The Principal’s Role Today Is Not the Same As It Was In the Past

“As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be” does not apply to the role of the principal of a school.

In the days of the one-room schoolhouse, there was only one teacher.  She taught all of the students in the community.  There was no “grade” level; the teacher made sure that students had a basic understanding of reading (where the text was usually the bible), writing (using slates), and basic mathematical functions.

As our nation grew, education became mandatory in large part due to the efforts of Horace Mann, who argued that “Universal public education was the best way to turn the nation’s unruly children into disciplined, judicious republican citizens” (  It’s important to note that “republican” has a lower-case “r,” as Mann was a member of the Whig party, and “republican citizens” were people who were citizens of the “republic” known as the United States of America.  As an aside, when someone reminds you that we live “in a democracy,” you can inform them that they are incorrect.

As public schools grew, more teacher were needed, and “normal schools” were created to educate those who wanted to fulfill the important role as a teacher in our young nation.  Because many of these teachers were inexperienced, an important role in the school was filled by the “principal teacher,” who mentored these young educators.  Over the course of time, the title shortened, and this educational leader of the school was referred to as the Principal.

It’s no stretch to see that over the past decades, the progression from teacher to principal to superintendent is a common one in today’s K-12 educational systems.  Specialized instruction is necessary, continuing education is expected, and certifications must be current.  Further today, professional development is a necessity in light of new rules, regulations, policies, practices and technologies aimed to ensure that all students achieve.  While the argument continues as to how achievement should be measured (that is, to a standardized acceptable level or to the student’s fullest potential), the process of ascension through the roles of leadership is well-defined.  Those that wish to enter the education arena after a career in business, scientific research or the practice of law will still be required to progress through the coursework, practical experiences and evaluations that are germane to the young adults who enter the classroom as a teacher and are just a few years older than the students they are expected to educate.

Unfortunately, times have changed.  The principal today is no longer the principal teacher; today’s principal is the principal administrator.  Do these leaders have a background in budget preparation and actuarial evaluation to forecast fiscal trends?  Not necessarily.  Do these leaders have a background in law to discern where current statutes come into conflict with traditional practices?  Not necessarily.  Do these leaders have a background in institutional advancement and relationship development to foster the community support necessary for today’s schools to thrive?  Not necessarily.

There are Principals today who are gifted teachers that simply wanted to make more money to support their family, and found that due to budgetary constraints or union contracts, this was the only way they could do so.  Some school districts don’t recognize past years of service in other areas, so moving to a new school district to remain a teacher may not be rewarded with a higher salary.  These Principals long to have that daily interaction with students, and see the excitement of the “aha moment” when it happens in a student who has been struggling with a particular concept.  Instead, they’re dealing with contracts with vendors, repairs to the building, and regularly see only those students who may have discipline difficulties, bullying tendencies, or other issues that require significant attention.  Some feel they are no longer educators, but simply managers within a system that is constantly under attack from politicians who promise tax cuts to their constituents, as well as community members and parents who believe that some teachers are ineffective without ever experiencing the expectations placed on educators today.

I once heard a journalist say to a critic, “And your degree in journalism is from…”   It would be interesting to ask the same type of question to detractor parents and community members…and even some school board members – especially with what is being foisted upon them as they try to educate students through this pandemic.  I wonder…how would those parents feel if teachers told them how to do their jobs?