Interviewing for the Principalship: Nine Possible Questions


Written by Bill Sterrett

As I work with aspiring administrators, I often am asked about potential interview questions that might be asked during the hiring process.   I offer a list of typical—and not so typical—interview questions that might be asked by panels who are considering school leader candidates.  Of course, a hiring decision often boils down to the right fit, so questions can vary wildly depending on the needs of a particular school or the district.  While this is not by any means a complete list, it does encompass a few examples of what kind of questions might be asked.   As they say, there is no “right answer,” so I have tried to include a bit of rationale of what the panel might be thinking as well as a possible approach one might take.  “Fit” is also an important consideration for the candidate; remember, you are interviewing them as well (though it may not feel like it!) and need to be sure that you are prepared for—and aware of—the specific leadership role that is involved.

 1.)    Describe great instruction.

  1. Rationale:  Some interview questions may be broad and open-ended; this one serves as an example.   Principals must serve as learning leaders; this question addresses this role.
  2. Approach: Be clear and succinct.  Don’t filibuster.  You may want to consider framing a bit of theory (such as through the lens of student engagement, instructional strategies, etc.) through a practical lens (describe what this might look like in the particular environment in which you wish to serve).  Be specific: what would this look like in a second-grade math classroom?  If you are applying for a secondary vacancy, what might you look for in an AP Chemistry class?

 2.)    How will you support a safe and effective schoolwide learning environment?

  1. Rationale: It is safe to expect to receive some sort of “discipline” or “climate” question that is geared toward better understanding your approach to climate issues you will surely face.  School safety is at the forefront of today’s discussions related to education, and a school community will want a leader that is focused on a safe learning environment.
  2. Approach: As with all answers, be realistic, honest, and describe approaches that will enable you to help lead a community of learners.   You might discuss a particular schoolwide strategy that has worked, recount a specific case where your leadership and/or action made a difference, and describe how you will work with teachers, students, and parents to create a learning-centered climate.

 3.)    How would you resolve a conflict between two upset adults in your school?

  1. Rationale: This hypothetical question is framed to possibly involve either staff members or parents.  As an administrator, you will likely face upset adults who are angry or frustrated.
  2. Approach:  How will you work to address a “tough situation” in a manner that seeks to understand all parties’ sides, is in keeping with your district/ school mission and vision as well as policy, and ultimately benefits student learning?  Describe how you will listen, seek to find common ground, and—if necessary—make tough decisions that may leave people unhappy.

 4.)    How will you ensure that staff members continue to grow as professionals?

  1. Rationale: In an age of accountability and budget cuts, principals are increasingly asked to lead professional development in new and relevant ways.   Districts will likely want to hire school leaders who are aware of current needs and trends, future developments, and are aware of the real needs of teachers and staff in today’s schools.
  2. Approach: Describe how you will help promote a vision for your school.  How will you help teachers set realistic and achievable goals (and then meet those goals?)?  How will you use important—though limited—time such as faculty meetings, PD days, etc.?

 5.)    How would you work with the School Improvement Team (or equivalent) to realize change?

  1. Rationale:  This question could be geared toward a specific improvement objective (improving attendance, closing an achievement gap in reading, decreasing disciplinary incidents, etc.) and is geared toward merging important leadership areas—including instructional leadership, managerial leadership, visionary leadership, and organizational change leadership—together.
  2. Approach:  Offer specific examples of how you will set the stage as a leader, diagnose growth areas that are needed, and bring an improvement team—and the entire school community—together to realize success.

 6.)    What is a recent professional development-related book you have read recently and what did you gain from reading it?

  1. Rationale:  If panels don’t ask this, they should!  And if you don’t have anything in mind, you should!  As a learning leader, your education shouldn’t stop just because you complete a graduate degree.  Principals must be professional development leaders and if you are not keeping up—and contributing to—current trends and best practices, than you risk being “stuck” in a rapidly-changing educational climate.
  2. Approach:  Summarize a helpful book (or article, conference presentation, etc.) that has helped shape you as a leader.  What concrete “action steps” would help you work as a collaborative leader? Share a few strategies that may be relevant to the particular leadership position that you are seeking.    Describe how you might innovate, not just manage the status quo.

7.)    Can you describe a mistake you have made before and how you addressed it?

  1. Rationale:  I like this one much better than the worn-out “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” question.  If we’re honest, we all make mistakes.  The key is being willing to admit them, learn from them, and emerge better and stronger as an individual and as a leader.  The panel will likely be looking for honesty, growth, and how you perceive yourself as a leader and lifelong learner.
  2. Approach:  Recount a true, unvarnished account of a mistake you made in which you realized—in hindsight—that you erred.  Be honest, but also be respectful of others’ confidentiality.  Don’t air dirty laundry, and don’t overdramatize the situation.  If possible, describe how you attempted to remedy the situation and/or have learned and grown from the experience.

8.)    If your life was a movie, who would play the lead role?

  1. Rationale:  A “cliché” sort of question might be used to see how you can think on your feet, involve humor, and deal with the unexpected.  Other variations might involve favorite music, a dream vacation, an ideal weekend . . . . you get the idea.
  2. Approach:  A smile (or laugh) can go a long way to show that you can play along.  Do your best to take the question on with a mix of thoughtfulness and fun.   If possible, relate your answer with a laser-like focus of how you are equipped for this particular leadership role.  As a leader, you will deal with the unexpected. . . . How will you handle it?

9.)    Do you have any questions for us?

  1. Rationale:  They want to know how badly you want this job.  They want to know what is on your mind first and foremost as you are considering this job.  Remember, they need to offer the job to someone who wants the job.  Therefore, do not—under any circumstances—say, “No, I don’t have anything to ask,” unless you simply do not want the job.  And this is not the time to discuss salary- that can come later if—or when—you are negotiating the details of an offer.
  2. Approach:  Focus on an area that you realize will need your leadership the most.  It might be an area related to staffing the school, a particular instructional improvement area, or perhaps an issue related to culture or climate.  Ask a framing question to better understand the hiring panel’s perspective and then zero in (with a follow-up question) on a tactical aspect that is related.

Remember, be succinct and confident.  Allow the hiring panel the opportunity to ask possible follow-up questions to probe deeper regarding issues that are on their mind.   Again, my thoughts and recommendations are just that—my best guess of anticipating what you might experience.   You know yourself better than anyone, and hopefully, you have a sense of the organization and the specific leadership position that you seek.   The important thing is that you present the real you:  a competent, prepared, and caring leader who is ready to lead a team of people toward success.

William Sterrett‘s ASCD book, Insights into Action: Successful School Leaders Share What Works and related study guide can be found here: A former principal and current member of the educational leadership faculty at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Sterrett can be followed on Twitter @billsterrett

Update: Reviews and resources regarding Sterrett’s 2013 ASCD Arias book Short on Time can be found here: