Secret Lives of Principals: 8 Things You Should Know About School Administrators

An elementary school principal in Phoenix, Arizona asked students the question, “What do principals do?” Answers such as, “loves books,” “plays with kids,” “gets on stage a lot,” and “pays bills so we can stay in school until the 6th grade” were submitted by kindergarteners through fourth graders. It’s fair to say students don’t see everything a principal does during the day, but they certainly have clued in on some of the important aspects of the job.

Truth be told, most teachers probably have no idea what their administrators do all day, either. Like the students, teachers see their school principals throughout the day in various settings but aren’t really sure what the job actually entails. That may account for why some teachers are hesitant to pursue jobs in school administration—they only see certain pieces of the career.

To shine some light on this career path, we talked to Jenna Tintera, an assistant principal in Austin, TX, and Wendy Zacuto, a former principal and current educational consultant in Los Angeles, California. They let us know what a day in the life of a school administrator really looks like. You’ll be amazed at the range of duties that are required of the special people who choose to take on this role.

Let’s look at some of the surprising things principals do during the day:

1. They fix problems.

Of course, there’s the traditional view of this statement—behavior issues. But really, they fix all kinds of problems. Jenna explained that she and the principal at her school clean up after sick kids when the janitor can’t be there. And they keep a toolbox handy to fix plumbing and structural issues.

2. They treat their teachers.

It’s not unusual for teachers to get upset with decisions that school administrators have to make. And as a teacher before becoming a vice principal, Jenna understands where they’re coming from. She knows they’re tired and spend long days and evenings working. So she makes homemade lunches for the staff once a month.

3. They act as mentors.

In some schools, principals come around once a year to observe teachers for their early reviews, but Jenna prefers to be in the classroom more often. “I was an instructional coach before…so I enjoy talking about curriculum and instruction with teachers and giving feedback. Our teachers ask for more feedback and observation, so it must be helpful!”

Wendy echoes that sentiment, saying, “I found out that I loved working with teachers as much as I loved working with kids, watching them grow and helping them learn, and in many cases, being inspired by their work. And I found that my dedication to helping children was magnified as I hired great people and began setting up systems for student support.”

4. They crunch numbers.

School administrators are responsible for budget planning and requisitions. They figure out how and where to spend the money and also work find grants and other funds to keep school programs going. Jenna explains that she and the school principal “are continually analyzing funding versus needs. We sit down together and make ‘wish’ lists and figure out how to make them come true.”

5. They shield teachers from distractions.

It may seem like you never see your principal around and when you do, she’s really busy. That’s probably because she’s putting out fires with parents or dealing with behavior issues that are too serious for teachers to handle. Administrators are the first line of defense to keep teachers in the classroom with their students. They run pick up and drop off, supervise lunch duty, and keep teachers reminded about upcoming events. In Wendy’s case, she worked closely with a parent board at a charter school in its early years. The board did not really understand the complexities of education, and Wendy had to be the referee between what the community thought they wanted and what the teachers thought was possible.

6. They’re sometimes learning it as they go.

Teachers often suffer from Imposter Syndrome. They worry about what will happen if students or parents find out they don’t know everything or don’t have an answer for every question. That feeling is magnified when you’re a principal. Wendy explains of her early years in administration, “I remember wandering around the halls thinking, ‘What if they find out I don’t know what I am doing?’ despite decades of professional development and leadership experience.

7. They check their egos at the door.

Principals are in the center of a community that includes school boards, teachers, students, parents, and invested community members. They cannot take things personally or make decisions based on what’s good for themselves. Wendy adds, “Likewise, you can’t hold on to any firm ideologies or biases.” Flexibility is the name of the game when it comes to being a school administrator.

8. They don’t shy away from conflict.

It’s inevitable that someone along the way will get mad at the principal. Sometimes it’s a teacher who feels like he’s been asked to complete too many projects that take him out of the classroom. Other times it’s a parent whose child has been sent to the office. And still, other times it’s the school board wondering why test scores haven’t gone up. Principals have to have a thick skin and the ability to see conflict as a learning experience. Wendy explains of her experience, “An important part of the job is being able to recognize that conflicts are community-building opportunities for engaging people in the process of exploration and learning.”

If you’ve been thinking about making the transition from the classroom to the principal’s office, there’s a lot to consider. Principals are people who really value connections with students and teachers. They give up the job of being on the front lines with students in order to keep the school environment as a whole running smoothly. The job includes a lot of responsibility, a lot of late nights, and a lot potential to make decisions that someone won’t agree with. But if you’re willing to leave the classroom and still want to work at a school, a role as an administrator might just be the job for you.

Amanda Ronan is an Austin-based writer. After many years as a teacher, Amanda transitioned out of the classroom and into educational publishing. She wrote and edited English, language arts, reading, and social studies content for grades K-12. Since becoming a full-time writer, Amanda has worked with a diverse set of clients, ranging from functional medicine doctors to design schools to moving companies. She blogs, writes long-form articles, and pens YA and children’s fiction. Her first YA series, My Brother is a Robot, is slated for release by Scobre Educational Press in September 2015.