The Complexity of Daily Principal Decision-making

Just as the classroom teacher is in charge of the students but wholly dependent upon them to respond, interact, and learn, so too are principals dependent upon their teachers to adhere to district policies, create classrooms where students absorb lessons, and collaborate with peers and school staff. After all there is only one principal (maybe an assistant if enrollment is large enough) and there are, depending on school size anywhere from 10 to 30 teachers in elementary schools and up to 100 in larger secondary ones.The principal is a manager, the staff’s instructional leader, and politician in dealing with student rancor, parental disaffection, teacher squabbles, and district office directives.

An earlier post dealt with teacher decision-to make the simple–actually not so simple–point that teachers engage in daily decision-making before, during, and after a lesson. That engagement is a complex process that spans monitoring the classroom teaching of content and skills, managing behaviors of individual and group of students, and frequent improvising as the unexpected pops up–inevitably, I might add–during lessons.

Although the content of lessons in science or math, or English, or French or U.S. history differ, they have in common a massive inventory of decisions that effortlessly get made as each lesson is taught. Teachers, then, make hundreds, if not more, instructional and managerial decisions each day they teach. And that’s not counting what decisions teachers make when they interact with students before and after school, make contacts with parents on email, phones, or social media in and out of school. Of course, teachers interact with their principals as well. And many of those interactions involve decisions about students, parents, and other teachers.

Now, consider the complexity of a principal’s daily decision-making. Researchers shadowing principals is rare but it has occurred (see here and here). Principals keeping logs of their daily work and sharing those logs with researchers occasionally appear in the literature (see here and here). But studies that actually count decisions that an elementary or secondary principal makes daily, I have yet to find. So I have had to settle for descriptions of a principal’s typical day or examples of daily logs principals have kept to give the flavor of the rapid-fire decision-making that does occur.

Here is one example of a day-in-the-life of one principal. Jessica Johnson is Principal of Dodgeland Elementary School in Wisconsin. This day-in-the-life appeared on her blog April 26, 2009.

I am guilty of having thought as a teacher and even as an assistant principal, “What is the principal doing all day? Why hasn’t he/she done x, y or z yet?” Well, now that I’m the principal, I take back all of the thoughts I had back then, because you can just never understand what the principal does all day until you live it!

There are so many things that could happen in a day that couldn’t even be shared with staff, because: A) I don’t want to set the tone of the school by complaining B) Some information has to be filtered by me or it would just give teachers more to stress over C) There’s a lot of confidential information contained within a principal’s day. So, I want to write a list of all the crazy things that could happen on any given day.

Monday morning arrive to work at 6:30 am. Turn on the computer and start looking at my list of things to accomplish today (includes 7:35/3:05  Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings, teacher observation, teacher meeting, parent conference, call McDonald’s for additional donations of ice cream coupons for student of the month awards, write monthly principal newsletter, finalize summer school course packets, sort through the junk mail still piled up from last week-because I didn’t get to it over the weekend, complete purchase requisitions, file pink copies of all purchases for budgeting, get into classrooms).

7:00 receive call from sub-caller, write down list of teachers out today—we ran out of subs so I have to figure out coverage for one of the first grade teachers. Write a note for the secretary regarding this, tell her I’ll be to the class at 8:00, but for her to keep looking for coverage.
7:05 Try to start on paperwork, but a teacher comes in to tell about a phone call she received from a parent after school on Friday regarding a bus incident—record the information to investigate.
7:10 Try to start on paperwork, but get a call from a teacher that our online student information system (for attendance and grades) is down again. Put in a call to tech director to get it fixed…send out an email to all staff that the problem should be fixed soon *hopefully*.

7:20 Parents are here for the IEP meeting…show them to the conference room to wait….no chance of getting paperwork done now. Go to get IEP information for the meeting and see the voicemail light flashing again…check it and hear that a teacher got stuck in traffic and won’t make it in time…go tell the secretary and then run back to the IEP meeting.

