7 Ways to Make Sure You’re the Right Principal for the School You’re Applying To

To thine own self be true.

Cheerful high school teacher talks with students

Once you’ve decided to pursue the administrator track, you’ll need to consider which kind of school you prefer. Matching a principal to a school has its challenges. Though you may have some experience and think you know what you’d like, it’s always good to arm yourself with information. Here are some key things you need to know about yourself when choosing a school to lead:

1. Do you prefer to be a lone wolf or to ride with a wolf pack?

Most elementary schools have just one principal overseeing the campus, which can be rewarding and empowering but also isolating. High schools tend to have more assistant principals, counselors, and other support positions, so there is more of a team approach. This requires frequent check-ins and feedback to ensure your team has your back and will follow the vision you set.

2. How do you cope with the pressure of short- or long-term student achievement?

According to principal Natasha Erickson Thompson, “High schools deal with graduation responsibility very differently. Kids will eventually come to high school one way or another, passed, pushed, aging out, etc. Once in high school though, if a kid doesn’t get a diploma and drops out, you are held more responsible for their lack of success. This is not to say elementary principals don’t get held accountable for success rates, but it’s a different perspective and, depending on where you are, a much harsher repercussion.” To be clear, there’s going to be pressure wherever you lead. You need to decide if you would prefer to deal with the short-term pressure of helping a kid graduate or the long-term pressure of making sure a kid is on the right track.

3. Is managing professional development your strength?

Teachers collaborate much differently, depending on the age group they instruct. At the elementary level, most teachers teach all the subjects in a self-contained setting, so the dilemmas and instructional issues they face can unite them for professional development. High schools have teachers with content expertise so collaboration and identity look a lot different. Leading school-wide professional development in a high school can be more of a challenge.

4. What do you think about yourself as a parent manager?

High school leadership tends to have fewer helicopter parents than elementary school. Parents usually mellow out and learn the school culture by the time their child is in tenth grade. In elementary school, parents are anxious about how their kids will fair independently, in the cafeteria, and even in the bathroom. In high school, the focus will be more on social issues and academics. 

5. Are you a mover or a sitter?

Some schools are small, and some campuses are enormous. Know your physical limitations and preferences. With tiny schools, it’s easy to do instructional walkthroughs and get into every classroom the same morning. An extended campus will require strategy and focus. Are you going to step into all your first-year teacher classrooms? All your intervention classes? Just your math department? You won’t be able to see everyone each day, so you’ll need to get clear and strategic during rounds.

6. Do you crave a school’s extracurricular culture?

College information night, basketball games, semiformals, and prom. High school is chock-full of those exciting evening and weekend events that make the secondary experience so special. If you’re the captain of the cruise ship, you’re going to be expected to make an appearance at many of these events, so be prepared to use some of your time outside of traditional working hours. There will be lots of smaller scale functions in an elementary school, but not nearly as many as a high school.

7. Are you prepared for certain behavior issues?

One of the biggest surprises in becoming a school leader is the time spent on behavior issues. High school students experiment more, engage in risky behaviors, and rebel. But, younger students make impulsive decisions that aren’t always as controllable, despite their small stature. Principal Caysie Turner observed, “The phrase ‘there’s a problem in the boys’ bathroom’ can lead to two very different investigations.” As the leader of the school, you may have more crisis management and public relations work on your shoulders navigating some of these realities. High school administrators tend to deal more directly with the students themselves, instead of parents, in addressing these larger problems. 

There are some things you’ll find in every US school, no matter the age group. Principal Wendy Carroll Conover sums it up nicely in reminding us that “all school leadership is about doing what’s best for kids and keeping them safe while building a relationship with them. If you have a child’s heart, you have a child’s mind.”

Join the conversation on school leadership in our Facebook group at Principal Life.

Posted by Jennifer Butterfoss

Jennifer Kuhr Butterfoss is a school leader, speaker and writer. She is currently both a proud site administrator and parent of San Francisco Unified School District public schools. She is passionate about serving school communities specifically through a parenting, talent management and systems lens and is a feature writer and columnist for the Golden Gate Mothers Group magazine. She is also the author of an upcoming book called Entering the Lions Den: A School Leaders Guide to Building Trust, Inspiring Others and Not Getting Eaten in Year One. You can find out more on her website jenniferkuhrbutterfoss.com.

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