School & District Management

Principals: So Much to Do, So Little Time

By Jeff Archer — April 17, 2002 7 min read
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As if she weren’t already wearing enough hats, Sandy Murray recently added two more: those of an adult education coordinator and a babysitting-service manager.

Faced with an influx of families who speak only Spanish or Creole, the principal at Plantation Elementary School in Florida started an adult-literacy program. The hope was to improve communication between home and school, while helping parents learn enough English to lift themselves out of poverty. But to make sure parents weren’t kept from taking part because of a lack of child care, she arranged for someone to watch their youngsters while they attended the classes.

“So I have week-old babies and adults at my facility,” said Ms. Murray, whose school sits outside Fort Lauderdale, “and I was educated to be an elementary school principal.”

In telling that story last week, the 52-year- old Ms. Murray elicited knowing nods from a small group of school leaders from around the country who had joined 5,300 others here at the annual convention of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. In a meeting arranged for Education Week by the NAESP during the April 5-9 event, six administrators who together boast nearly 90 years of experience as principals described a position whose job description now has no bounds.

They spoke of rewards. But more than in the past, they said, they face the demands of dysfunctional families, students with severe emotional problems, and federal rules, especially related to special education. Although they’re the ones held most accountable for their schools’ academic success—or failure—many said they often feel more like social workers and referees than instructional leaders.

At the same time, they’re still expected to be the top administrators, budget directors, and human-resource managers in their buildings.

Such an ever-more-complicated juggling act has gained added significance, given that an estimated 40 percent of the country’s principals will reach retirement age within the next several years. Some hint of what may be needed to attract and keep the next generation of school leaders came out as Ms. Murray and the five others at the informal gathering were asked what they needed most to do their jobs better.

Again and again, the answer was “time.”

“I think what’s changed,” said Nancy Dickerson, the principal of Boston’s Mattahunt Elementary School, “is the expectation of doing more and more with less and less.”

A Shifting Burden

The guide to this year’s NAESP convention is one sign of the times. Amid the offerings on technology, teacher quality, and academic standards were sessions like “The Traumatized Child: The Role of the Principal in the New Age.” Another was “School Place Violence: Profiling, Predicting, and Preventing.” At least three workshops dealt with maintaining a better balance between principals’ personal and professional lives.

The results of a new middle school survey released this month by the National Association of Secondary School Principals suggest that elementary school administrators aren’t the only ones feeling new pressures. Nearly half the 1,400 respondents reported that they work 60 hours a week or more, up from 12 percent in 1965.

Part of what has happened, many principals say, is that over time, schools have shouldered more of the responsibilities once borne by families, social-service agencies, and even churches. Schools increasingly offer before- and after-school programs for parents who can’t afford child care, and some also provide health care.

Recognizing the importance of school readiness in determining student success, many principals—like Ms. Murray—have reached beyond their students to try to improve family situations.

“We basically have 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. activities in our school, and the parents expect it,” said Susan Van Zant, the principal of Meadowbrook Middle School in Poway, Calif. “And without that, I don’t know where those kids would be. They would be somewhere on the street.”

Although not begrudging all of the new challenges, many school leaders say they don’t have the administrative support to tackle them. Paul Young, the president-elect of the NAESP and the principal of West Elementary School in Lancaster, Ohio, southeast of Columbus, said he has only a single secretary who doubles as the secretary for the whole school.

“And she’s also the attendance officer, and the payroll clerk, and all the other things,” he said. “So that when it comes time to do a newsletter, I have to type it myself. That’s the kind of thing that we do as principals at 6 o’clock in the morning or at 10 o’clock at night, because it’s peaceful and we can get it done at those hours.”

Increasingly, the principals said, their time is also consumed by attempts to follow federal rules on special education, which require that children with high needs be educated in the least restrictive environment.

Mr. Young says he knows of another principal who recently spent six hours in meetings trying to hammer out a plan that would allow a student with disabilities to make trips to the restroom by himself. The NAESP official and others here said they need to have someone assigned, perhaps from their districts’ central offices, just to handle such issues.

“In the last month, I would bet that 50 to 70 percent of my time has been spent on issues of kids who have behavioral disorders—kids who have schizophrenia, kids who have bipolar disorder,” said Juli Kwikkel, a principal from Storm Lake, Iowa, who has served as a school leader for eight years.

Some administrators are hoping that the outcome of the upcoming congressional debate over the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Act will address some of their concerns.

But the IDEA isn’t the only measure that leads principals to feel that their hands are tied. Ray Rivera, a principal from El Paso, Texas, says school leaders need more flexibility when it comes to local rules.

“You may have a reading program that some associate superintendent saw and said, ‘Oh, I want my school district to do this,’ ” said Mr. Rivera, 57. “But the kids on your campus are doing something different that meets their needs and works, so why change it?”


Spreading principals so thin isn’t without consequence, says Mr. Young. For one thing, it leaves little opportunity to engage in professional development, particularly at a time when principals are being called on to implement new strategies aimed at instructional improvement. With no one else in the building doing the same job, principals need the chance to talk with and learn from other principals grappling with similar issues, he said.

Moreover, the breakneck schedules in some cases have the effect of giving principals a lower hourly pay rate than some of their veteran teachers earn. Ms. Van Zant, who has been a principal for 25 years, said she once did the math and found she made 42 cents an hour less than her system’s top-paid teachers.

Compounding what many principals see as an unfavorable pay situation is the fact that most teachers work a nine-month year, while most administrators work 11. In short, many principals say it’s no wonder that teachers frequently are reluctant to move into management.

“I have never once said to my teachers that this is a difficult job, and something that you don’t want to do,” said Boston’s Ms. Dickerson. “But by watching me move around that building and put in my 12- and 14-hour days, teachers say, ‘I wouldn’t do your job in a million years.’ ”

At last week’s convention, the NAESP released survey results showing that the average principal’s salary this year is less than 1 percent higher than it was last year, marking the first time since 1998 that the increase has failed to keep pace with the annual rise in the Consumer Price Index.

Further analyses, due to be released in the coming weeks, shed more light on the financial impact of leaving the classroom for the main office. The Arlington, Va.-based Educational Research Service, which surveyed 687 districts for the NAESP report, estimates that the daily pay rate of a new elementary school assistant principal is less than 5 percent higher than that of an experienced teacher. And that comparison doesn’t account for differences in the number or hours worked each day.

Good Therapy

And yet, the six principals who met here agreed that they did not regret their decisions to become school leaders. What keeps them going, several said, is their contact with students.

When she’s feeling especially stressed, Ms. Murray said, she “hides out” in one of her Florida school’s prekindergarten classes, where she sits on the floor with a book and reads to a student.

For Mr. Young, the balm is remembering a child with multiple physical and developmental disabilities who befriended him when she was a 2nd grader. Over the years, he taught her how to use cutlery, sold cookies with her at school events, and watched her become more independent than many had thought possible.

“Some days, with all my problems, I was so frustrated, and I would go into the cafeteria, and she would come in and sit with me,” said the 52-year-old Mr. Young. “She would make me feel so good, in her own way, because her problems are going to be lifelong, and my problems aren’t nearly as bad after all that.”

Coverage of leadership issues in education—including governance, management, and labor relations—is supported by the Broad Foundation.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2002 edition of Education Week as Principals: So Much to Do, So Little Time


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