If you feel called to become a principal, chances are you already have the primary prerequisites for the job — a passion for leadership and education, and a desire to make a difference in students’ lives. By clarifying your motivations for wanting to go on this complex career journey, you will be able to determine whether the role of principal is right for you.
Would I be a Good Principal?
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to becoming a principal. In contrast, there are a number of different paths that may lead to becoming a principal, and a wide variety of personality types that may feel called to the profession. Here’s the reality: If, as you’re reading this, you are asking yourself whether you would make a good principal… well, you are already displaying signs that you have the necessary enthusiasm and self-reflection for the task.
While the how of becoming a principal tends to vary from person to person, at the root of this calling is usually a deep passion for learning and for developing up-to-date school environments.
But wait — have I even got the right qualifications?
Before we dive into some of the assets that successful principals tend to have, let’s have a quick look at what items will need to appear on your resume before you will be considered for a school leadership role. First of all, you will need to have a teaching certification — and you will need to have made good use of it in a classroom. You will also need to have fulfilled leadership roles in outside organizations, or in the school system itself. In most states in the U.S., and in most countries across the globe, you will need to hold a Master’s in Educational Leadership or a similar degree. Note that different states have different qualification criteria. Be sure to check with your local education department to clarify the requirements for your area.
OK, enough with the paperwork. Am I even right for this?
Again, the fact that you are asking this question displays one of the vital attributes of a successful school leader. When asked what makes a good principal, three different past and current principals pointed towards the necessity for thoughtfulness and self awareness. “I would start with the requirement that the principal should be comfortable in his own skin,” said Tom Hamilton, past school principal of a private secondary school in South Africa. This sentiment was echoed in various responses from other principals, who spoke of good principals being “mindful” and “reflective.” This relationship to oneself reverberates through one’s relationship to the entire school community, allowing for authentic, deep engagement with teachers, administrative staff and of course, students and their families.
What sort of temperament or personality makes a good principal?
Most in the world of education are under no illusions that being a school principal is a simple job. In fact, it is such a challenging and specialized position that there is a call for teachers to step into the role of principal in order to combat the current shortage. The fact that you are even considering becoming a principal may identify you as part of an elite group ready to take on such an important, if difficult, role.
So here’s where it gets tricky. There’s no quick answer as to who might make the ideal principal — no multiple choice Personality Quiz you can click through to see if you would look good with the title “Principal” on a plaque outside your door. One thing is for sure, however. The old-school disciplinarian who made children (and teachers) quiver in their desks? That kind of principal is no longer the norm. But if that Trunchbull-esque monster of a principal is officially “retired,” who is in its place? I
In a recent article for the The Globe and Mail about the new role of principals today, education reporter Caroline Alphonso states, “Rather than the disciplinarians of the past, today's principals have to know and help every student, cope with parental and political demands and ensure that their school scores highly on standardized tests.” That is quite a task. The question is, who is best suited for this job?
As past school principal Tom Hamilton told us, “I don’t think there is a particular type of personality that makes one more likely to be a successful principal.” In fact, he says, has come across principals that are on all areas of the personality spectrum, from energetic extroverts to methodical introverts. What he does emphasize, however, is that it is important for principals to enjoy engaging with the people around them, no matter what leadership style they embrace. There are also certain traits that will serve you well if the path to being a principal is one you plan to follow. Andrew Schofield of Britannia Secondary School in Vancouver, Canada, highlights the importance of being able to maintain calm in situations that might send others off the deep end. Schofield stresses that it is vital for a principal to have an “ability to deal with the stress and anxiety of others,” — a quality past elementary school principal Celia Goddard refers to as being “unflappable.” Another necessary characteristic all principals seem to agree on: having a good sense of humour.
Want to live multiple lives at once? Become a principal today!
If you are adaptable, and feel most energized when you have a thousand tabs open at once in your life, you may just thrive in the habitat of the principal. The work-style and environment is far from linear, and definitely not neatly packaged. Your day will consist of such a variety of tasks that it may feel at times as if you are expected to do the work of an entire small village!
All those hats look good on you.
Don’t let the chaos discourage you. Instead, think of it as an opportunity to live multiple lives. You are, at once, an administrator, a counselor, a marketer, a manager, a law enforcer, and a planner. Oh, and not to mention, an educator. You have to deal with the needs of the youngest students in your school, and with the whims of the most contrary members of your school board. As former principal Hamilton told us, “Personally, I liked the fact that I had a leadership role that allowed and required me to do many different types of tasks in a single day. Admin, correspondence, interviews, meetings, PR, staffing and HR marketing, disciplining, and strategic planning.”
