School Leadership

Have you ever walked the halls of a school and felt the energy? Some schools are bursting with school pride, enthusiasm for learning, creativity, and a sense of purpose. At other schools, it doesn’t take long to realize that students hate being there, the teachers resent their jobs and are punching the clock to retirement, and administrators are exhausted from policing staff and students alike.

What makes the difference? School leadership.

A good leader is like an animal whisperer—no force is used, only an energy or attitude that makes the animals (and people) want to obey. True, some leaders attempt to lead through force, but this is more commonly seen in the halls of failing and inadequate schools, plagued by a lack of motivation among students and teachers. Leaders who understand how to use positive reinforcement are the ones who create an atmosphere of school spirit, which keeps both students and staff happy.

Do people tend to follow you? Leadership is something you can improve at, but some people are simply born with a natural ability to lead others. Leaders know where they are going, and they know why they are going there. Leaders know how to bring out the best qualities in other people. They know how to lift others’ spirits and encourage them to give their all.

Great leaders don’t just manage problems; they create solutions. They delegate responsibility and have a knack for choosing capable and creative thinkers for their teams. Fantastic leaders spot problems and create solutions before they become problems. Being a leader in education is challenging, but overcoming those challenges is its own reward.

What jobs are available in school leadership, and what are they like?

If you decide to go into school leadership you have an opportunity to work your way up—likely through several roles, as you gain experience and seniority. In fact, it’s not unusual to find superintendents who started as teachers. Once you leave the classroom to take on a school leadership role, there’s virtually no limit to how high you can go.

Unlike those who work in the classroom, school leadership officials deal more with decision making, administration, and curriculum matters. They work more with parents, paperwork, and taxpayers, than they do with students. Yet, they must have a background in classroom teaching. This experience makes them better decision-makers about student and teacher expectations.

Superintendents and Assistant Superintendents

Superintendents and assistant superintendents are responsible for every school, staff member, and student in the school district. However, they seldom interact with students. District leadership involves a great deal of paperwork including budgeting, building maintenance, creating and upholding district policies, proposing capital improvements and bonds, managing substitute teachers, managing district job openings, and overseeing curriculum.

Another huge part of the job is maintaining a good reputation for the district as a whole, even in the midst of crisis. Envision yourself as a superintendent of a school district in an affluent city, with great extra-curricular programs and a good academic record. You’ve put all of your time and energy into creating a positive atmosphere and great relationships with your staff, school board, and faculty. Suddenly, you’re in the crossfire when the local media reports that one of your long-time teachers has been caught Facebooking slightly off-color jokes with students. You’ve been knee-deep in the budget for next year, but there’s a TV news reporter in the lobby who wants a quote, now. Does this 20-year veteran teacher only require a reprimand, or must he or she be fired? Does the district need a clear policy on social media now? A superintendent must learn to balance these all these priorities.

School Principals

The evolution of the principal

Schools haven’t always had principals. Even your grandmother may have gone to a school with few enough teachers that they could manage themselves, students, and school operations without many problems. But as schools expanded beyond the one-room schoolhouse, there needed to be someone to oversee day-to-day operations and manage staff and students. In other words, principals were like office managers—and in some ways they still are.

School principals carry the overall responsibility for students, staff, and teachers at their school. They are also responsible for managing the finances, seeking funding for programs from the district and other sources, supervising staff and teacher performance, and ensuring students are being taught curriculum in alignment with state and federal standardized testing requirements.

But there’s also the personal side. Picture being principal of a middle school. Your adolescent students are testing their newfound freedom, just to see what they can get away with. Some students have sent mean notes to other students. Minor disciplinary measures are taken. This is typical stuff. But suddenly, the note-passing isn’t just notes—it’s turned into vicious, even threatening messages online through Facebook, student blogs, and text messages. The student who is being bullied is threatening suicide. Parents get involved. School counselors are brought in. Students are reprimanded, but it’s not on school grounds, so how exactly is the school responsible? Then it’s in the media. Typical note-passing has become a serious problem. Your problem.

