The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

What Is a School Principal’s Job?

on March 21, 2017

During the past four weeks when my husband’s recovery from surgery was my main point of attention, I did no writing but plenty of reading. As I read the letters to the editor in the New York Times this morning, I was drawn back to an article that appeared about a week ago: “Want to Fix Schools? Go to the Principal’s Office“, read it again and decided to write about it and my own views of being a principal today.


 The focus of the article was the role of high school principals in helping students to be successful learners, graduate, and be ready for college. In the city of Chicago high school graduation rates have increased rapidly and younger students have made more progress in reading and math than those in almost every other major city.

In Chicago principals are seen as the key people in determining the success or failure of a school. According to mayor Rahm Emanual,”Principals create the environment. They create a culture of accountability. They create a sense of community.” The city’s chief education officer, Janice Jackson, added that “Our principals are the most accountable people in this system.”

In the view of many other officials principals make or break the success of teachers and students. Their ability to attract, improve, and retain good teachers is the key action in developing and maintaining high quality schools and educating students successfully.

The most significant part of the article for me, however, was the emphasis on the work of a particular high school principal, Gregory Jones who seems to be much more than efficient in managing teachers. He is pictured as making contact with individual students and responding to the needs of teachers. In addition, he has worked hard to make his school a place where students would “enjoy coming to school.” To do that he added a full orchestra and a sculpture program the school’s offerings and gave more attention the school’s sports’ teams.

As a former school principal I am impressed with what Jones has done and strives to do in the future. I also wish for similar actions from other principals everywhere. To my mind it isn’t enough to raise a school’s graduation rate and test scores and decrease misbehavior if students do not find pleasure, purpose and meaning there. Although it is impossible for a principal to know all students personally, he or she should know many and have am understanding of their home lives, ethnic backgrounds, and the ways of their communities. A principal should also know many parents and try to bring them into the school’s operations in some way.

Let me expand my view of a good school by quoting from an article I wrote for “The Elementary School Journal” in 1986 when I was an elementary school principal in Madison Wisconsin:

A good school creates a sense of community that permits personal expression within a framework of social responsibility. It operates as an organic entity—not a machine—moving always to expand its basic nature rather than to tack on artificial appendages. A good school is like a healthy tree. As it grows it sinks its roots deep into its native soil; it adapts to the surrounding climate and vegetation; its branches thicken for support and spread for maximum exposure to the sun; it makes its own food; it heals its own wounds; and, in its season, it puts forth fresh leaves, blossoms, and fruit.

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