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Why Would Anyone Ever Want to be a School Principal?

-by Garry McKinnon, Superintendent

The seven school leadership competencies and accompanying descriptors in the draft Professional Practice Competencies for School Leaders in Alberta document provides a comprehensive overview of the expectations for principals and assistant (vice, associate) principals. Principals are accountable for the demonstration of all of the competencies throughout their careers while assistant, associate, vice principals are accountable for the demonstration of those competencies that are directly related to their assigned role and leadership designation.
Unlike the Teaching Quality Standard which makes provision for professional growth in the knowledge, skills and attributes over a period of time through the interim certification and permanent certification expectations, there is no provision for a transition into the role although it would be reasonable to anticipate that there would be different expectations for an individual beginning the role as opposed to one who had been a school leader for many years.


An individual making reference to the seven competencies and indicators may find them somewhat overwhelming and may conclude that one needs to be superhuman to be a school principal. It does raise the question, "why would anyone ever want to be a school principal?". There does not seem to be a strong case associated with: the extra pay one would receive; the fame and glory that may be associated with this important leadership role or the suffering hero motive in which one takes on the role because no one else is willing to do it. There is however, I believe, a compelling motive associated with the conviction that as a principal one's realm of influence on student learning increases.

I am reminded of the story of a school principal who was at a dinner party with a number of corporate CEOs and when asked about her role after hearing their impressive role descriptions responded, just to get a reaction, with the comment that she is CEO of an Engaged Learning Distribution Network. She provided further elaboration with her observation that leadership is influence and as a school leader her level of success was determined solely on the influence she is able to have on the quality of learning and teaching. She described how she gave up teaching in the classroom which she found to be very challenging and rewarding, to take on this leadership role because she believed that leadership is influence and through her work with the teachers and students in her school she could impact a greater number of students than if she remained in her classroom. She made reference to the distribution system of some very successful corporations which is based on the pyramid principle. This principal saw her role as creating a network of distributed leadership with the primary goal of authentically engaging students as learners and engaging teachers as facilitators of learners. In her comments to her fellow dinner party guests, she described her passion for her role as a teacher and leader in observing that through her work in impacting the quality of learning for students she was touching the future and helping to build a knowledge society, which will be the key to our success in Alberta as we move from a resource-based economy.

There is no doubt that the role of school principal is incredibly important and it is substantiated throughout the research literature. Although it is a very challenging, complex, demanding role there are significant benefits and rewards associated with making a difference for students as an instructional leader. Unfortunately, there seems to be a reluctance among teachers to pursue opportunities to become principals. The role of the principal is too frequently seen to primarily involve undesirable responsibilities such as: attending countless meetings which have no significant purpose; dealing with unreasonable parents with unrealistic expectations; being caught in the middle of demands from staff and expectations from the jurisdiction and provincial levels and the ultimate negative aspect, being sucked into the black hole of administrivia. Individuals in school administrative roles who left the rewards of classroom teaching, excited with the opportunity to have a greater impact on learning and teaching, too often, become disillusioned. I believe that the dinner party story highlights the important role of the school leader and presents an exciting vision of what can be. Clearly there is a need to re-think the role of school principal and to promote a more collaborative approach to school leadership where the focus is ultimately on making a difference for students.

As I mentioned in my previous blog, the process of facilitating focus groups throughout the province and working with the Principal Quality Practice stakeholder committee in articulating a vision for school leadership was very exciting and rewarding. I believe the seven dimensions or competencies of school leadership which were developed through this process serve as a solid foundation on which to build what (in the language of the Alberta Education Inspiring Action vision), could be described as representing exemplary school leadership for transforming education in Alberta.

In my next blog I will begin the process, in the spirit of inquiry-based leadership, of exploring and making meaning of each of the seven school leadership competencies. Although I will be making indirect reference to the literature, I will draw from my 43+ years in a variety of roles in education (including: teacher; guidance counselor; vice principal; principal; deputy superintendent; superintendent; university instructor and educational consultant) to share what hopefully will be thoughtful insights which will promote further discourse.

Until my next blog focusing on the first dimension, relationship building, I leave you with these questions to ponder:
  • Are we expecting too much of principals (school leaders)?
  • What more could be done to attract individuals to school administrator roles?
  • What more could we be doing to appropriately prepare individuals to become principals (school leaders)?
  • Would more individuals be attracted to school administrative roles if there was a primary focus on positively impacting student learning?
  • If we were to successfully achieve the goal of promoting exemplary school leadership for the transformation of education in Alberta, what would it look like?

2 comments:

  1. On my journey to becoming an effective school administrator I have had many Professional Development experiences. I have taken part in workshops, been part of a Masters program and had the opportunity to experience a number of leadership roles during my teaching career. Reflecting on all of these opportunities there is one program that stands above all others in the tremendous positive impact in my growth as an educational leader. The past two school years I have had the privilege of being part of the School Leadership Program for the Northern Tier. This program is partially sponsored by my School Division and partially supported by Alberta Education. There have been many benefits to being part of this program. The individuals leading the program are respected professionals who have a range of experiences and can share many talents and perspectives with the cohort group. The intense focus of the program on Instructional Leadership has also been a benefit. The most powerful portion of the program for me has been the individual coaching sessions with the group leaders. Having access to a mentor who can clarify, challenge your assumptions and guide you to improved practice in an individual setting has improved my leadership practices greatly. Having access to successful administrators to coach and mentor aspiring leaders would be my choice for the best way to appropriately prepare individuals for school leadership roles. There are many opportunities in a school to take on leadership experiences. The best thing we can do to prepare prospective administrators is to give them access to other successful administrators who can guide them along their journey to developing the skills necessary to become an effective school leader.

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  2. My Uncle Duncan Garry has made some good points that I will share with Saskatchewan friends involved in Education

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