7:35-8:00 IEP meeting…this one went well. Now I have to run to cover that class.

8:00-8:30 Teaching a lower grade level, no lesson plans (note to self-remind teachers to get emergency sub plans/folders ready) making it up as I go.

8:30 Call from the office that one of our Emotional/Behavioral Disability (EBD) students needs to be removed from the room—an aide is coming to cover the class instead.

8:35-9:15 Remove EBD student—severe physical aggression, I’m sure I’ll have some bruises from this one—not to mention the mess the conference room is in now (we don’t have a time-out room). I’ve had my glasses broken before, so glad that didn’t happen this time. He/she finally is calm/compliant and I escort the child back to class…
Fortunately another substitute was able to come in and cover that other class now. Thank goodness, I can get to my list…
Check my voicemail—1 teacher call with a question about the new report card, 1 teacher call requesting me to come speak with her about a student, 1 parent call angry about a bus incident, another angry parent upset with a teacher.

9:20 put the sign on my door that says “I’m out in classrooms to see what students are learning” and get to each of the teachers that left me voice messages. Make a move to classrooms for walk throughs—first one has guided reading groups and centers with 1st grade kids reading amazingly well! Start to enter the 2nd classroom of the day when I’m called for on the school loud speaker (I don’t carry my walkie-talkie when I’m going into classrooms and my secretaries know only to call for me in an emergency). Hurry back to the office to find that one of our special needs children ran off from the aide (he/she has never done this before!) I make a special all-call to the staff to let them know we’re looking for ______ and then several of us split up to search….10 minutes later we find her/him in an unattended office in the dark pretending to type on a computer. Whew!

10:00-10:30 Morning Recess-I don’t end up making it out there for all 30 minutes, because I get stopped by 3 different teachers on my way out. (Question about grades deadline, information shared about a student and another technology question)

10:30-11:15 Back out to classrooms. Get into 4 of them (with a note to myself on needing to meet with a teacher for classroom management concerns)

11:15-11:45 Meet with the 4 students that had bus conduct reports. 1 has had enough to be suspended from the bus…make the phone call home and get yelled at by the parent that they can’t pick them up. I’ll spare the rest of the details. Meet with 2 other students that have “earned” after school detention for continuously disruptive classroom behavior.

11:45 Head for the fridge to grab my sandwich for lunch, but get called to a classroom for another EBD student. Fortunately, this child is calmed down much easier than the one this morning.

12:00-1:00 Lunch room duty—grab a slim fast to drink on the way. No, I’m not dieting, but I keep them in the fridge for days like today when there is no time to eat. I sometimes refer to my hour-long lunch duty as migraine hour (because it’s always loud), but I secretly enjoy this hour. Our kids sit at round tables and actually get the chance to talk with their peers. I’ve seen schools where the kids have to eat silently, but I think that’s just mean. I enjoy the chance to walk around to each table and chat with the kids. If I’m not walking around (using proximity) they do try to get away with things (however, they know that if I catch them throw any food they then have lunch room clean up duty!)

1:00 Talk to a couple teachers about student behaviors in the lunch room as they pick up classes (friend issues)

1:05 Get back to the office and secretary tells me that a parent has tried calling several times and is very angry. Go back to my office and check my voice messages—there are 6 of them (not all from the one parent)! I have a classroom observation at 1:30, so I write them all down and just call back the angry one–this parent calls daily, so I’m used to it…I’d like to tell this parent to get a job so he/she has something to do each day, but I refrain from expressing that opinion! The parent again tells me they’re going to call the school board to complain…I’m not worried, because I know that what we’re doing on the school end is the right thing and I’ve already talked to a couple school board members about this parent. Note to any potential administrators reading this—be prepared for threats such as, “I’ve got a lawyer on retainer,” “I’m going to call your superintendent,” “I’m going to report this to the school board” and “I’m going to report you to the state department of education.” If you’re doing your job right, you have nothing to worry about. I now just give them the phone number and am usually able to add, “I’ve already spoken with the superintendent regarding this issue.” I don’t like surprises or hiding things from my superintendent or the school board, so I keep those lines of communication open.

