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Part-Time Principal?

My home town newspaper asks an interesting question about principals: Do schools need them full time?

The question arises because the large local school district in Tucson, Arizona is considering cutting back on administrative positions as one way to cope with their budget problems.

Some are poised to scale back on vice principals. Others are looking at half-time principals.

But that freedom to choose also means choosing no principal, if they can come up with a way to ensure duties typically carried out by principals are still completed.

On the layoff list the Governing Board approved Tuesday were seven principals; their site councils are still analyzing their options.

Could a school be successful without a full-time principal?

For that matter, would a teacher-run, completely principal-less school really be such a far-fetched idea?

After all, the original concept for the head of a school was for that person to be the “principal teacher”.

Their primary job was teaching students and being an instructional leader. Management of the school itself was a job shared with a small group of other teachers.

In our overly-large school district, however, the principals of most middle and high schools have no time for teaching these days.

With more than 1500 students, 100+ staff members, and a multi-million dollar physical plant, they are too busy being building and personnel managers to have much involvement with instruction.

So, we come back to the question of whether a school needs a full-time principal.

I’m not sure it does.

I think most people would agree that a successful school always has a talented leader. Usually that’s the principal but sometimes it’s not.

But they always have a leader who’s a full-time educator.


  1. Jenny

    Deborah Meier worked toward this idea at Central Park East. I think it would be interesting to see how education would change if principals were actually in the classroom, at least some. It seems that it is easy for principals to become very removed from the realities of everyday life with students.

    I’m not sure that moving in this direction because of budget cuts is likely to improve instruction, however.

  2. Tim Lauer

    I’m thinking before I would dump the principal, I might dump the IT department. Just a thought. :-) Also in my situation, if you dump the principal, who is going to cover the holes in the schedule where you need coverage, I teach 2.5 hours on Fridays and finish up for our digital arts teacher the last 20 minutes of his session every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday… finally… who is going to cut the grass?

    The best principals are facilitators, helping to get their students and teachers the things and services they need to make sure that students have the proper environment to succeed… I believe the best schools are those that emphasize the partnership between teachers and a principal.

  3. Skip Olsen

    I sit on a board of a charter school that has no principal. It is small by design–180 students. I’m impressed with the ownership that the staff take in this school as it is a teacher cooperative.

    Change is difficult. If the industrial model of a school–1500 students and 100+ staff, 50 minute or so periods, 6 classes a day, etc.–continues, I suppose a principal is required. However, a new model of learning is emerging that is much more customized, not only for students, but for the adults as well. The model is much more empowering, more organic than linear, freer of stupid, confining regulations.

    Some of the students in this school faced a challenge in the recent state writing test. The question (prompt that all had to respond to) went something like: “If you had to advise your principal about changing a rule in the school, what rule would you choose and why?” Easy enough for most students. But these kids didn’t have a principal and couldn’t identify the authority figure. Secondly, they couldn’t identify “rules”. They have a culture based on help and respect for one another that isn’t “rule bound”. The culture lives in the students and staff, not in the rules.

    My experience with principals has not been good–I’m retired so I’ve got a personal history from which to speak. They are often tyrants of the worst sort–ignorant, non-learning petty, individuals who laud power over people in a most despotic and demeaning way. Obviously, not all, but most. Not only do they lack leadership skills, but they don’t read about, discuss, or care about current thinking and ideas.

    So my proposal: small schools, teacher cooperatives, project-based learning, driven by a shared and intentional humanistic culture in the learning environment. For all? Absolutely not–but for those who are tired of playing the “school” game and want to teach and learn.

  4. mrs lipstick

    This is a really interesting discussion. This year we are down one assistant principal because my principal decided to use the money from the 2nd AP to put more teachers in the classroom. I think we all loved this idea, but as the year has gone on we realize more and more how much we need the third administrator. However, your post, and the comments below, made me wonder what makes us really need the third admin. If other members of the staff were empowered with the admin roles, would we look at it differently? If the system did not require an admin would we be more willing to work around not having one?
    Then again, there are times that all the helpful people in our school can’t make the final cutting decision that a principal can. Sometimes we need to have a final “this is it” answer when we’re working with parents. Sometimes we need someone to back us up.
    But then there are many principals that don’t do that well (or so I hear). I have a feeling I’m going to be thinking about this one for awhile.
    Thanks for the interesting post.

  5. Angela Powell

    Having half time principals is a great idea that will save tons of money. No principal will actually leave at noon everyday and will just work for free from 12-4 (or later). Kind of like teachers: give ’em an hour of planning time, and they’ll do the other two hours at no cost. Woo-hoo! Problem solved. While we’re at it, let’s have a half-time president, too. Man, this strategy will work in all kinds of arenas! Genius.

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