If the job of a principal conjures up visions of Principal Seymour Skinner chasing Bart Simpson, the reality couldn’t be further. Rather than the disciplinarians of the past, today’s principals have to know and help every student, cope with parental and political demands and ensure that their school scores highly on standardized tests. It’s no wonder the appeal of the job is declining.
“The research for the last 20 years is quite clear, teachers are not attracted to the principalship,” says Paul Newton, an associate professor at the University of Alberta who has researched the role of the school leader. “Principals were always responsible for ensuring efficient management of the school, but, increasingly, the principal has become responsible for the academic achievement of students. This is not an insignificant shift.”
Principal Lorraine Kinsman, head of Cranston School, which she helped open four years ago in Calgary, has experienced how complex the job can be. She expected to run the school, set up timetables and monitor the day-to-day happenings. Instead, she also has to contend with the involvement of parents, the community, the school board and the province. “Instead of just knowing six courses of study, I now need to know 575 children, and all of the options that are available to them,” she says.
Ms. Kinsman is among 40 principals honoured by the Learning Partnership as Canada’s best in a role that clearly has some exceptional leaders. But over all, school boards are having a difficult time recruiting new people to the leadership ranks. Studies show that school systems in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States are struggling to recruit teachers to become principals, and research suggests vacancies are expected to climb.
In Ontario, the number of educators receiving their principal qualifications dropped from 1,056 in 2003 to 590 last year, according to data from the Ontario College of Teachers. A spokesman for Alberta Education says school superintendents have indicated a greater challenge than in the past in recruiting teachers to become principals.
In spite of those numbers, great principals can make a huge difference in the lives of students and their communities.
“I like helping people solve problems, whether it’s a staff member or a student or a family,” says John-Paul Elliott, the principal at St. Joseph Catholic School in Gananoque, Ont. “And then when you finally see some success, you know, … you finally see somebody moving forward, it’s very motivating.”
To become a principal in Ontario, an educator needs at least five years of teaching experience, although most have more, as well as certification that includes the principal’s qualification program.
Lately, the role has become more political. Although test scores are not used to penalize a principal, leaders whose schools don’t fare well are still scrutinized and questioned by parents and politicians.
“The increased hours, responsibility and public scrutiny are not compensated for by minimal salary increases,” says Prof. Newton, who is about to publish a paper on this topic. “Most teachers would prefer to remain in teaching roles than transition into administrative positions.” He added that this is particularly acute in remote parts of Canada that have long faced a shortage of school administrators.
In Alberta, the average salary for a teacher with 10 years’ experience is about $92,000; and at the top end of the scale, teachers could earn as much as $99,000. A principal at the top end of the scale in Alberta would earn about $99,000, with an “allowance” of between $20,000 and $45,000. Principals in Ontario are on the province’s annual sunshine list, earning more than $100,000 annually. Teachers at the top end of the scale earn more than $90,000.
Prof. Newton argues that while principals have always been responsible for the management of school, lately they’ve taken on an additional task of student achievement. When organizations like the Fraser Institute rank schools based on test scores, provincial governments see principals as key agents in educational improvement efforts and, as Prof. Newton says, “an easy target” when a school is not faring well. The research, however, “is less than conclusive with respect to the impact that principals have on student learning,” he adds.
But Andrea McAuley, who is in her fourth year as principal at R.H. Cornish Public School in Port Perry, Ont., and among this year’s winners, says “changing the trajectory of outcomes” for students is what keeps her energized. “The role of principal enables us to keep one hand front-line for our students, so we see the individual faces and can support in individual conversations with kids, but also have a wider connection to systemic change,” she says.
John Hamilton, president-elect at the Ontario Principals’ Council and a principal for the last 10 years, says not only are principals taking on the responsibility of student achievement, they also see an increasing number of students coming to them for help with mental-health issues. Mr. Hamilton, the principal at Sunderland Public School in Brock, Ont., says he and his colleagues spend a lot of their time helping children with emotional needs.
“You’re trying to manage a global landscape in an educational setting,” he says. “None of the issues that we are expected to deal with are bad things, they are good things. But what is our role? It becomes difficult to define it when you’re being pulled in a lot of different directions.”
Follow us on Twitter:,