Remembering Why We Become Principals in the First Place

The love for the job allows you to take the bad with the good and still be happy.

A businessman climbs a tall red ladder against a light yelllow background.

A principal’s job is often crazy difficult, yet most of us say we wouldn’t leave our jobs for anything. Why is it that being the go-to person for everything—when the furnace breaks, a toilet backs up, or a quarrel needs to be settled—doesn’t make us run away screaming? We asked dozens of principals why they took the gig and what makes keeps them going even on the hardest days. 

“I wanted to lead.”

I knew I had some good ideas when I was teaching about how things could be different to improve school culture, but I wasn’t going to be able to make that kind of impact working directly with students. I started by reading every book on leadership I could find, and then I got to the point where I felt obsessed with trying some of the new ideas out.

Similarly, Karen Greenhaw, an administrator at the Ridgecrest Charter School in Bakersfield, California, was inspired to step up because she wanted to fix a cultural lack that was impacting school morale. “I know I can’t always make the decisions that my staff wants because of policy, laws, and district dictates,” she says. “But my staff knows that I have their back, listen, and try to come up with solutions that are the best for all.” 

Being a leader can be the harder road, but it’s also one that reaps rewards. Knowing you’ve set the tone for a school that feels inviting when students enter and where teachers can’t wait to spend their days is priceless.

“Because a mentor encouraged me.”

Do not underestimate the role of a mentor. Frequently, they can see us with more clarity than we see ourselves. From that vantage point, they can inspire us to reach outside our comfort zones.

“My greatest mentor was the woman who wasn’t afraid to give me feedback—positive or negative. She is the person I aspire to be,” says Rachel Ezekiela. Ezekiela is the head of special education at a school in Queensland, Australia. “Before winning my leadership title, I was discussing with her my insecurities around not feeling ‘ready’ to apply for leadership positions. My mentor turned to me and said ‘There is never a “right” time for leadership, and [you’ll] never be “ready,” so it’s best to take the leap now and see where it will take you.'”

Ezekiela still relies on her mentor’s encouragement to this day. “Two years later on my leadership journey, I still contact her for advice,” she says. “This Friday, she will watch me present at a conference that she pushed me to apply for.”

Never had an official mentor? Take a minute and remember all of the wise people that have been put in your path. I’ve never had an official mentor, either, but I’ve worked with many people who saw my potential and made it a point to encourage me. Remember that even your most casual comments have the potential to shift a person’s understanding of what is possible.

“It was a natural progression.”

For many principals, this was the logical next step. They knew that they would be a teacher for enough years to really understand the position and then move on to a principal position. After years of teaching, it does seem natural move into a role which helps teachers, kids, and the education community. We need all kinds of people with different strengths throughout education. Instead of being apologetic for leaving a teacher role to move into school leadership, remind yourself and those around you that you made a conscious choice to take on this leadership role.

“I was asked to do it because of my expertise in … .”

Many principals had expertise in technology and were noticed and recruited as the school was building their tech infrastructure. Others were recruited because of their skill in literacy or math after a school received low scores in those subjects. Sometimes opportunity knocks when you go all in on a project.

Nikki Meyers is the director at the Academy for Advanced and Creative Learning in Colorado Springs, Colorado. But it was while she was still a teacher that she began collaborating with a team to design a charter for a new school, which happens to be the one she currently leads. “They interviewed a couple of others, but I got the feeling that the other candidates had no idea what we were trying to do—they did not conceptualize the vision,” Meyers says. Yet because she worked so closely with the steering committee, they had a clear idea of Meyer’s strengths. “This job takes constant emotional intelligence,” she says. “It’s a job about people—young people, their families, the educators who serve them. And with that, it takes constant self-reflection.”

 

Being a principal may be one of the hardest jobs you’ll ever love. Principals’ paths were as diverse as the people who take on the position.

If you know your job is the best, but you also want a group of people who share the struggles and rewards, join our Principal Life Facebook group. You aren’t alone, we’re all right here!

Plus, 10 not-to-miss leadership videos.

Posted by Anne Rubin

Anne Gomez Rubin has been a dean and teacher in Minneapolis, MN, since 2016. She tweets about education, intersectional feminism, and tacos on Twitter at @annegrubin .

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