Why Do You Want to Be a School Leader?

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I’ve had many conversations over the years with teachers who are thinking about becoming principals. When they ask me for my opinion about what they should do, I always counter with a question: Why do you want to be a principal? Often, the answer falls into one of three categories: “I want to fix this place”; “I could do better than whomever we have now”; or “I have a vision that I want to bring to life.”

When I hear such responses, I discourage teachers from pursuing the principalship, at least until they’ve reflected further. Why? Because their perspectives assume a top-down, “I know best” and “I will be in charge” approach to leading schools. The evidence is strong that such approaches are unlikely to succeed.

True, a strong top-down leader can make quick, visible changes and sometimes improve student learning as the result. But these changes are often overshadowed by the damage they do to teachers’ morale and commitment to the school. As professionals, teachers expect and deserve a say in their work lives and the direction of the school. The principal who acts alone and demands change loses effectiveness over time and often creates chaos and resentment in the process.

What’s more, top-down change is often implemented superficially. It disappears as soon as teachers, who were never given ownership of the change, feel safe in letting go of it. Lasting change occurs when everyone has a voice and shares in its development and implementation.

One of the best responses to “Why do you want to be a principal?” came from an old high school friend of mine who, like me, pursued a career as an educator. She caught up with me years later to ask my thoughts on becoming a principal. When I asked why she was thinking about being a school leader, her answer sounded something like this: “Well, I’m pretty good at organizing things and I have a few ideas that might be helpful.” There was modesty in her response and a sense that she did not have all the answers, but rather felt she could make a contribution. I’m glad I encouraged her to go for it, because she went on to be a successful school and district leader.

I hope my article in Educational Leadership’s May 2017 issue, “Five Perspectives for Leadership Success,” helps potential, new, and experienced school leaders recognize that school leadership is most effective when it’s collaborative, begins with good listening, and is underpinned by an understanding that everyone who works in the school deserves respect and a voice. Perhaps the article will support their reasons for deciding to become a school leader.


Cathy A. Toll (cathy@partneringtolearn.com) is a consultant and university professor and a former principal, curriculum leader, and educational coach. Her website is www.partneringtolearn.com. Follow her on Twitter @cathytoll

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