These scenarios aren’t the norm, but they do happen with increasing frequency in our schools today. Principals and superintendents are responsible for handling the big issues. The day-to-day discipline, however, most often falls to the vice principal.

Vice Principals

Vice principals are generally the disciplinarians in the school—which means they get to know trouble makers, and their victims, quite well. Vice principals not only dole out suspensions and other consequences, but make referrals to counselors, act as counselors themselves, and usually run interference between the principal and parents. Vice principals also spend a great deal of time roaming the halls between periods and during lunch; knowing kids’ names, and ensuring that the halls are safe, makes an enormous difference in the morale of a school.

School dangers

Forty-seven percent of school administrators feel they spend too much time acting as disciplinarians for students who misbehave. This, they feel, hinders their ability to educate kids and make sure they reach state standards. In elementary school, 78 percent of schools experienced at least one violent incident, and 17 percent dealt with serious violent crimes such as rape, sexual battery, attack with a weapon, and robbery. However, nearly every middle school and high school reports these crimes; only five percent of middle and high school administrators said that their school did not experience violent incidents.

A vice principal might also serve as budget administrator, extra-curricular manager, parent relations coordinator, or teacher supervisor, as well as coordinate standardized testing. Large schools have more than one vice principal, in which case one might handle student discipline while another oversees teacher performance.

Whatever the level, school leadership is a challenge. It involves putting out fires and solving serious problems such as bullying, managing new media and technology, soliciting funding, maintaining facilities, creating great working relationships and good morale among staff and faculty, and developing great public relations—not to mention ensuring that education is top priority, and that every kid gets the education they need to live up to their potential.

Imagine walking the halls on the first day of high school and seeing the excitement of seniors jostling with each other, feeling sure of themselves. The freshmen study their class schedules and hunt for their lockers, both thrilled and afraid. You inhale the freshness of a new year, optimistic about the year ahead.

Fast-forward to year’s end, watching seniors accept their diplomas one by one, proudly wearing their caps and gowns. You’ve nurtured these kids through growing pains, serious mistakes, and enormous triumphs. As each one comes up, you remember something about him or her: Tina is such a great student, valedictorian; you didn’t think Joey was going to make it after his dad died; Laura was always desperate to please; Tim was always so funny. But all of these kids made it. And you were instrumental in helping them reach this major life accomplishment.

Can I get a job?

Leadership opportunities are expected to grow by about 10 percent between 2010 and 2020, about average across all professions. Many baby boomers who worked their way up the ladder of school administration are expected to retire, creating new openings.

However, you might need to be willing to move to get a job in school administration. Many teachers do work their way up in the school districts they started in, but as with many higher executive positions, you should be willing to go where the opportunity is. You’re more likely to get a job if you’re not married to your geography.

What does it pay?

The median wage of a principal at an elementary or secondary school is nearly $87,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; vice principals average about $76,500. The median salary for a superintendent, meanwhile, is in excess of $140,000. The rate of pay also improves with additional education and years of experience.

School districts generally also carry excellent benefits with good health insurance, great retirement benefits, long vacation breaks, paid sick days, and education incentives.

How do I enter a School Leadership position?

You’ll need a master’s degree in school administration to proceed past the lead-teacher level. To reach the level of principal, you might also be required to complete a doctoral program in school administration, depending on the state and district. You will be much more marketable with a doctorate degree, as you’ll be competing with educators who already have them.

On your way to your master’s degree you’ll need to become a teacher, which requires state certification. You can achieve this online at many universities or colleges, which means you can teach while going to school. Each state has different requirements; visit to find out exactly what your state requires. Many states and school districts require additional certification, such as principal certification or school administration certification, in addition to traditional schooling.

Great leaders motivate others by having a can-do positive attitude. They delegate responsibility wisely, and encourage more than they criticize. People want to follow great leaders, because they want to go where the leaders are taking them. Become a great school leader today, and you’ll be instrumental in the development of tomorrow’s exceptional leaders.

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