Modern School Principal Is All Things in All Crises

Suzette Lovely, chief personnel officer at the Capistrano Unified School District, spent eight years as an elementary school principal and oversees the development of school leaders.

Imagine you’re watching an Internet version of the old “What’s My Line?” television game show and the contestant opens with this job description: “I work more than 70 hours each week, often during the evenings and weekends. Today I reviewed test scores, searched the trash dumpster for a lost retainer, developed a spending plan for a $500,000 grant, talked to a distraught father about his daughter’s body piercings and met with officials from the nuclear power plant to discuss the distribution of potassium iodide in the event of a terrorist attack.

“Who am I? Why, a middle school principal, of course!”

Principals today look and act much differently than the ones we remember from our school days. One minute the job requires mathematical savvy, the next calls for an iron stomach and a durable pair of latex gloves.

Michael Copland, professor of education at Stanford University, says that to survive in today’s job market, school principals need the “wisdom of a sage, leadership of a point guard, morality of a nun, toughness of a soldier and humility of a saint.” And the pay is lower than you might expect.


Unfortunately for school districts, parents and students, looming retirements and a lack of interest in administrative careers are converging to create a national shortage. Nearly 40% of the country’s 93,000 public school principals will leave their jobs before the end of the decade.

In July 2001, the Los Angeles Times reported that although California produces 2,000 to 3,500 newly licensed administrators each year, only 38% assume leadership positions in schools.

In Orange County, soaring enrollments and skyrocketing housing costs, coupled with depleted applicant pools, have resulted in fewer job candidates. Some districts are forced to re-advertise for unfilled vacancies, promote people who may not be ready or scout nearby districts to entice principals to jump ship. Compounding the problem: Principals are being asked to do more with less time and fewer resources. Family and friends regularly play second fiddle to the job.

As one of the fastest-growing districts in California, the Capistrano Unified School District has hired 29 new principals since 1998. To keep our reservoir full, Capistrano is tackling the problem on three fronts.


First, the school board and superintendent have designed a comprehensive recruitment plan that consists of a grow-your-own career ladder and a credentialing partnership with Chapman University. Current principals participate in recruitment by encouraging prospects to become “teaching assistant principals.” This entry-level assignment allows promising teacher leaders to explore administration before committing. Nearly half of our 50 principals began as TAPs.

Safety nets also are installed for new principals. Rookies receive coaching and peer support. The investment pays dividends in the end, since a principal’s inaugural year is a strong predictor of future success. District leaders coordinate the sharing of resources to ensure good habits are developed. Whether it’s the personnel department, the business office or maintenance and operations, staff is there to support the newcomers.

Finally, learning on the job is paramount. Although there are many parallels between the needs of new and seasoned principals, veterans often view challenges and approach problems differently. Training is therefore structured to accommodate these differences.

Today’s principals do much more than discipline students and make sure the bells ring on time. Keeping abreast of terrorism and sniper threats has become as critical as understanding reading, writing and arithmetic.

How can principals remain focused on teaching and learning in our post-Sept. 11 world? Although there are no easy answers, organizations such as the National Assn. of Elementary School Principals are working with Congress and state associations to establish programs to increase recognition and support for school principals. If principals aren’t rewarded for their efforts, it will be difficult to keep them.

Securing a sufficient number of principals is a sure-fire way to sustain good schools. And, as Orange County knows, good schools mean high property values and generate revenue for local businesses. They also build community pride and serve as focal points in neighborhoods. Our quality of life is riding on our ability to fill the pipeline with exemplary leaders. Let us unite in our quest to recognize the important work of principals.

After all, academic performance indexes, exit exams and school safety mean little without a principal.