Civic Servants: School Principals

Serving as the CEO of America’s Most Important Institution

This is another story in Civic Way’s series highlighting public servants in America. Our first two stories focused on the County Court Clerk and School Bus Driver positions. We hope that these stories will help clarify the daily challenges facing public servants as well as the importance of state and local government.

Introducing the Job

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), there are about 90,900 public school principals in the US. About 54 percent of public school principals are female, nearly 78 percent are white and about 62 percent have a master’s degree. About 36 percent have four to nine years of experience and 28 percent have at least ten years of experience. In 2020, the median annual wage for elementary, middle, and high school principals was $98,490. The lowest ten percent earned less than $65,150, and the highest ten percent earned over $152,500.

Elementary, middle, and high school principals are the Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) of their schools. As such, they are responsible for managing all aspects of their school operations, including teachers, support personnel, budgets, facilities, curricula and class schedules. They evaluate teachers, counsel students and meet with parents and community members. Their duties vary by district. In large systems, they tend to receive more support from district specialists, such as instructional and human resource staff. In large schools, they also may have assistant principals to whom they can delegate certain tasks.

One Public Servant’s Story

The last day. Not of her life. But, certainly of the school year and her career. After years of deliberation and introspection, she had decided to retire. It is time.

She is proud to be an elementary school principal, but she knows she is more than that. Wife. Mother. Sister. Friend. Citizen. For 30 years, when asked what she did, she always answered, “Elementary School Teacher” and then, after her promotion some years ago, “Elementary School Principal” and then finally, just “Principal.”

She isn’t sure exactly when it happened, but, at some point, after answering that question so many times the same way, Maggie began to see herself first and foremost as an educator. First, as a teacher and then as a principal. After today, she would have to find a different way to answer that question.

Today might be the last day of her career, but Maggie strives to treat it like all the others. Up at 5:30 am. The same preparations for the day ahead. The same tasks in the same sequence and with the same mechanical efficiency. The only thing different about today would be an empty satchel. She would be bringing no papers home this evening. There would be no preparation for the next day.

She likes being the first to arrive at school every morning. Before her students. Before her staff. She feels it is important for her to be the gatekeeper, the upbeat sentinel who greets everyone else to school. Who welcomes them to school by name. Who makes everyone feel special just for showing up.

The last day. Maggie is momentarily struck by the magnitude of the phrase. She is probably driving to school for the last time as a district employee. Thirty years of service behind her. What comes next after a lifetime of service?

Maggie stops at an intersection as the light turns red. She glances quickly in the mirror at her hair and face. Presentable, but the lips could use a touch-up. She reaches for her lipstick and deftly applies it. As she returns to the mirror to check it out, she is startled by a honking horn. The light has turned green. She puts the lipstick down and resumes her drive.

She wonders how today will go. Has her staff planned anything for her? Festivities? Plaque? Commendation? Eminent guests? Profound speeches? Cake? She hopes they haven’t, but won’t be disappointed if they have. She is of two minds; part of her wants to leave without fanfare, but part would be grateful for at least a little recognition.

Will there be any unscripted emotions? Heart-felt good-byes? Trembling testimonials? Moistened eyes and unapologetic tears? She knows she made the school better, but no one is indispensable. The school will keep going. She will be replaced. The teachers will keep teaching. The students will keep learning. Life will go on. Sure, most of the staff will probably miss her, but not forever.

Some staff might even be glad to see her leave, like the few she had had to reprimand in recent years. Some district administrators might see an opportunity to replace her with a more compliant principal, one they like to call a “team player.” Balancing contradictory state policies and fluid administrative demands with her values and instincts as an educator has always been a challenge, and her high wire act has not always won her friends.

Truth be told, she will not miss everything about the job. The ever-changing state regulations. The frequently feckless schoolboard. The administrators who cared more about their jobs than the kids. The emotional volatility of public meetings. The mediocre teachers who didn’t share her passion for kids. The end-of-year exams. The helicopter parents. The children who carried their dismal home lives to school. Worse yet, the ones she had to suspend or expel. She never really forgave herself for the times she had no choice but to give up on a kid.

But, there is so much that she will miss. The administrators who put the kids first. The dedicated teachers who cared more about learning than scores. The parents more concerned about their kid’s friendships than their test scores. The volunteers who tutored needy students. And most of all, the kids, with their innocence and curiosity. With their whole lives before them.

