Amid the bustle: the principal’s role

September 22, 2018
By Jane Macleod, Senior Manager, Research and Records

Instructional Leadership

Imagine finding yourself at the intersection of four busy thoroughfares (think Champs-Élysées), knowing that how you address and handle the momentum and flow of traffic for each artery is critical to the safety and success of the overall transportation goal. In many ways, this is exactly what school principals do.

The diagram below illustrates the school leader’s role as existing at the intersection of four contexts: political (policy), ethical (values), educational (learning) and personal (attributes and experience). According to Christopher Day, the successful response to these dynamic configurations, which may often be in tension, depends upon the relationship and influence principals have with their staff, their students and their communities (p. 14).

The analogy fits. First, as the school leader, principals are responsible for the overall operation of the school and, as such, principals find themselves managing administrative tasks as outlined in Ministry and/or division policies and directives. 

Second, in addition to their individual values and sense of what’s right, a principal’s commitment and responsibility to the ethical ideals of the teaching profession guide their actions and decisions. When responding to a school-based issue, principals today spend considerable time reflecting on their individual beliefs as well as professional moral codes.

Third, student and teacher success is ever-present in a principal’s mindset today. Creating the conditions that support student engagement, effective pedagogy and resource utilization, along with organizing a culture that supports teacher learning and collaboration, typically begins in the principal’s office.

Finally, the principal’s experiences and personal situation have a profound influence on his or her role. Whether juggling family responsibilities, community commitments or personal interests, school leaders know the importance of a healthy work-life balance.

So, just how does today’s school leader navigate such a dynamic and demanding configuration? The short answer is, “not easily” or “it depends.” However, a quick review of the literature on educational leadership and management offers a few pointers:

1. Stay connected with those around you: students, staff, parents and community. The critical importance of relationships to school success consistently resonates in educational leadership research.

2. Boundaries can constrain and limit even the best intentions. Look for opportunities to be flexible and versatile in your thinking and actions.

3. Accept the unpredictable nature of the principal’s role. Just as we know that traffic jams happen, we know that patience and taking time for careful thinking can point us in the right direction.

4. Take time to think about the totality of the principal’s role. School leaders have a massive responsibility and what you do makes a difference to students and staff. As much as these configurations exist and influence action and decision making, the imperative remains students and their learning.   

For those who have been there, you’ll agree that the traffic around the Champs-Élysées is unrelenting. Similarly, the constant and multi-faceted nature of the principal’s role may at times seem daunting. Yet, both experience and research tell us that principals can avoid dissonance by “paying attention to the results of our efforts, co-adapting, co-evolving, developing wisdom as we learn, staying clear about our purpose, [and] being alert to changes from all directions” (Wheatley, 2015. Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time).