April 23, 2006

How to deal with your principal?

This post is a response to an email request.

"Principals come and go." That’s what I was told early on in my teaching career. Since then I've survived four principals in 10 years. So, the statement is true. In fact administrators are far more transitory then are teachers. However, at my high school we have not only experienced a high turn over of administrators, but also a 60% turnover in teachers in the last five years. When I was a kid it seemed like teachers and administrators were fixtures of the high school: they never got older, never changed jobs, and never retired. But that of course is untrue, and in the world of education today, it’s understandable how administrators, especially principals, find it difficult to stay put, at least at the high schools.

The pressure attached to administration of public schools is unbelievable. I have no desire to become an administrator because I don’t want that pressure in my life, and I also believe that the minute you lose daily contact with students, you lose your effectiveness as an educator. I believe that one must have the best intentions and desire to improve schools if they take on an administrative position, but that motivation often gets set aside by the requirements of security, discipline issues, parent contacts, and now, test scores. The threat of complete administrative staff dismissal and alternative agencies taking over campuses is real and frightening. I don’t know if it is actually happening anywhere yet, or if improvements were made, but the intimidation alone is enough to scare most willing administrative souls to be very cautious, and focused on whatever means are necessary for them to keep their schools, and more importantly, their jobs.

Teachers are often completely frustrated with their administrators because the teachers don’t feel like the administrators are paying the right kind of attention to the teachers’ classroom or personal needs; or that the principal, or anyone is actually in their corner. Teachers are often blamed for the lack of student achievement. When teachers do get support from administrators, it is often not in a form the teacher is seeking. Example: test score data in our district is collected by district officials through end-of-course exams, and then returned to the teachers to be analyzed and disaggregated in a timely fashion. It’s the “timely fashion” part that makes the teachers crazy, because while the student results are given to the teachers the same day they give the test, results by question results are not always returned within a significant and useful time frame. The data is critically important to teachers who desire to improve their students’ performance. The data is available, but not delivered quick enough to make appropriate changes. The principal and other administrators serve the unfortunate role of go-betweens and receive the brunt of the teachers’ frustration. But there is little administrators at the campus level can do to improve the situation.

I’m not defending administrators, or suggesting that there is nothing they can do to improve their job performance from the perspective of the classroom teacher. However, I believe that in much the same way that the demonization of teachers for poor student performance can be disingenuous, teachers blaming site administrators for what isn’t happening at our public school campuses can be equally inappropriate.

I’d like to see my high school make changes that I feel the administrators could be more effective in making happen. But to be honest, I don’t completely understand the administrators’ jobs. That’s a little like a parent expecting me to turn their child into a computer genius when their son or daughter doesn't understand keyboarding. Administrators, like teachers, have a lot on their plates. Teachers get frustrated and disappointed when their administrators cannot effectively attend to their problems. Understandable, but perhaps not realistic, for teachers to treat administrators that way.

Perhaps we teachers need to do a better job of handling our own issues and being more effective educational leaders when given the opportunities. (Heretic! I can hear some saying aloud.) Seriously. In my entire teaching career I’ve only written a handful of referrals, and only when I absolutely had to due to fighting in class, theft, or some other egregious act. When little Johnny is a pain in my class, I deal with it myself; I don’t send him to the Dean of Discipline every other day. But then, I don’t have many Johnny Pains in my class because my students are actively engaged in learning.

There are some areas that are out of our control completely. I am continually frustrated beyond words by our counseling office. Year after year I go to the counseling staff with clear and precise information about my courses, and year after year I am either ignored or… For example: my Multimedia CP course is a SOPHOMORE level Art course that carries a prerequisite. The prerequisite is an authentic preparation for the work in the multimedia course. I literally pick up exactly where the prereq finishes off. Yet every year I have freshman students or others who did not take the prerequisite course show up on my class roster. Infuriating! Then there was the year that our programming courses were omitted from the course listings. Students cannot sign up for courses that are not available to them. Had my colleagues and I not caught the error, well it didn’t matter, because we caught it after the course lists had gone to print and had been sent home to parents.

I don’t believe that you can “deal” with a principal anymore than you can “deal” with anyone. Nor would it be appropriate or effective to approach an administrator with such an attitude. I believe that most administrators do the best job they can given the requirements of their position. I think that many teachers fail to recognize what exactly the administrative job requirements are. It would be a very eye-opening experience if every teacher spent one day shadowing any administrator, (but who has time for that?) Teachers need to be willing to work with their administrative staff. Of course we should always voice our concerns, but stubborn insubordination is a dead end. Frustrating, disappointing, even angering at times, but unless teachers are willing to take on even more responsibilities then we already do, we cannot expect more from the principal and his or her assistants who are equally overwhelmed by the current state of education in which we all struggle.

Am I saying just get along and get over it? No. Teachers have two choices. Either work with the current administration as best as possible, or wait it out. The burnout rate for administrators is so high these days that it won’t be long before another one comes along to govern the campus. Maybe they’ll do a better job.

Please post your comments below.


  1. In Christian Education, it isn't quite the same. The administrators tend to be in it for the long-haul.

  2. For international Christian schools, though, this is hardly the case. Teachers come and go and administrators come and go. Teachers may choose to sign a 2-year contract and then go. Transitioning is difficult at times, and an administrator has the responsibility to direct the teachers and also to deal with all of the parents' demands. Above all, both teachers and administrators are criticized on a spiritual level when someone thinks they don't meet par. This is perhaps the most hurtful part of Christian teaching.

  3. This gives me hope that our current administrator will leave and we can hopefully find someone better to fill his shoes. I feel particularly responsible because I was on the hiring commmittee that recommended his hiring, and yet this principal has failed to do many of his jobs - including our important IAT process in elementary school! It is extremely frustrating... especially when he says he has an open door policy, yet doesn't listen to what you have to say if you do happen to talk to him. His statements have a tendency to be false, so you have to follow up on them, and then he changes what he has said. I need to not let it get to me... and just wait it out. This is my third principal in seven years, so it is quite likely that he'll end up somewhere else. Unfortunately, he's young and lives in the same town, and really wanted this position. So I can also hope that he learns from his mistakes this year and makes some changes next year. However, I have gone from being an active teacher leader, happily serving on multiple committees, to someone who wants nothing to do with purposeless committees (since the principal just makes all the decisions and statement himself without consulting any committees or checking with any staff members). Thanks for reading - just frustrated with my administration for the first time in 7 years of teaching.