As the country’s nearly 90,000 principals mark National Principals Month, Education Week spoke with three principals about what drew them to the profession, what people don’t get about it, and what they’ll remember long after they’ve turned in their keys and walkie-talkies.
They include Annette Sanchez, the principal of Hampton-Moreno-Dugat Early Childhood Center, a pre-K-3 school in Beeville, Texas, about 60 miles north of Corpus Christi, who has been a principal for 20 years.
A lot has changed since her first principal’s job, at Pettus Elementary, in Pettus, Texas, not far from Beeville. But one thing hasn’t: how Sanchez feels about her job and the principal’s role in schools and communities.
She thinks a lot about little Gabriela Chapa, who was around 9, when Sanchez started her first class as a then-19-year-old teacher unsure whether education was the path for her. Sanchez remembers an older Chapa, now a teacher herself, standing in the first faculty meeting Sanchez led after becoming a principal.
“I think the principal’s job is a job where you teach, you lead, and you inspire—not only from the principal’s office, but within your school, and within your organization—and, in turn, you grow other leaders,” Sanchez said.
In addition to Sanchez, EdWeek spoke with Gregory Spears, the principal of the Blow Pierce Campus of Friendship Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., and Evelyn Edney, now in her 8th year as principal of Early College High School at Delaware State University.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
What inspired you to become a principal?
Sanchez: When I was young, I loved my principal. She was visible. I remember her walking down the hallway, and I’ll never forget what she told me and what I tell my students now.
I knew when I was young that I wanted to be a teacher, just because I had wonderful teachers and that was just my thing. My parents had been teachers. I remember her saying, “You know what, a principal would be a wonderful job because the principal teaches the teachers, who help the students. It would be great for you to be a principal.”
Edney: Looking back, I think it was just that I felt like I could affect more change in a bigger classroom. You’re essentially still a teacher, and your classroom is a little bigger, and you’ve got a whole school with you.
When I was younger, I was the poor kid. My mom worked three jobs to get me through a Catholic School. They and my mom are probably the reason why I did go into education to begin with. They made me love school. The climate was there; it was very nurturing, very caring. They did not treat the poor kid like the poor kid.
I don’t tell people I’m going to work every day. I say I’m going to school. It’s just different.
They taught me the lesson of belonging to a school, instead of just attending one. When you attend, you get up, you go to school, you do your work, and then you come home. But if you belong, you get involved, and when you get involved, you become really connected to school, and it makes you want to learn.
I try to take all that with me as a leader. I want our school to be nurturing. I want teachers to make kids feel like rock stars, so that they can learn better because they feel good about themselves.
What’s the most widely held misconception of the job?
Sanchez: I think that a lot of people don’t view the principalship as a teaching position. They think [of] this person who’s doing budgets, or working on policy, where in reality a principal is a teacher. And that principal leads the curriculum, they lead the teaching, and then they lead the school culturally. Principals have a huge impact on learning and supporting teachers.As principals, we have the ability to open the doors to all learners. I’ve really learned that principals and leaders grow leaders.
Edney: When I was that young teacher, I didn’t like the administration. I thought they were just being hard on us, not allowing us to do anything. But as you get older, you see that sometimes … your world is a part of [their world]; it isn’t the whole thing. Your job as a leader is to see the vision of everything, all working together.
Spears: I also think when people think about the principal or the principalship [they think of] you sitting in an office, being in meetings all day, kind of delivering orders or directives from on high, when to be an effective principal you have to be involved in everything that’s happening in your building.
I want their first experience in school to be wonderful, so that it can follow them.
I think that’s sometimes the biggest misconception of a principal, even though we like to say we’re essentially the mayors of a small city. It’s not enough to just be a decisionmaker or the person at the top. You have to be involved in every aspect of school culture, both academically and in the school environment, to really make sure you are creating an effective space for teaching and learning to occur and also one that students and staff and families want to continue to come back to.
How has the job changed since you started as a principal?
Sanchez: We used to not focus so much on social-emotional [learning], and because of [COVID] we now see the effects of social-emotional support for kids. That’s changed. We need to make sure we’re hitting the social-emotional learning [piece] and focus on diversity and equity in the classroom. I think that we’ve learned that that propelled students forward.
Time on the job. I remember when I first started, in the smaller school district, I would get to work, I would go home. But now, it’s a big after-hours job. We have students starting earlier, and we also have after-school duty. We have after-school, where kids get dinner at school. There are kids who get here at 7 a.m., and don’t leave to go home until 6:30 p.m. Time with kids has expanded the day—which I think is great for learning and kids who need it.
Prior to COVID, parents were invited into the school. The teachers knew the parents very well because the parents would come pick up their child. But now we are a closed campus.
Most school districts have [become closed campuses] because of things that have happened, not only with COVID, but with safety. Here in Texas, we had that huge tragedy [in Uvalde], but I know it’s happened in other states. That’s made us a closed campus. It puts a little disconnect between the teaching world and the parent world because, while parents might see emails or they might visit a teacher via Zoom, they don’t have that closeness with the school that ultimately affects this connectedness to the school.
