Schools Need Principals. To Get Them, They Need to Fix the Job.

“You would make a great leader,” my principal said as I sat in his office. He had just approved my participation in a teacher leadership program.

I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. I’ve never felt comfortable in the principal’s office — and this was no exception.

“And you know, we are really in need of new principals.”

By we, my principal meant the Department of Education, and by need, he was referring to the recent exodus of school administrators in the state of Hawai’i. My state is not only suffering from a teacher shortage, but a mass departure of administrators has also caused a dearth of qualified leadership in our schools. In response to this troubling trend, Hawai’i Governor Josh Green recently approved a plan to incentivize administrative roles by changing the vice principal position from a 10-month employee to a year-round employee with a 20 percent pay increase.

Programs in Hawai’i are doubling down on providing leadership training and resources, hoping to entice fresh blood to principalships and administrative roles. However, I am still unsure if it will be enough for me to want to become a principal.

Weighing the Pros and Cons

After nearly two decades as a teacher, I have been pondering other ways I can contribute to the field of education outside the classroom. Working with pre-service teachers at the college level or becoming a professional development provider are intriguing options; however, my mind keeps coming back to school administration.

Over the years, I have been humbled and inspired by the outstanding work I have seen my principal and other administrators do at my school. I feel honored to have worked with and learned from these amazing role models, and I am incredibly grateful for their leadership, vision and unwavering encouragement. I would like to become the kind of leader they were to me, and part of me feels compelled to honor their mentorship by becoming a school leader.

As I’ve considered whether to pursue the path toward principalship, I’ve paid close attention to what the job entails. Unfortunately, my conversations and observations have done little to build my confidence. On the contrary, after what I have seen and heard over the past five years, I fear no one person could actually fulfill the responsibilities that fall squarely on the shoulders of the principal on any given day.

Based on my observations and conversations with friends and colleagues who are principals, here are some of the things a principal might be expected to do on any given day:

  • Ladle spoonfuls of spaghetti to hungry students when the cafeteria is short-staffed;
  • Monitor a pack of aggressive dogs that wandered onto campus until animal control arrives;
  • Apply ice packs and take temperatures in the health room when the health aid calls in sick;
  • Observe trauma in the eyes of teachers as they are instructed to “run, hide, fight” during an active shooter drill presentation by local law enforcement; and,
  • Make personal phone calls to every single member of the school staff to share the tragic news of the passing of a beloved member of the school community.

With daily responsibilities that expect one person to be a nurse, psychologist, mediator, cheerleader, sous chef and animal control, it is no surprise that there are more vacant administrative positions every day in schools across the nation. A lack of strong school leadership is not just a school problem — it’s everyone’s problem. Students need well-supported teachers, and teachers need strong principals to support them. When leadership is compromised, everyone suffers.

Despite knowing all this, I am still reluctant to step into the principal role; the current atmosphere of distrust toward administrators, the polarized political climate and unfavorable work-life balance make the possibility of becoming a principal unattractive.

We’re Going to Need a Better Solution

After a great amount of thought and reflection, I realize that the problems plaguing school leadership are small pieces in a larger context of undervalued and underfunded schools. These problems cannot be solved by conflict resolution workshops, self-care days and salary hikes. These problems require large-scale, systemic changes. Here are just some of the things that would need to change in order for me — and maybe others like me — to consider pursuing a principal role:

  • Political leaders must demonstrate openness to others’ ideas to bring back civil discussions in our communities and schools. When prominent politicians publicly disregard conventional codes of conduct in favor of personal attacks, it normalizes bullying behaviors that educators so desperately want to eradicate from schools and communities. Additionally, routine disregard for conventional norms for public behavior reduces opportunities for safely sharing differences of opinions. This atmosphere of incivility is deeply felt by school leaders and principals who are uniquely positioned to listen and respond to the school community.
  • More funding allocation from policymakers to properly staff support roles necessary for schools to function. Teachers often talk about setting up students for success by making sure they have the proper supplies and materials to thrive in school. The current conditions for principals are the perfect counterexample. Without ample funds, they are essentially set up for failure.
  • Input systems to protect administrators from being caught in the middle of partisan issues. When I imagine myself becoming a principal, I honestly worry about the hostility that may be aimed at me over controversial issues. In this hotly political climate, principals who take a stand on book bans and curriculum wars might be putting themselves and their families in an unsafe position. There should be systems to reduce the likelihood of meetings so divisive that speakers can’t be heard over boos and shouts. Luckily, the state of Hawai’i has largely stayed out of the fray, but with the upcoming election year, I fear what looms on the horizon.

A shortage of school leadership is a big problem that requires better solutions. I have realized that there is not a principal shortage but rather a shortage of qualified individuals willing to work under the current conditions school leaders face. With so many challenges facing principals every day, they should not be left to solve them alone.

Making the choice to become a principal under the current conditions almost feels like knowingly stepping into a position that could be damaging to myself and my family. While my heart is invested in serving public education, my mind won’t let me ignore the risks that outweigh the benefits.

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