No two days were ever the same and no day passed without the unexpected. So many incredible memories.

  • The children whose promise she unlocked, like the troubled 5th grader she convinced to run for student council or the bright 3rd grader with mediocre test scores she got into the gifted program.
  • The teachers who visited their students (and parents) at their homes, paid for supplies out of their own pockets and wouldn’t rest until they restored their students’ faith in themselves.
  • The parents who saw school as a way to expand their child’s horizons, not just as a stage for achieving another credential, truly listened during the IEP sessions (like the father with the pink dress) and supported the teachers when their kids needed discipline.
  • The community volunteers whom she could call at any time to help a new family, like the time one of the school’s new refugee families—one with a 2nd grader, two toddlers and an infant—received three donated strollers in less than 24 hours.

She thought about the little things she did. Everybody knows what a principal is, but few appreciate all that a principal does. Most everyone knows something about a principal’s job. Run the school. Hire teachers and other staff. Maintain discipline. Preside over school assemblies. But few know about all the little things that principals do.

Maggie remembers the many times she served as a surrogate parent. Keeping some extra lunches in the office refrigerator for the kid who showed up for a field trip without one. Buying extra holiday cards just in case a kid was from an immigrant family with no knowledge of the holiday. Soliciting clothing donations for kids from the poorest families. Always on the sly. The whole point was to help every kid fit in and learn. She loved doing that.

She also thought about the many rookie teachers who came through her school. How much she loved spending time with them, answering their questions, providing words of encouragement, giving them the confidence they needed to succeed. Sometimes, she helped a new teacher realize that teaching was not the right fit, but far more often she helped a young teacher become a better fit. Few things satisfied her more than seeing an idealistic young teacher find her way.

Maggie pulls into the school parking lot and an empty space (the Principal sign had been removed years ago at her request). She strides confidently into the school and her office. It is 7 am. She puts the coffee on and sits down behind her desk. She looks around her quiet office, checks her inbox and then peeks at the clock. The school is about to come alive.

Maggie strolls to the teacher’s room and greets the teachers as they arrive. They talk briefly about the day. She attends a team meeting where teachers discuss lesson plans. At about 8:45 am, she steps outside the building to greet the kids. As always, just before 9 am, she walks around the perimeter of the building to make sure no kids are lingering outside. The morning bell rings.

After 9 am, Maggie easily navigates her customary morning activities. Individual teacher meetings. IEP meetings. Some classrooms observations. Back to her office to return a few phone calls to administrators and parents.

Maggie almost forgets. At 10:30 am, there is a school assembly, one she scheduled weeks ago. She races to the gymnasium to introduce the motivational speaker she hired. After making a brief introduction, she remains to watch the speaker. It begins badly and goes downhill from there. A terrible speaker with a barely audible voice, an annoying lack of poise and absolutely no interest in establishing rapport with the kids.

The kids are fidgeting. Some are watching the clock. Some are giggling. Some are dozing off. Maggie watches the eyes glazing over and the boredom creeping across faces. She searches desperately for a way to end the assembly. Just then, she hears a soft cry from the left side of the gymnasium.

One of the 1st graders has somehow managed to get her head stuck between the bleachers. Maggie races to make sure the little girl is okay, but cannot free her. She summons two teachers to comfort the girl and then calls the fire department. Within moments, two firefighters arrive to extricate the student. The little girl is a bit shaken, but otherwise fine.

Maggie quickly returns to the front of the assembly and grabs the mic. She announces that, due to the excitement, the assembly is over. She quickly thanks the stunned speaker for the aborted presentation and asks the students and their teachers to quietly return to their classrooms. She then walks back to her office, silently giving thanks for a merciful end to what would have been a dreadful assembly.

Shortly before noon, Maggie walks to the lunchroom. Even before she enters, the din of several hundred voices defies nature. When she walks in, she sees what resembles sugar-fueled chaos. The students are so engaged in animated, high-pitched conversations that they never notice her. Like any experienced principal, Maggie accepts lunch as the wellspring of most school incidents (with recess a distant second). To Maggie’s ears, the noise is almost melodic.

