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What Is It Like to Be a High School Principal?

Posted: 12/03/2013 12:59 pm

This question originally appeared on Quora.
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Answer by James Bailey, High School principal of 17 years. Educator for 27 years. Principal of a public Pre-K through 12 grade campus of 2300 students

I rarely get asked this question. Seriously.

People usually make a comment like, "God Bless you" or "I'm so glad there are people like you out there" or "That's a tough job" when I tell them I'm a high school principal.

In reality? It's the coolest, hardest, most emotionally and physically demanding, and rewarding job in the world, and I'm seriously happy that I decided not to go to med school to move into this profession.

Want proof?

I get to spend my days with young adults. I see their enthusiasm, their naiveté, their sense of wonder. I see their frustration, their responses to world events, their anger at and love of their parents. I watch them transform from immature freshmen to amazing young adults getting ready to head out on their own. I get to be part of a school that travels all over the country for various reasons -- yet gets most jazzed when they collect 100 turkeys and $1K for a local homeless shelter. I see kids who honor our veterans with an assembly, then spontaneously get up and dance with them during the music. I watch with awe as students stand up and applaud with tears in their eyes for an 8-year-old boy who survived a horrible car crash that killed his big brother - and has endured 13 surgeries with half of his head caved in as he walks across the gym floor. I see straight A students headed to outstanding schools invite kids with severe autism or muscular dystrophy to prom. I see those same kids spend their off periods working with the same special needs kids - tutoring, listening, even wiping their chins.

Physically demanding, you ask? Seventy hours per week is pretty typical. I get to work at 6:30 a.m. and usually don't leave until well after 6:30 at night. Add the dances, sporting events, before and after school meetings, etc. Adrenal stress is constant. (More on that in a bit). Lunch? I spend my lunch watching others eat - hopefully grabbing something that isn't too malnutritious while I'm standing there. I'm on call 24/7. If there is a problem with the building, or if a student (or staff member) has an accident, I get a call. If a student threatens to hurt themselves one of their friends will let me know.

The toughest part of the job? Dealing with adults! Starting at the top and working down... We have governments who think they know how to legislate better education and pass conflicting rules and laws. We need more accountability, so let's add another test. (My students take about 40 hours per year of nationally, state, and locally mandated tests).

Next down the food chain - administrators. Being a principal is like being caught in the middle of a tug of war. One end of the rope is the state and school board. The other end is held by the students/teachers/families in your school. I get pulled and pushed from both directions. Not every idea that comes down the pike is a good one that helps teachers/students. I need to buffer those. On the other hand, they're not all bad ideas either and I need to help teachers/students see their value and implement them. 

Which leads me to teachers. Most teachers are the most dedicated professionals anywhere. They love their kids, they love their content, they love their jobs. Some, not so much. Other, love what they do, they just don't see that they aren't very good at it - especially with all of the new "accountability" measures being put upon them. Some forget that they teach students - not math (or English, or Spanish). Through all, I get to coach, mentor, discipline, counsel, hire and fire.

Parents. Again, most parents are AMAZING - they support the school, engage in decision making, and support their students! Others forget that they are parents not a BFF. Those are the ones that forget that struggles are normal and that you learn more from not being successful than you do from always being perfect.

I mentioned adrenal stress. Lack of sleep (I average 5 hours per night), poor nutrition, frequent "discussions" with students, parents, teachers etc., demands by the school board, state legislature, and Department of Education, put a body under pretty much constant stress. Divorce rates amongst administrators are extremely high. Physical and mental health often suffer.

What's it like being a high school principal. It's the hardest, most physically/mentally demanding, intellectually challenging best job in the world!

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