Edney: There are a lot more legislative things that are affecting schools. I know the government needs to regulate some things, but it’s hard when there are mandates sometimes, and then you have to come up with a magic wand to pay for everything.
There are never enough hours in our day. We try to cut it off at a certain point on the weekends to decompress and to press reset. I even put up an out-of-office reply to say “Happy Weekend. I am enjoying my off-screen time. I may not get to your email until after the weekend, and I hope that is OK.” Because people will literally email you at all times of the day or night. There’s always text messages, and at some point you have to make sure your own life is taken care of.
I do sleep—people think I don’t sleep because I come to school very early. But I come to school very early because no one will answer an email at 4:30 in the morning. I get a little caught up, and when the students and the teachers come walking in that door, I need to be ready for them. It’s hard to get work done and be there for everybody at the same time, so that’s a demand that’s hard to keep up with sometimes. If you’re not careful, it will burn you out very fast.
Spears: One of the biggest changes coming out of the pandemic is that we can’t recreate what we had. We have to build something new. We have to build something better.
I think there is a heightened sense of responsibility, just looking nationally at where students were pre-pandemic [academically] and where they are now. When you look at different assessments ... there is a heightened responsibility to make sure that what we are doing is helping students get what they need and [understand] why some of those needs may be greater post-pandemic.
What experience will stay with you long after you’ve retired?
Edney: It’s not so much a moment, but things that occur. Being a principal, I’ve had a lot of assistant principals who’ve worked under me, and every single one of them has moved on to become a principal or a superintendent, or something else, and they are still in education. That’s exciting for me. I feel like that’s great because my classroom got bigger and I am still teaching people, and I love that part.
For students, it’s that moment in our school system when they become what we call “college-ready,” and they earn the right to take a college class—that is the most exciting thing—and how excited they get, and they are screaming and yelling.
I actually try to pretend that I am sending for them to come see me. They think they are in trouble at first. But then when they come in and I tell them, “I am here to tell you congratulations. You’ve just earned the right to be on campus taking a college class next semester.” And then that pregnant pause and then there is that, “Aaaaah,” and screaming, and they are hugging and so excited. That, I will take that with me always ... For that to occur, for a 14 year-old to make it so that when they become a sophomore they get to take a college class—it’s exciting.
Spears: If you are not finding things on a daily basis as a school leader or an educator in general that kind of move you to laugh, to tears almost, that inspire you, then I am not quite sure what it is that you are doing.
You always get that clichéd question as an educator: “Who is your favorite teacher, who inspired you?” For me, the answer is the teachers I have in my building right now. I can go into a ... classroom and be inspired each and every day.
[When school reopened during the pandemic] students wanted to come up and hug you. Just hugging students and seeing the excitement on their faces, the smiles, the happiness and the joy to be back in this space—I don’t think that will ever go away for me, to be honest.
For me, this job isn’t a stepping stone to a district position or a community office position. This is kind of the end of the road for me. It’s what I aspired to be.
Serving a high population of high-risk students, a lot of our students depend on the things that school provides on a daily basis. It was a pretty emotional experience.
What keeps you going?
Sanchez: The students keep me going. You’re a superhero in their eyes, and I think they need to know that superheroes aren’t always fictitious, that there are superheroes within their schools, superheroes within their communities.
The kids are just genuine, and they’ll tell you the whole truth. I remember Gabby—Gabriela—in school, and I’m thinking that I want them to remember me. I want to make an impact, like “Hey, my first experience in school was the best experience.” I have an early-childhood campus, so I want their first experience in school to be wonderful, so that it can follow them.
Edney: The kids, the teachers. I love school. I absolutely love school. I tell people I’ve been in school since 1972—that’s when I started Head Start, a million years ago—and I love it so much I never left it.
I don’t tell people I’m going to work every day. I say I’m going to school. It’s just different. I love the living being that is a school and [everything] that’s inside of it: all the students, the teachers, the parents, everything—the whole ball of it all, the ceremony of it all, the traditions, the homecomings, the proms.
I love seeing kids grow as leaders—or they started off kind of a little bit immature, a little edgy, but they eventually do mature. In my school system, my students take classes at Delaware State University, so to sit there and see students earn college credits sitting next to bearded people, it’s such a joy.
Spears: For me, this job isn’t a stepping stone to a district position or a community office position. This is kind of the end of the road for me. It’s what I aspired to be. My reason for wanting to get into leadership was to have a broader impact on the students and staff.
There are new challenges each and every day: finding ways to keep veteran teachers invested and to help them continue to grow, figuring out how to grow the capacity of new teachers and newer staff members.
This is difficult work, but if you can’t find the why, if you can’t find your inspiration, if you can’t find that person or that group or that thing that continues to bring you back, then this really isn’t the work for you.
A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2022 edition of Education Week as What People Don’t Get About Being a Principal: Reflections From 3 Leaders