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Schools Seeking Principals to Head the Class

Many school districts are facing a shortage of elementary and high school principals. But education leaders are working hard to fix the problem.

What's behind the shortage? For one thing, many principals are getting ready to retire. Also, the job of principal has become harder.

Today's principals have more responsibilities that make the job less attractive. As a result, some districts have a hard time hiring principals.

Vincent Ferrandino is the executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP). He says that it's harder to get skilled principals in rural and urban areas. There are fewer candidates applying for positions.

"Ten years ago, leaders would get 10 to 15 skilled applicants. Now they are lucky to get three or four."

Although salary is not a primary cause of the shortage of principals, it does play a role.

The National Survey of Salaries and Wages in Public Schools surveys about 600 school systems every year. They found that in recent years, principals' salaries haven't increased to match the cost of living.

As well, many school districts don't have good recruitment campaigns.

"School districts used to have a list of qualified applicants such as assistant principals. Some districts seemingly feel that they need to look outside. This makes the whole process very expensive," says Gwendolyn Bryant. She works with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP). She is also a member of their Principal Preparedness Task Force (PPTF).

Stricter government standards are stopping good candidates from becoming principals. Many candidates don't have the proper certifications.

"In some cases, candidates have extensive experience but their course work dates back many years," says Ferrandino.

A Changing Career

Principals' roles have changed. Most elementary and high school principals are now dealing with:

  • Increases in classroom diversity issues, such as language
  • A bigger workload
  • Higher stress levels
  • An increased need to teach basic social and community skills to children
  • Stricter curriculum standards

"The principalship has become such a hot seat. Many people are hesitant to take this position," says Bryant.

Ian McFarlane is the president of a principals' association. "Hard work doesn't put principals off; negative work does," he says.

What's Being Done?

Education leaders are taking action to resolve the shortages. Their efforts are focused on improving recruitment, training, professional development and government expectations.

New Leaders for New Schools (NLNS) is an example of a program aimed at helping principals. One of its programs is the Summer Foundations Institute and Residency Year. New principals take part in intense training programs. They then get a one-year job in an urban public school. Then the NLNS gives them two more years of coaching. In return, the principals are expected to work in urban schools.

Districts in Boston and New York also used signing bonuses and salary increases to attract talented principals.

Many districts have set up professional development programs. They have also built re-certification courses and workshops to help existing principals.

Educators are also looking for ways to make governments aware of the realities of running a school.

"Now there is a political acknowledgement that something has to change in the role of the principal. It must be more focused on learning. And less focused on administration," says McFarlane.

"We must look at how accountability lines up with environment, parents and districts," says Bryant. "How can we set up expectations in smaller chunks so that there are 'doable' steps of accomplishments? We can't throw the whole role at principals and expect them to move mountains in one year."

What Makes a Good Principal?

A good principal must:

  • Be passionate about education
  • Be truly concerned about their students' success
  • Be able to thrive in high-stress environments
  • Enjoy working closely with people
  • Take problem-solving in stride
  • Like paperwork
  • Know how to negotiate and find win-win solutions

McFarlane notes that principals have the "ability to build a community, to maximize the impact of parents, teachers or businesses. But it has always been true that principals have to be really good at the gray."

Why Become a School Principal?

There's no doubt that being a principal is a tough job. But those in the field say it's also very satisfying. A good principal makes a positive difference in the lives of hundreds of students, parents and teachers.

"Principals have the opportunity to truly impact a large community," says Ferrandino. "For many principals, there are great rewards, not financial or material, but moral. They know they are doing important work by educating children."

"The school principalship is a very rewarding position," Bryant says. "It is personally fulfilling. You really take on an extended family. A lot of heart and soul is put into the work of a principal. It is the most rewarding work I've ever done."

"Principals enjoy a huge level of trust with the public. The principalship is still recognized as an important role in the community," McFarlane adds.

Looking Forward

The education world is strongly promoting recruitment, training and professional development for principals. And leading associations are working with government leaders to improve expectations. That all adds up to plenty of opportunities for tomorrow's principals.


Principal Professional Development
From e-Lead, leadership for student success

National Association of Elementary School Principals
Advocate for elementary school principals

National Association of Secondary School Principals
The voice for secondary school principals

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