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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

Why Shouldn’t Teachers Become Principals?

By Peter DeWitt — June 04, 2017 6 min read
A woman thinks about a choice between 2 options.
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Last year I walked into the Iowa State Administrators Conference and was impressed by what I saw. For some reason walking into the conference, I thought that there would be a very small number of participants and the conference strands would focus on building a “Field of Dreams.” Instead I was met with about 1,000 school administrators eager to learn different approaches to build collaborative structures with their staff. As I sat in the breakout room waiting for the participants to show up to the session, I wrote ‘Leadership: Stop Saying It’s Going to the Dark Side.'They inspired me to write a post that quickly.


When people leave the classroom in order to take on a building leadership role they are often confronted with more than a few people saying it’s too bad that they are leaving the classroom to go to the “dark side.” They are told that they will be disconnected from students. Colleagues begin to treat them differently. The leaders I met from Iowa were anything but disconnected.

I believe that many people who leave the classroom to take on a building role do it because they want to take on the responsibility of bringing more teachers together, and believe that they can bring a whole school community together as well. Other times people go into leadership because they have either worked for a great leader they wish to emulate or worked for a leader who taught them what not to do...and they believe they could be a better leader than that.

In my opinion, you can either complain about the decisions of the leader or be strong enough to take on a leadership position.

NPR Goes Down the Dark Side Route

Going to the dark side is merely just one of the statements made about those who go into building leadership roles, as if there must be some deep dark reason to want to be...an administrator (insert Darth Vader music here). One of the other reasons often cited is that they did it for the money.

Unfortunately, NPR recently helped support the disconnect between teachers and principals.

Lee Hale wrote a piece called ‘Increasing Salaries So Teachers Don’t Have to Become Principals.’ Should the title inspire us to say, “Why would anyone have to leave the classroom to become a principal???” “Can you believe that? Someone has to leave the classroom to become...a principal! Gasp!

The first paragraph begins with Hale writing, “Spencer Campbell spends much of his days walking the halls of Elk Ridge Middle School, checking breezeways for kids playing hooky, redirecting foot traffic between classes and checking on substitute teachers.” I’m sure Campbell does more than that, but the article doesn’t address that.

The article goes on to say that the assistant principal in the story was an incredible teacher but couldn’t always make ends meet, so he went into leadership and now makes double what he made as a teacher (read Lisa Westman’s guest post on that topic). I agree that teachers should make much more than they do, and the job is tougher than many people outside of education could ever understand (I taught for 11 years before become a principal). What I don’t like is the way the article begins to draw an all-too-familiar myth. The myth that leaders go into it for the money, and that some how going into leadership is a second choice for teachers. Hale continues by writing, “That’s not saying Campbell is upset about his job, he says he likes it and now he makes nearly double what he made in the classroom. Though, the change is bittersweet.” Nowhere in the article does Hale write about the other roles Campbell hopefully plays like:

  • Researching best practices
  • Mediating between teachers and students
  • Creating positive relationships with students, staff and parents
  • Working through accountability measures coming from the state
  • Observing classrooms where he can work in collaboration with teachers where they learn from one another or help families and students who are going through difficult times.

Hale seems to omit the many duties that are both curriculum-related and accountability-related that come with the job. He writes, “The effect that a classroom teacher has on a student is second only to a parent,” Campbell says. “And as an administrator, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to have that same effect and that’s kind of heartbreaking.

Heartbreaking? As leaders, can’t we do something about that? Most principals worry about being disconnected from students, but use it as inspiration to have a bigger impact on students.

The Reality

Teachers have an amazing opportunity to work with students and create deep relationships with them. I remember the names of every single elementary teacher I had between the grades of kindergarten and sixth grade. John Hattie, someone I work with as a Visible Learning trainer, has research to show that teacher-student relationships has an effect size of .72 which is well over the hinge point of .40 which equates to a year’s worth of growth for a year’s input. There is no disputing the impact teachers can have on students.

I’m disputing the impact that Hale writes about in his article, including his last paragraph. Hale writes, “Steele refers to this phenomenon, leaving the classroom you love to be an administrator, as the greatest mystery in education: “Why is it that the further away you get from kids, the more money you make?” Until that’s figured out, some of the most dynamic educators, like Spencer Campbell, will continue to spend their days patrolling hallways.”

This speaks to the reason we need more high quality leaders. There shouldn’t be a question as to why a great teacher may want to leave the classroom to become a leader. If we want to retain as many good teachers as possible, then we need to find a balance by having good educators enter into leadership. After all, teachers quit principals and not schools.

As a former school principal (8 years in the role) I had the good fortune to work with students and families over multiple years. I had students for multiple years as they went from kindergarten through sixth grade, and could have an impact on them as I followed their story from one grade to the next. I found myself advocating for them and discussing how much growth they made from one year to the next. My leaving the classroom to become a principal wasn’t a mystery, it was a great opportunity to connect with more students, teachers and parents.

As a school principal I had the amazing opportunity to leave the classroom from a city school that I loved working in to be a principal in a rural/suburban school where I could learn from awesome teachers, students and families, and they could learn from me. It’s what we call a school community. Leaders help build that.

It’s unfortunate that Hale’s article couldn’t address that type of opportunity for principals.

In the End

Teacher salaries do need to increase. No dispute there. What does need to stop is the constant need to put a wedge between principals and teachers when they work in the same building and have an enormous opportunity to connect with students. As a principal I didn’t think my job was to walk the halls and check for students playing hooky. My job was to create relationships with students, teachers and parents, and to have a better focus on authentic learning learning experiences.

I don’t have an issue with a teacher leaving the classroom to become a principal. We need more principals who know how to connect with students. I also understand that the assistant principal in Hale’s article was edited down to what would make a better story. I checked out Cambell’s Twitter page and it says “I teach, I love. I learn.” I have no doubt he will have a positive impact on students if he follows that mantra.

I would just hope that NPR, an organization I respect, would share more stories that show the positive impact a principal can have on a school community...and the positive impact a school community can have on a principal, because that is my experience with leadership. And it’s the same experience for many other leaders I know.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.