I’m Not THAT Principal: Re-Imagine the Role

There are certain occupations that tug at our heart strings.  We naturally associate warm feelings with kind professions such as the florist, the massage therapist, and the kindergarten teacher.  We expect to like them.  Contrarily, other professions seem to arouse fear or anxiety just buy stating their title: the cop, the auditor, and the school principal.

I have yet to meet a principal who wakes up and jumps out of bed because they love discipline and attendance.  However, the word ‘principal’ evokes some negative emotion.  Blame it on poor childhood experiences, urban legends or Hollywood films: somewhere along the way, society has created the stereotypical norm of THAT principal. The principal I do not want to be.  If you don’t know what I mean, take a second to flash back to Mr. Rooney from Ferris Buellar, Mr. Vernon from The Breakfast Club, or more recently, Ms. Sylvester on Glee. With their intense stare and finger pointing, they have defined the role of THAT principal.

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Last week, I had the privilege of co-presenting at the Canadian Principals Conference with Sean Nosek, Director of Instruction, Learning and Innovation from the West Vancouver School District.  Our presentation entitled “Balanced Leadership: Beyond the Principal’s Desk” invited participants to find the gentle balance between minutia and the big picture, and re-imagine the stereotypical norms of the principal job. It challenged principals across the country to confront the stereotypes or job they inherit, and re-imagine the principal role as a job they want: a job that is creative, innovative, inspiring, and reflects what we know about teaching and learning.

Through a series of personal examples, and ideas generated from participants (viewable with the hashtags #Cap15 #re-imagine), we began a conversation on how to re-imagine the role of the principal. Here are some of our ideas and questions:

  • How can we Re-Imagine Conversations and Meetings? Rather than suffering from death by powerpoint in artificially lit rooms, why not re-imagine meetings? Take a walk and talk along the sea wall or a brisk walk around the block to discuss a new idea or share with a colleague.  The movement and change of scenery prompts more creativity than sitting in a stagnant room.  We know that fresh air and activity aids learning so why not apply this for adults as well.
  • How can we Re-Imagine Staff Meetings?  Change it up! Nice weather? Take the meeting out to the courtyard or off-site.  Want teachers to see each other’s rooms? Have one teacher each month host the staff room in their space, allowing teachers to naturally observe and learn from each other’s practice.  If you only have one staff meeting per month, look at it as an opportunity to model your best teaching.  No one enjoys boring meetings.
  • How can we Re-Imagine Space?  What does your office say about you? For me, the idea of sitting behind a big desk just didn’t feel right.  I wanted to create a space that was welcoming and encouraging.  I got rid of my desk and replaced it with a round table with seating. Likewise, Sean recreated his office space by tossing out files and binders and switching to a stand up desk.  Many of us are re-imagining classroom environments to help students self regulate.  Have we done the same in our own spaces? Do you think best when you are sitting or standing? Does the clutter around you stifle your creativity? Why do schools with more than one administrator have separate office spaces for each? if we want students and staff to collaborate maybe it’s time to re-image office space of educational leaders. IMG_3625 images-1
  • How can we Re-Imagine Communication? Do Schools still need newsletters? In an era of social media, how can we use blogs, Twitter, Facebook, websites, etc to provide parents and students with up to date information in an interactive manner?  How will changes in technology enhance parents ability to connect with the schools and see what their children learn throughout the day?
  • How can we Re-Imagine Principal Pro-D? Simon Breakspear, keynote at the conference, states that educators have a moral obligation to children everywhere to share our best gifts with one another.  Twitter has made this easier than ever. While principals may work in isolation at times, the opportunity to connect is at our finger tips. How are we sharing our best practices with others?
  • How can we Re-Imagine Time? We only have so much time, so how do we determine how it is spent.  Most principals agree that the typical day often begins with a parent or student waiting for you in the parking lot, followed by a line up of questions and inquiries before even arriving at the school office.  Why not Re-Imagine the day to schedule time for appointments, time for computer work and time to be office-free visiting classrooms and making time for relationships and instructional leadership. Sometimes the ‘open door’ philosophy has the opposite effect it is intended to as it traps us in office space with a constant line up.  Real conversations happen when we are out of our office and closer to learning.
  • How can we Re-Imagine the Principal Persona?  Dean Shareski from Discovery Education states that your ‘Unfair Advantage’ is your ability to be an interesting adult.  We don’t need to be the principal from the movies or the principal others expect us to be.  Finding ways to link our own passions to our work and building relationships based on kindness and respect will have a positive impact on students much more than any detention hall ever has.
  • How can we Re-Imagine Learning? Too often adult meetings are plagued with flip charts and post it notes.  What starts as a nice attempt to hear all voices, ends with a routine task that lacks creativity.  We know that children need play to be creative, so why not give adults this same opportunity? To re-imagine the principal role, we used Jenga. While finding balance with Jenga blocks, principals searched for the hidden questions and tweeted out their table responses to contribute to the greater group.


Gone are the days of stagnant classrooms, boring lessons and discipline centred principals.  Education is changing and so should the role of the principal.  Chris Kennedy, Superintendent of West Vancouver states “our philosophy and success is based on a new model – that our schools are all connected, and should work together to improve. Collaboration — within districts, among districts and around the globe — is the key to building a stronger education system.”  Collaborating with principals across the country allowed us to re-imagine who we want to be as educational leaders, and how we can best avoid becoming THAT principal.

To follow the conversation, Search hashtags #CAP15 and #re-imagine

One thought on “I’m Not THAT Principal: Re-Imagine the Role

  1. “Time” is a really important one. It seems harder to find good time, time that not eaten up by non-productive things.

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