition of knowledge and skill in how one effectively leads in the crucial matter of delivering clear, effective curricular content—a guaranteed and viable curriculum (Marzano, 2003). Contemporary principals need to be competent leaders of standards-based instruction based on clear, measurable standards, benchmarks, and indicators. This obligates the contemporary principal to be a proficient educational evaluator and assessor, one who can interpret and draw effective inferences for teaching from test data. Teachers can gain knowledge and skill relevant to evaluation and assessment by independent reading, participating in study groups or service opportunities, attending workshops, and taking classes on educational assessment and educational testing and measurement. Applied knowledge and skill can be acquired by participating as an active member of your school’s school improvement team, your district’s assessment team, and volunteering for assessment-related tasks at the state level.

Aspiring principals also should become involved in activities that provide experience working with parents and the larger school community. These might include working with your school’s parent teacher organization, helping plan back-to-school nights, and helping with the school newsletter. Being a productive volunteer can provide valuable experience and also provide exposure that boosts your stock when you’re applying for administrative jobs. As you prepare to become a principal, you should create opportunities to be actively involved in professional development—both developing and delivering it. Also seek opportunities to practice teacher evaluation. Effective graduate programs will often include formal instruction and internship experiences that prepare you for the important task of teacher evaluation. Being a congenial and effective colleague is a valuable asset for the aspiring principal. The ability to promote, develop, and maintain collegiality is equally valuable.

Life as a Principal

Job Expectations

When thinking about principals’ job expectations it will help to be mindful that there are two primary sources of “job expectations for the principal”: first, the principal’s own expectations, and second, the expectations others hold. When principals find themselves in job-threatening difficulty, it’s often the case that they’ve placed themselves at serious odds with one or more angry parents or others. These kinds of situations invariably involve rancorous differences of opinion about job expectations. The principal, in someone’s opinion, wasn’t fair, was arbitrary, failed to use good judgment, treated someone insensitively, used inappropriate language, or another of an almost endless list of actual or perceived insults.

What should the principal do in this important arena of job expectations? Work hard. Work smart, be courteous, be helpful, be visible, be enthusiastic, be approachable, be kind, be competent! Be comfortable. Be yourself. As for what others expect, you’ll serve yourself well if you take specific steps to inform yourself about that rather than speculating about it. As you work with individuals or groups, it’s always helpful to work out mutually acceptable ways of achieving mutually held goals. Effective communication skills are indispensable to the principal’s ability to establish and maintain effective working agreements on job expectations. As the new principal meets new colleagues and patrons, remember that they generally expect you to be cordial, natural, pleasant, and interested. When you meet with your parent teacher organization council for the first time, they might appreciate refreshments. They also might appreciate an approach that’s more along the lines of “What do we hope to accomplish together this year?” rather than “Here’s what I expect you to do for the school this year.”

Included among the others who expect certain things from principals are their supervisors. The quality of relationship you establish and maintain with district-level supervisors will be decisive in determining their opinions of you and your work. The extent to which you and your supervisors hold positive professional and personal mutual regard will be a barometer of your professional success. It will also directly affect the understanding and appreciation your supervisors hold of your job expectations. Where significant disparities between the supervisor’s and the principal’s understanding of the principal’s job expectations exist, dysfunctional relationships and troubled performance are almost sure to follow.

Demands on Personal Time

Classic studies of principals’ work behavior by Martin and Willower (1981) and Kmetz and Willower (1982) yielded two findings that are especially telling about the nature of the work, one, there is a challenging quantity of it, and two, it comes at the principal in a virtually uninterrupted stream. A principal’s work literally changes on a minute-by-minute basis. Accordingly, it requires effective organizational skills and tolerance for ambiguity. It is also often the case that what a principal had planned to do during a given period of time will be supplanted by unplanned events: traumatic injury of a student or staff member, or law enforcement officials appearing to question or take custody of students or staff members, for example. At other times the principal will need to inform students of a family member’s unexpected death, become involved in parental disagreements over child custody, or attend emergency meetings of various kinds. In the face of all such events, the principal must reschedule and work around unexpected tasks. All of this requires principals to extend work days, weeks, and years.

