School Principals

To really understand how to navigate public schools, we need to understand the people who work in them every day – the people who are bound by the rules and policies of the public school bureaucracy.

Job descriptions are tightly defined in public schools.  Lines of authority are hierarchical and cannot be changed:  the teacher is in charge of the classroom, the principal is in charge of everyone in the building, the superintendent is in charge of everyone in the whole school system, and all employees work for the school board.
Fortunately, the school board works for you!  Anyone in the community can talk with school board members, attend school board meetings, and run for a seat in a school board election.

So who are these school staff members and what are they supposed to do?  What are their credentials?  Names, job descriptions, credentials, and salaries are public information, because public schools are supported by taxpayers.

Let’s start by looking at the building principal.  This is the administrator that parents interact with most frequently, and the administrator who has the most day-to-day authority over the students.

The building principal reports to the superintendent of schools.  The job has two main functions:

  • Supervise and evaluate all school personnel in the building, and provide appropriate staff development programs.
  • Administer the policies, programs, and infrastructure (building, grounds, buses, equipment) in the building, and administer the budget for these activities.


Other duties include setting goals and objectives for the year, coordinating individual school programs with the rest of the school system and the community, evaluating student progress, assisting new staff, maintaining accurate records, supervising school events, and enforcing school discipline.  It’s a big job!

How does somebody get to be a school principal?  Principals all start by teaching – often in an academic classroom, although I’ve known many who began as coaches, band directors, or vocational teachers.  After teaching for a few years, the prospective principal goes back to school to earn a master’s degree (usually in educational administration) and certification as a school administrator.  Most principals begin as assistant principals.

What makes a good school principal?  Here are some characteristics that are the basis for strong educational leadership:


  • A vision and a plan.  A strong principal takes personal responsibility for school success.
  • Credibility and trust.  A strong principal has a reputation as a person of integrity in the school and the community.
  • Visibility and availability.  A strong principal uses “walk around management” and has an open door policy.
  • Professionalism.  A strong principal responds consistently and fairly to everybody, and has solid communication skills.
  • Good staff management.  A strong principal hires, develops, supports, and retains an excellent school staff.
  • Collaboration.  A strong principal builds a cohesive, positive school community through shared leadership and decision-making.

Those of us who have had long careers in public education have learned that a school is only as excellent as the principal.  The principal sets the tone for the whole building – you can feel it as you walk in the door.  If you have the opportunity to select a school for your child, I would suggest that you visit with the principal and tour the school.  Here are some questions and observations for you to think about: 


  • Are the teachers and the children happy and comfortable with the principal?
  • Does the principal call most of the children by name?
  • Can the principal explain the curriculum and programs the school offers, and answer questions about instructional practices at the school? 
  • How does the principal get involved with individual students in the school? Is her involvement positive as often as it is negative?
  • Does the principal have an open door policy for parents?
  • Can the principal discuss the challenges in his school and his plans for meeting those challenges? 
  • Is there a positive discipline program in place?

You want an active leader who works collaboratively with teachers and parents, knows the kids by name, participates in instructional activities as well as disciplinary ones, understands curriculum, and makes good teaching the #1 job of the school!   



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