Maggie walks around the lunchroom, stopping a few times to remind a student that they are still in school. One kid standing on a chair. Another throwing a roll. Another taunting a classmate. She waves at the cafeteria workers. She appreciates their role. The least credentialed and lowest paid staff, treated with the same lack of respect as a school bus driver, the cafeteria workers are the lunchroom’s true royalty. They reign over our children for at least one hour every day.

After lunch, more Principal activities. A few building and budget decisions. A building security session. Walking the halls. Popping into the library. Brief encounters with students, teachers and parents. More minor disciplinary matters emanating from classrooms. Some more classroom monitoring. The time passes quickly.

From 3 pm to 3:30 pm, Maggie takes her usual place in front of the building and waits. The final bell. The kids rushing out of school to their waiting parents in their cars. Some ride buses. Some walk home. She remains in front of the school saying her good-byes and waving to the parents. The rush ends quickly. All is well.

At 4 pm, she returns to her office. Waiting there for her is Terry, her longest-serving teacher and oldest friend. Terry asks Maggie to follow her to the gymnasium.

When Maggie comes through the entrance to the gymnasium, she is overwhelmed. There they are. Teachers. The janitor and cafeteria workers. Her secretary. Administrators. Students. Parents. Volunteers and other members of the community. Even some school board members. The entire school is there. She brightens and beams.

The festivities begin. The warm words and expressions of gratitude from adults and musical tributes from earnest, well-practiced students. The PTO chair’s presentation of a plaque naming the school library after Maggie. Each class’ presentation of a gift they made for Maggie. Even the appearance of a local TV station crew for a possible news story that night.

Maggie looks out at them all and starts to say something, but struggles to maintain her composure. She gathers herself and speaks from her heart. She tells the group how much today means to her. She thanks everyone for all that they have done for the school. She asks them to continue putting the children first.

Maggie exchanges words and hugs with the others. After they leave, she goes to her office one last time. She takes one last look and leaves, closing the door behind her. She goes to her car, sits there for a few long moments and begins the drive home.

Maggie thinks about her career. She is proud of her school and its reputation. She is proud of her work with teachers over the years, especially new teachers, helping them become problem-solvers and leaders. She knows that many teachers like working for her. She knows that many parents appreciate what she does for their kids.

She thinks about the future of public education.  It probably won’t be the same after the pandemic, but maybe it will be better. Maybe we will rethink the way kids learn. Technology, too long corrupted by bells and whistles, could be the way to free teachers from the past, to enable them to leave their comfort zones and usher in a new era of self-guided instruction.

She sees her home and pulls into the driveway. She can’t wait to see her husband. They have plans to go to their favorite restaurant. She sits down in the living room and waits for him and starts to think again about today’s milestone.

It’s over. A life’s work. So quickly after serving so long.

What now? What is retirement, anyway? Travel? Volunteering? Golfing? Pickleball? Will those things give her what public service did? If she’s no longer an educator, what is she?

Maggie starts thinking about her family. Her husband. Her own kids. Her grandkids. She thinks about her daughter who followed her into education. An amazing middle school history and social studies teacher.

The phone rings. It’s her daughter.

“How did it go today, Mom?”

“As well as could be expected, I guess. Bittersweet, but touching.”

“I’m glad, Mom. You deserve it. Is Dad home, yet?”

“No, but I’m sure he’ll be home soon. We’re supposed to leave for dinner pretty soon.”

“Hey, do you have a few minutes? I need your advice on a few things about school.”

They talk about some issues at school. She is having some difficulties motivating some of her students. Smart kids with loads of potential, but she just can’t seem to find the key to motivating them. Maggie paces thoughtfully as she listens, asks some questions and offers a few ideas.

After about 15 or 20 minutes, Maggie’s daughter thanks her, they say good-bye to one another and hang up.

Maggie looks outside and smiles. The future will be just fine.

Recapping the Organization

There are about 15,000 school systems in America, of which nearly 90 percent are school districts. In some states, school districts are accountable, at least to some degree, to cities or counties. In most states, school districts are independent governmental entities. In nearly all states, school districts are governed by state laws and regulations and receive most of their funding from state and local sources.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), there are over 130,900 K-12 schools in the US of which about 87,500 are elementary schools and 26,700 are secondary schools (the rest are combined or other models). There are about 98,500 public schools, including 21,400 high schools, 15,900 junior high or middle schools and 53,900 elementary schools (the rest are combined or other models).