Teachers are Legendary Creatures
Principals must have a natural affinity for working in a team. This is a task that requires outstanding communication skills, as well as an ability to draw out the strengths of your community. Schofield emphasizes the necessity of placing a “serious focus on supporting teachers.” The reality is that teachers are often under serious pressure, and need to know that they are in an environment that is best suited to their well being. Without teachers, the school is an empty shell. Ensuring that they feel supported and appreciated is essential for a healthy, happy school environment.
If you are good at delegating responsibilities, and at taking in both the advice and the concerns of others, this part of the job will feel natural to you. Supporting and leading teachers will take a level of maturity and focus; if you are able to assume this role while keeping your own ego at bay, you will be of serious benefit to any school you engage with.
Emotional Intelligence of a Good Principal
Before you go any further, ask yourself, “Why do I want to be a school principal?” If the answer is to truly benefit your community and provide the ideal learning environment for any student or teacher who comes through your door, you are on the right path. And the best way to fuel your journey is to know yourself.
An EQ Workout
Your Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is not a fixed number. It is not tattooed to your forehead, forever branded into your being. Whatever stage of your career you are currently in, you can work towards improving your EQ through self-reflection. Whatever methods you use to get there — whether they be journaling, meditation, working with a counselor — one of the best gifts you can give yourself is to gain a greater understanding of your inner being. And, if you decide not to pursue the path of becoming a school principal, believe us, this work will never be wasted.
Find out what makes you tick, what makes you feel alive, where you are most useful to others, and the areas in which you still need work. Embrace these parts of your personality with curiosity, rather than approaching them with fear. Doing this work will make you an asset to any school. You will be able to separate your anxieties from your work, and you will model your behaviour for the upcoming generation — and for the educators who will teach them. An EQ workout will allow you to approach your work with authenticity and awareness.
“Knowing oneself, one’s weakness, one’s strengths, one’s blind spots and foibles and projections…” Hamilton says. “All of this is essential to being aware and being real. I don't think that a person can be a successful principal if they don't know themselves.”
One more question. Do I have to be a genius?
Do you remember what you thought of the school principal when you were barely tall enough to reach the handle to her door? The unrivalled strength that seemed to resonate from this supreme being was certainly the result of some sort of interplanetary collision. Could anyone be that powerful? And for someone to be that powerful, surely they must know everything about everything? Surely they must possess all the knowledge from all the subjects in their oh-so-important heads. Well, for some principals, that might be the case. But outstanding academic ability is not the only requirement for a job as a school principal. In some cases, it’s not even necessary at all. In fact, as Hamilton points out, “too much talent can make people risk averse,” a quality that is not useful in a job that requires consistent adaptability.
Instead, attributes such as having a mind that has its curiosity dial turned up to full, and possessing problem-solving skills for seeing issues as challenges rather than defeats, are what will best serve you on this journey. Being able to go beyond what is comfortable and easy, and having what Hamilton refers to as a “growth mindset,” cannot be stressed enough. This kind of mind constantly searches for the new, for how to be better, for how best to learn from those around oneself and from the world at large.
Still thinking of becoming a school principal?
Do you have what it takes? Is this the right career path for you? Perhaps you would rather continue teaching rather than start leading? Stop for a second and ask yourself this question: What are my motivations for wanting to become a principal? Check out Scott Coleman’s story. The answer to this question will reveal whether you should continue to pursue this path or not. Remember that there is no right or wrong answer here. Successful principals have been motivated by a whole range of different things. Schofield wanted to lead a school that celebrates and furthers social justice. One of the most gratifying parts of Hamilton’s job was creating an environment where he was able to give his staff opportunities to excel. Goddard’s situation was rather unique — she created a school in response to an education crisis, and then needed someone to head it. She had no choice but to step into the role. While these motivations are different from one another, they have one very important thing in common: a clear vision of why they need to embrace this mammoth task.
The bottom line is that the choice to become a school principal will mean some losses and some gains in your life. If you are a passionate teacher, it is worth considering that this move may take you out of the classroom completely. Make sure that this is a change you would like to make. That said, if a leadership role is calling you, there must be a reason. If you cannot clearly define what your motivations are, keep trying. Put your dreams into words. This will help you see if this complex, rewarding, frustrating, liberating, important job of being a principal is the right fit for you.
Alfonso, C. (2014, February 25). What makes a great principal – and why few want the job. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved May 17, 2018, from https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/education/matters-of-principal-what-makes-a-great-one-and-why-few-want-the-job/article17105742/
Teachers Urged to Consider Principalship. (n.d.). Retrieved May 17, 2018, from http://www.educationworld.com/a_admin/admin/admin262.shtml