Demands on principals’ time increases with the level of the school. Elementary schools, with their relatively light schedule of afterschool or evening activities, exert the least taxing demands on their principals’ personal time. Middle schools are more demanding, given their relatively heavier program of extracurricular activities. But high schools, with their extensive extracurricular activities, provide opportunities for principals to literally spend every night at school. While it may be possible for larger high schools’ administrative teams to divide the workload, it is nevertheless still true that in many school communities, the job expectation is if it’s a school activity, in town, out of town, weekend, or whenever—the principal’s expected to be there. If you don’t like high school kids, and don’t like high school basketball and football, and don’t like high school drama and debate and music, and don’t like high school track and field, and soccer, and baseball, you shouldn’t be a high school principal.

Becoming a school principal carries with it an expectation that you’ll be at school until the work’s done. If you have family or civic obligations that are unrelated to school, you will want to have realistic discussions with significant others about the probable increase in work-related demands on your personal time. These discussions are especially essential for professionals with young families. There is a good probability that school events will sometimes conflict with special family events. It’s important that your family understand and support your career aspirations, disruptions and all. How you go about establishing these understandings is equally important. Civil, sensitive conversations will serve better than unilateral announcements.

Impact on Family Life

If you have a family, you respect, value, and love them and avoid doing things that adversely affect that relationship. Included in the list of things to avoid would be making career decisions without fully, fairly, and authentically including family in honest evaluation of the probable costs and benefits of career choices for the family. If you have a family with very young children, your youthful enthusiasm about becoming a principal may literally sweep your spouse into less than fully considered support for your decision, only to have him or her wake up one or more years later, asking What on earth did I do?

If you are that young parent of young children you may not fully appreciate the family stress that is almost certain to result when you feel obligated to attend the school performance, game, or concert and miss your child’s or spouse’s birthday or your anniversary. Or perhaps you’re a more mature principal who’s been offered the opportunity to head a bigger, more prominent school in a bigger, more prominent community at a significantly higher rate of compensation. But there are two problems: one, your daughter’s a junior at your current school and she just loves it and wouldn’t dream of graduating from any other school, and two, your spouse is a successful professional in your present community. Does the prospect of this “big deal job” you’ve been offered really offer enough to offset the uprooting of a daughter’s dream of graduating with her class and your spouse’s sacrificial surrender of a treasured professional position? These are professional and personal issues principals deal with on a relatively frequent basis.

Web Sites

Profiles of school Leaders

At the Ontario Institute for the Study of Education you will find a comprehensive, navigable document that will allow you to gain helpful insights about your levels of development in selected areas of principal responsibility (

General Information About Education and Principals

The Educational Resource Information Center (ERIC) is a government-sponsored repository of articles, conference reports, and other research about all aspects of education ( A second source of information is the weekly newspaper Education Week, which can be viewed on the Web ( The Web site has search capabilities and also includes job postings in educational administration. Finally, the Education Commission of the States, a consortium of state departments of education, also posts a Web site ( that will give you access to hundreds of reports, surveys, statistical facts, and position papers on a variety of issues in education. This site will allow you to connect to all the individual state departments of education.

Principal Professional Organizations

Principals typically belong to either the National Association of Secondary Principals ( or the National Association of Elementary School Principals ( and their state affiliates. Sometimes principals will also belong to the American Association of School Administrators (, although that organization is primarily directed toward superintendents. Any of these sites provide a wealth of information about conferences, careers of principals, job openings, publications, policy, and legislation of importance to principals.


Published journals that might help expand the information in this research-paper generally fall into two categories. Trade journals constitute the first type and tend to focus on pragmatic problems principals face every day. They are less scholarly but helpful to practitioners (Educational Leadership, Phi Delta Kappan, NASSP Bulletin). In contrast Educational Administration Quarterly, School Leadership, and Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis are very theoretical, contain articles more abstract in nature with less direct application, and are mostly intended for educational researchers. All of these journals have Web sites and post many of their articles online.


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