1:30-2:15 Classroom Observation: I love doing formal classroom observations, because you get to see so much more than just in walk-throughs (of the teacher,

instruction and the students). I do think I’m getting carpal tunnel, because I’m so insistent on scripting everything—gives me good information when I’m writing up the evaluation and when I meet with the teacher.

2:15 bathroom break—I seriously think this was my first one today—I’m dying!

2:20 Check with my secretary-2 more phone calls passed through to my phone—nothing major though, so I’ll check them later. Try to tidy up my desk before parent meeting at 2:30. Since I am on the run so much and hardly in my office, I have several piles on my desk. I don’t have a great system yet for organizing yet, but I know where everything is. I once had a principal that said “If you’re desk is a mess, it’s because you’re doing your job well—you’re out in classrooms and not sitting at your desk.” I’ve worked for a principal that was adamant about keeping the desk clean, but I still agree with the previous one!

2:30 Meeting with parent: she wants to request a specific teacher for next year. This is something on my list that I haven’t gotten to yet—working on the class list procedures and a letter to parents explaining why we can’t honor specific teacher requests. I explain it to her and tell her about the letter that will be coming home in a month and ask her to think about her child’s learning styles/needs and not just the teacher that the older sibling had. This isn’t how the previous principal did things, so she’s a little annoyed, but agreed to it. (Note to self—get moving on writing that letter and meeting with staff about class lists)

2:50 Pop into grade level meeting (teachers have grade-level collaboration time

2:40-3:30 on 2 week rotation. Aides cover the class 2:40-3:00 to give them someadditional time). I’d like to sit in on these meetings for the full time to help facilitate discussions on student learning, but it hasn’t happened all year.

3:00 Walk the halls quickly as students are being dismissed. I have a particular student that I walk to the bus each day and remind him/her about how to be safe on the bus.

3:05 IEP meeting…this one goes on forever. Parents are not on the same page as everyone at school. Gets quite heated and I have to do quite a bit of mediation. At 5:00 I finally say that we will have to come back at a later date to finish (No, IEP meetings do not normally last this long!!)

5:05 Back to my office…finish checking voice messages and start calling a few back (had to prioritize which ones can wait until tomorrow). Now to my list from this morning—hadn’t touched any of them! Write my principal newsletter because it was due last Friday. Check my mailbox and add it to the stack of mail from last week (never knew how much mail the principal gets—good grief!) Pull out time sheets, absence sheets, and purchase requisitions because those are time sensitive, but leave the rest. It’s 5:45 now and my husband has called three times asking when I’ll be home. I grab some files to shove in my bag, along with my flash drive so I can type up the teacher evaluation at home).

6:00 Finally home—didn’t have a bad day, but still feel like I got run over by a semi. I’d love to just lay on the couch and crash, but have to make supper, clean, play with my son. After he’s in bed I type up that teacher eval (most of it) until I’m too exhausted and go to bed at 11:45.

I must say that the kids are the easiest part of this position. I can’t even get into detail on some of the difficult conversations with parents and teachers each day that get my stomach churning (and I mean that literally…but now I am on meds for the ulcer, so I’m doing better with that!)


Johnson spends a great deal of her time managing tasks that are both on-going and unexpected. She is in and out of classrooms also and in short bursts of time sees parents, children, and teachers again and again over the course of one day. How typical is her day-in-the-life of a principal compared to one in a middle school or high school? I cannot say.

What I can state clearly is that Johnson blends three core roles any principal, be they elementary or secondary school site leaders, must perform: instructional, managerial, and political. Most principals focus on the managerial but they must also act as the instructional leader and deal with parents and district administrators to buffer the school from external conflict. As one would expect, principals vary in their choices of which of these roles they perform in their schools.

