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Five characteristics of successful principals

The job of the principalship is known to all: “Get school ready to open in the fall.” To do this well requires many talents, particularly these five: stamina; being a generalist not a specialist; courage; a support system; and the realization that schools are political organizations. 


The principalship is labor intensive. Working hours are from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The day starts somewhere between 7 and 7:45 a.m. before the buses arrive, and the day is cleaned up from 4-5:30 p.m. after the buses leave. Evening meetings consume at least three evenings a week. Seventy-hour weeks are not unusual. Days are spent visiting classrooms, conducting maintenance, and patrolling halls for movement. Emotional energy is required to answer the needs of hundreds of individuals and families. In short, it requires stamina. 

A generalist, not a specialist

The sheer variety of tasks of the principalship is impressive. The range of duties span from unclogging toilets to public speaking. Some of the responsibilities are managerial: supervising teachers, hiring and firing, and understanding the different motivation of employees. The school is also a multi-million dollar organization that needs a leader. A principal must understand budgets, accounting, education law and best business practices. He or she must also be an expert in good teaching to support the growth and improvement of teachers. Time is devoted to curriculum development, child development, and even mediation of adult disputes from the bus stop. The job is exciting, sometimes hilarious, and often exhausting. The principal controls the school — in good times and in bad. 


It takes courage to take others people’s children and promise to keep them safe. It takes courage to make unpopular decisions, to change routines, and to challenge. It takes courage to keep confidence, protect family information, and support fragile children. It takes courage to fire a teacher who is the sole support of her family. It takes courage to call for the best in people. 


Good principals need support systems for replenishment. While work support is important, the entirety of a principal’s support cannot come from inside the school. A strong principal will need to lean on other forms of support: a spouse, faith, exercise, or solitude. 

Knowing that schools are political organizations

Principals must understand that schools are managed by people and are therefore inherently political. While the principal has control inside the building, many of the major decisions that affect the school are made by those outside the school walls. Decisions over money, time, pupil assignment, and sometimes even personnel rests with stakeholders who are not in the school. A good principal will understand the political elements of running a school and will work within that framework to advocate for the school.  

Alice Maniloff

Alice Maniloff holds a bachelor’s in history from UNC-Chapel Hill, an M.A.T. from UNC-CH, a master’s degree in special teaching from Bank Street College of Education in New York City, and a doctorate in educational leadership from East Carolina University. She has been Director of Professional Development in Durham County Schools, principal of Ephesus Elementary School in Chapel Hill, Assistant Director of the Principals’ Executive Program at the University of North Carolina, Head of School at the Lerner School in Durham, and a coach for first-year principals in Durham Public Schools.