What Is a Principal?
A recent Metlife survey (PDF) found that 75 percent of principals feel that the role has become too complex and a third are looking to move out of the role within the next five years. The role of principal has changed dramatically in the last decade and has, to many, become overwhelming. So what is the role of a principal? Or rather, what are the roles of a successful and effective principal?
It seems that each year another term describing the role of the effective principal gets introduced (visionary, instructional leader, change maker, CEO, CFO), but are these roles all compatible? Are they synthesizing, or is each an additional role and skill set that each principal needs to master? And what of the role of building administrator—is that now obsolete?
We asked ASCD leaders, "What is a principal (in 2013)?"
"A principal is the primary leader in a school who establishes a culture of high expectations and belongingness for every child, staff member, and parent. A 21st century principal must be able to juxtapose visionary, instructional, and managerial leadership to support change and stability simultaneously. A 21st century principal strategically uses fiscal and human resources to tackle some of the world's toughest problems through the lens of the children who walk through our doors every day."
—Jessica Bohn, principal, Gibsonville Elementary School, Gibsonville, N.C., and ASCD Emerging Leader
"A principal is a FEARLESS individual who is always at the heart of the matter. She creates a vision and spends her time ensuring that others understand and implement the vision. A principal creates places of realized potential, and uses encouragement, determination, and persistence to secure the dream. A principal is priceless, and cannot be photocopied."
—Sandra D'Avilar, principal, PS 9, The Teunis G. Bergen Elementary School, New York, N.Y., a Whole Child Network School
"The role of the principal in 2013 is to bear pain. Yes we are asked to be visionaries, instructional leaders, change agents, CEOs, and CFOs. And no smart structure would require all of these roles from one person. It means you must be all things to everyone. That being said, having all those roles is not the most challenging part of the job. It is the daily bearing of pain. Education is in a unique space of rapid change and very few educators understand where we are and where we are headed. Change is scary. So, the main job of the principal is to bear the pain of all this uncertainty. Parents are uncertain about their children's futures. Teachers are uncertain about their roles, expectations, and jobs. Central Office is uncertain about their purpose. Boards are uncertain about their longevity. Superintendents are uncertain about how many days they have left on the job. All of this comes crashing into the schoolhouse forcing the principal into the role of bearer of pain."
—Marla Dean, principal, Drew-Freeman Middle School, Suitland, Md., a Whole Child Network School
"A principal is the instructional leader and lead learner in a school. While the areas of responsibility are vast and wide, an effective principal must focus attention on the areas that have the greatest impact on student learning. Today's principal must recognize that one cannot address all of the responsibilities within a school and must prioritize time and energy on these high-impact instructional areas while utilizing other individuals to attend to the other areas. As the lead learner, principals must capitalize on any opportunity to discuss and model characteristics of effective instructional practice. Student learning is the number one priority of education and must always be the number one priority of any principal."
—Daniel Smith, principal, Corporate Landing Middle School, Virginia Beach, Va., and ASCD Emerging Leader