School & District Management

Principals Would Like You to Know They Don’t Just Sit in Their Offices

By Olina Banerji — December 18, 2023 4 min read
Conceptual of file folders and a label that says myths.
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As a teacher, Sham Bevel thought her principal was barely visible in her school: holed up in their office, answering emails, or in meetings with other teachers.

Bevel’s opinion quickly shifted when she became a principal.

“It was my misconception that principals want to sit in their offices all day. We don’t. But some days, there are so many fires to put out,” said Bevel, who took charge as principal of the Bayside Middle School in Virginia Beach, Va., in 2021. Bevel said she now works extra hard to be “seen.”

There is no clear job description of a principal’s role because the responsibilities are varied and ever-changing—from curricular recovery to organizing a safe bus pick-up after school. The tasks pile up fast and make competing demands on a principal’s time. And they stretch well beyond the school day.

“I’m usually answering emails right from the time I get up. This is before I even get to the [school] building. And then your whole agenda will go out the window because you have to deal with some unexpected development,” Bevel said.

The seen and the unseen

The problem is, Bevel adds, that no one sees the work that principals put in behind the scenes, which often contributes to a damning misconception: that principals aren’t really tuned into what’s going on in their schools. Bevel disputes this notion.

“We are sent about 20 memos every week [by the district] of tasks that need to be done. I’m working on a memo that’s asking me to project how many student enrollments I’ll have next year. Based on these estimates, I have to hire more teachers, set up interviews, make phone calls. All that happens while teachers are in their classrooms—and all of it needs to happen now,” said Bevel.

This means Bevel might delegate someone from her leadership team—a vice principal or assistant vice principal—to supervise the bus pick-ups. “In this environment of heightened security risks, it’s important that we are visible to parents. People are handing their children to us. They need to see our faces,” said Bevel.

Bevel isn’t the only principal anxious to bust the myths around their invisibility and disconnect. EdWeek asked school principals to share misconceptions about the gig on its social media pages. Here’s what they shared:

“That we’re only in our office all day.”

David L.

“We just come in and observe and manage. That we also don’t have to internalize, prepare etc. like teachers, on top of other obligations.”

Zoe B

“We get a lot of free time and time off to plan, call parents, grade, and eat.”

Grant J.

Busting the myth, one role at a time

Ben Feeney, the principal at Lampeter-Strasburg High School in Lancaster, Pa., said he’s found a quick hack to bust through the myth that principals are invisible or unavailable.

“If I’m not making calls, I’m usually posted up in hallways or at the media center with my mobile desk. It has a cup and pen holder, and it has wheels,” said Feeney.

Feeney did this to be more visible. But it’s also his attempt to undo another misconception. “We don’t just emerge from our offices to bring down the hammer and deal with disciplinary issues. Principals want to proactively build a positive school culture,” he said.

Don’t just delegate

It is incumbent on principals, said Feeney, to clearly communicate their role and its competing responsibilities to their teachers. This helps dispel another misconception about how principals delegate work to their teams.

The concern was echoed by principals on EdWeek’s social media page:

“Principals do not know what it is like to be in the classroom. And that principals are control freaks. Lastly, that principals only care about the ‘bottom line.’ ”

Elton L.

“That it’s easy, that everything is delegated.”

The Einstein Program

“We can control or even influence everything.”

Larry G.

Feeney said he does delegate tasks, but there’s a good reason behind it. He’s trying to build up a second line of leadership in his school, to the assistant principal and other leaders.

“It’s a misconception that delegating is pushing work off to teachers. But you do have to make the why clear. And you must select people carefully for the responsibility. Play to people’s strengths,” said Feeney.

In the last few months, Feeney has assembled a team of five teachers and an assistant principal to come up with a way to meet the school’s social-emotional learning needs. The team decided how to roll out the program in classrooms and built out all the content and activities associated with it. Feeney said he consciously stayed out of the committee.

It’s important to be clear about the motives of a new change, said Feeney. “People are going to ask: is this a directive by the district? Is it the feds? Was it the superintendent? The people in your team need to feel connected to the goal,” said Feeney, so teachers don’t feel pressured to do compliance-oriented tasks on top of their busy schedules.

Principals still have to manage these projects and be ultimately responsible for their rollout. But Feeney says delegation has another added benefit.

“If people can glimpse transparently into the principal’s role, more teachers and students might want to train to become principals,” he said. “We could build a robust pipeline right here in school.”

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