A Shout-out for Principals

Last week I was talking on the phone with a private school principal, exhaustion evident in his voice. “In the best of times there were issues that would pop into my head at three o’clock in the morning and keep me from falling back to sleep,” he told me. “Now,” he continued, “I’m having trouble getting any sleep at all. I have so many things to worry about, that I find myself panicking over what I should be worrying about first.”

“Does anybody worry about you?” I asked.

A lengthy pause ensued, broken by a sigh of resignation. “Everyone has their share of worries,” the principal said.

It’s high time we gave principals and heads of school a little love. (I use the two terms interchangeably throughout the article.) A private school principal’s domain is ultra-challenging in the best of times. A principal may get away with a ten-hour work day every now and then, but that doesn’t take evening meetings, after-hours phone calls, or other professional obligations into account. In truth, there is no such thing as “after hours.” Principals are on call 24/7. They carry with them the constant weight of knowing that they will be held accountable for virtually anything and everything that can possibly disappoint or upset any parent, student, teacher, donor, stakeholder, or vendor. Every emergency, crisis and/or challenge, whether real or imagined, will quickly land on their desk. And everyone knows that’s where the proverbial buck must always stop.

A head of school is expected to be a master of multiple roles: CEO, visionary, exemplar, mediator, mentor, confessor, confidant, cheerleader, psychologist, social worker, financial planner, fundraiser, orator, and more. A head’s job description may not include backstopping, recognizing, appreciating, supporting, encouraging, and rewarding, but if they don’t engage in such behaviors, who will? And when others are agitated, perplexed, anxious, or worse, it is the head who is expected to provide a calm, reassuring, and in-command presence.

In a “normal” February, principals would be deeply engaged in developing an operating budget for the coming school year – one that endeavors to increase the value delivered for parents’ tuition dollars without actually raising tuition by a degree some will decry as ‘exorbitant’. They will, invariably, be entreated to “hold the line,” even as they are expected to retain top-notch faculty and staff (and do so in a highly competitive labor market) while maintaining a physical plant and school grounds that are safe and secure, beautiful and inviting.

Heads know that if the budgets they propose necessitate an increase in tuition, any such bump-up is likely to be outpaced by increased demand for financial assistance. Virtually no private school budget is free of an operating deficit, and the gap between operating expenses and revenue from tuition and fees is often pronounced. Private schools must compete for scarce resources in a market environment – not only with other private schools, but with the tuition-free public school, or public charter school just down the street or around the corner – and rarely can a compelling value proposition be fashioned in the absence of steadfast and persistent fundraising.

So principals need to be economists, too, constantly calculating how resources might best be allocated, estimating the ripple effects of their decision making, developing contingencies for miscalculations and unanticipated outcomes, making in-course corrections, and being both proactive and reactive.

I’ve touched upon but a smidgen of what a principal must grapple with when budgeting in ‘good’ times! Can you even imagine what it must be like to develop a budget at a time when just about the only thing that’s predictable is that private schools will continue to face unprecedented degrees of uncertainty?

But here’s something that’s certain:  principals in a growing number of private schools are facing diametrically opposed factions of parents: one group threatening to pull their children out of school if the school continues to maintain a mandatory masking policy, and the other threatening to do likewise if mandatory masking is dropped. (Ditto over a school’s support for, or opposition to proposed mandatory student vaccination legislation.)

Heads that fought for 5 percent across-the-board teacher salary increases as a way of both thanking teachers and promoting staff retention are now being reminded that an annual inflation rate of 7 percent translates into a decline in real wages. With an increasing number of burned-out teachers opting to retire or make a career change, and public schools flush with money that can be used to recruit faculty, the cost of securing any, let alone exceptional teachers, is rapidly escalating. Add California’s skyrocketing cost of housing and, well, you can understand why heads of school are having trouble sleeping.

Then, there’s the functional prerequisite of creating and maintaining safe and healthy campus and classroom environments for both students and staff. Procuring personal protective equipment, cleaning and disinfecting, fulfilling constantly morphing state and local health jurisdiction requirements, making application for state and federal COVID-related emergency assistance programs, and reassuring anxious, frustrated and stressed out parents is a full-time job in its own right. (Contact-tracing reporting, of itself, is a massively time consuming obligation.)

And that’s not the half of it, because first and foremost, principals need to deliver when it comes to actually educating students. They’re still responsible for overseeing curriculum, instruction, and evaluation, assessing student achievement and growth, evaluating and supporting teachers, and ensuring that the entire enterprise of the school continues to function in a manner that is faithful to its vision and mission.

‘Nuff said? I hope so (though I’ve no doubt that a head of school would rightfully observe that I’ve only scratched the surface). We’re still in Valentine’s Day week. What say we show a little love to principals and heads of school? How about finding a way to let your school’s principal/head know of your appreciation and respect. Consider opening with, “I’d like to bring a few things to your attention that have really made me feel grateful for your leadership and hard work.” Wouldn’t that be a great thing to do? You bet it would!

Ron Reynolds


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