The DNA of the Principalship: Conflict and Guilt in the Genetic Code

The genetic code of the principalship is written in the instructional, managerial, and political roles that each school leader must perform daily*.

Venn diagram of 3 overlapping roles

These overlapping and competing roles create a dilemma of identity: Am I a manager, a politician, or instructional leader? If I am all three, which do I do best? Which do I need to do more? Reconciling the conflicting demands of these overlapping roles is the daily task that principals wrestle with silently. Because these are familiar, I will describe them briefly.

Instructional role. Historically, the title of “principal” comes from the phrase “principal teacher,” that is, a teacher designated by a school board to manage the non-classroom tasks of schooling a large number of students and turning in reports. So from the very beginning of the job principals examined students personally to see what they learned, evaluated teachers, created curriculum, and took care of the business of schooling.

Over the past century, however, exactly how much of an instructional role and what kind has been unclear. Since the 1980s, for example, mainstream thinking about principals has shifted markedly from managing school-site decision-making to again re-asserting the importance of  being instructional leaders. Now, principals are expected to lead teachers in meeting state academic standards, aligning the curriculum, textbooks, and tests to those state standards, and producing higher scores.

Managerial role. Principals have always been hired to administer schools. Superintendents expect their principals to set priorities consistent with district goals, use data for decision making, plan and schedule work of the school, oversee the budget and many other managerial tasks—including punctual submission of reports to the central office. Currently, efforts by some superintendents and entrepreneurs to make principals into CEOs is in that tradition.

Political role. A century ago, progressive reformers divorced partisan politics from schooling. The norm of political neutrality held that superintendents and principals hide their personal policy preferences and serve those who set policy. Politics, where candidates and voters debated which policy goals should prevail, was considered non-professional.

The power of that norm remains strong today. Few principals who find the constant push for higher standardized test scores unhealthy for students and schools will publicly argue against policies advancing such practices. Individually, principals are expected to exercise their technical and organizational skills in implementing what school boards, superintendents, governors, state legislatures, and the U.S. Congress–decide.

So principals avoid partisan politics but they do act politically within the school community.  To advance their school agenda, principals negotiate with parents, individual teachers, student groups, central office administrators, and even city officials. They figure out ways to build political coalitions for their schools at budget time or to put a positive spin on bad news during crises. Such politics aim to improve a school’s image, implement an innovation, or secure new resources. Most principals see this as going about their daily business, not politics. But it is acting politically.

Here, then, are three overlapping roles that principals expect of themselves and others expect of principals. Some carve out a dominant role among the three and become characterized as political or instructional leaders; others pride themselves on the managerial. Yet a principal has to perform each one of these roles and while doing so, endure the continuing tensions of juggling conflicting expectations. Consider these three principals.


Venn diagram of Principal 1

A veteran principal of a 1100-student high school in a low-income, high minority part of town, she is admired by district officials and parents for running a tight ship and knowing what happens in her school. She prides herself on the school being clean and getting supplies delivered on time. Reports go to district officials regularly. Teachers have confidence in principal that they will be allowed to teach free of interference from parents and outside interruptions. She visits classrooms just to see what is going on but does not do regular walk-throughs. On a few occasions, she has reached out to parents and community leaders for money to support teacher-developed reading and math programs.


Venn diagram of Principal 2

Principal 2 has headed a 450 student charter high school for the past two years. He visits classes daily. Twice monthly, he leads a seminar of teachers on project-based teaching, critical thinking skills, and asking questions. Reports to the charter board, parent conferences, ordering supplies, etc. get done early in the morning before school or after the school day. On some occasions, he has had to meet with charter board parents to answer questions. He also raises money from local businesses for student field trips and teacher professional development.


Venn diagram of Principal 3

Hired in a national search, this experienced principal has taken over the reins of a newly-established technology-centered urban high school with 450 low-income, largely minority students chosen by lottery. School is housed—along with two other small high schools in a reconverted former high school building. In the first two years, the principal has spent most of her time in mobilizing support and reaching out to parents, district officials, and the two other principals to secure additional funds, supplies, and consultants.

Three principals, three configurations of roles. Not one of the principals felt at peace as each went through his or her day. Moreover, all felt guilty that they were not doing enough “instructional leadership.” It is in the DNA.


See my posts of December 15, 2009 and December 1. 2010


Filed under school leaders

4 responses to “The DNA of the Principalship: Conflict and Guilt in the Genetic Code

  1. Cal

    The diagrams aren’t coming up for me, but I’ll guess that principal #1 is primarily managerial, #2 is primarily instructional, #3 is primarily political?

    In any event, the notion of principal as instructional leader is just a non-starter, and always has been. It’s simply not possible, for one thing–have you ever noticed how many principals are special ed instructors?–but even if it were, I am reasonably sure that most teachers would aggressively reject it. To the extent that a role could be instructional leader, it would be the department head (although that, too, is rare).

    Given a choice between a good manager and a good politician, most teachers would choose the former, although of course a mix is preferred.

    • larrycuban

      Hi Cal,

      Thanks for note that diagrams didn’t come up when you double-clicked. I went back to post and tried again and they came up for me. I used Microsoft Word document rather than PDF. I wonder if that caused a glitch.

  2. Cal

    I was posting from a Mac. Came home and tried it on a PC and they loaded more quickly. You should make jpegs out of them–they’re nicelooking.

  3. An excellent summary of the many directions that administrators can be pulled, Larry.

    I might be unclear with how Cal defines an instructional leader. As a Principal of a relatively large high school (1400+ students), I am not in every class nearly enough, but I do work with teachers all of the time in a variety of different ways. Some of the things I try to do include: participating with staff in embedded professional development; providing opportunities for teachers to work together in collaborative groups during the work week to find effective instructional strategies; role modeling effective and engaging instructional strategies and 21st century tools and skills in faculty meetings that teachers can take and use in their classes; and, creating a distributed leadership model that allows for setting clear expectations, goals and a shared decision-making model for ownership of initiatives and improvement plans.

    None of this is meant to be horn-tooting: I am not a ‘super administrator’ by any stretch. However, I believe some of this might land in the instructional leadership pile, and it is quite do-able. I can certainly tell you that our staff does not reject it. I am not really sure why they would.

    Just one person’s thoughts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s