Thus, Johnson represents one type of principal who mixes these roles in her particular fashion. Other principals mix and match to create different blends. However principals perform their roles, it is clear that they, like teachers, make numerous, frequent, and are decision-makers every day of the school year.



Filed under leadership, school leaders

2 responses to “The Complexity of Daily Principal Decision-making

  1. Larry:
    This could set a new record for response length and perhaps justifies its own post. I have a lot of respect for the principal who described her day here and a lot of advice that could make her job/life easier.

    I was a principal for 13 years in a school with 535 students, 90% poverty, 25% refugees, and no assistant principal. The issues described during this day are vary familiar. I think this person has some efficiency issues that if dealt with could make the job easier. The first is better use of the secretary. When I see the word filing I see a clerical job, not a managerial job. The secretary should also be opening all of your mail (including your email) and only giving you items you need to act on. The secretary should also to the McDonalds call. There are other issues here that look like clerical work.

    Having the secretary sort out coverage is not clerical work. You should know who you are putting in a classroom and the person should hear it from you directly. In my case, if I was a substitute short I would rotate such assignments between reading and ESL teachers who didn’t get subs anyway.

    I trust you have a cellphone. I had one in 1996. That is when the office staff stopped interrupting everyone in the school to find me. As for calls the secretary thinks I need to take from parents or other district staff, I expect those to be forwarded to my cellphone regardless of where I am. Angry parents are often surprised and disarmed to get me right away when I greet them with a welcome to the playground or cafeteria. If they say they are getting a lawyer simply tell them to have their lawyer call the school district’s lawyer and give them the number. Your lawyer is probably much better than theirs and you don’t have to pay for it.

    You should be typing your observations on your laptop as you make them. If possible finish them before you leave the room and let the teacher know that you expect them to proofread the observation and suggest any changes.

    I never stopped working while I was at school from 7 am to 5 pm, but I always ate lunch that I planned ahead of time. I was always available as I ate and was often faced by teachers who said “I hate to interrupt you while you are eating, but.” The nice thing about having your mouth full as you eat is that you are more likely to listen actively and less likely to interrupt.

    IEP meetings are important, but they should be able to go on without you. If you know a tricky one is coming up you should have a district official or a lawyer run it.

    As an elementary principal, you want to be physically capable of restraining out-of-control students. As they tend to be in the lower grades you should be strong enough to do the job. Be sure to get some training if you need it. For female principals, this means no skirts, dresses, or shoes with heels. I wouldn’t hire a principal who wasn’t fit and you shouldn’t either. It’s harder to do this kind of work and it’s harder to pass yourself off as a role model if you aren’t fit. Plan your exercise and don’t leave it for when you don’t have anything else to do. Just managing by walking around might be all of the exercise you need.

    You talk about “stomach-churning” conversations. It’s time for another layer of skin. It sounds like you may be internalizing these conversations rather than dealing with them in an objective manner. Keep in mind that often all you have to do is listen.

    The missing substitute plan does not call for a note to staff. It requires a “come to Jesus” meeting with the teacher who “failed” to leave plans. At the least, they should have been sent via email. Let this person know that it should not happen again and document it in the person’s personnel folder. If you do this a few times word will get out.

    When it comes to class lists this is something teachers at each grade level should do. You retain the right to tweak them, but the teachers know the children, each other, the parents, and the teachers at the next grade level better than you do.

    The fact that your principal’s newsletter was due last Friday implies that you probably shouldn’t have one. Anytime you need to get something out send an email to all staff at that moment. I bet that a lot of teachers don’t bother reading the principal newsletter.

    As for getting home and being what sounds like a single mom, I can’t relate. When I started making principal money my wife stayed home, took care of our daughter, took care of the house, and planned the meals. I would often do the “some assembly required” part of meal prep and help my daughter with her homework. I felt like I was on vacation. When I went home at five the job started at the school. Like all marriages mine had its bumps. I knew, however, that working through them was much better for the entire family than breaking up. My advice to all newlyweds is: finish the fights and be each other’s best friends.

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