School leaders hold ultimate responsibility for staff, student, and school performance. In charge of setting the school strategy each academic year, they’re held accountable for attainment drops and dissatisfaction. It’s a pressured but important job that requires people management skills, strategic instincts, and deep knowledge of the education sector. So, what’s it like being on the frontline of school leadership?
We interviewed a school principal with more than 13 years of experience to learn their perspective on everything from the rewards of leadership to the pressures of stakeholder management. Here’s what they had to say about their day-to-day role, what they like best about the job, and how it’s changed.
A typical day as a school leader
“I have my hand in a bit of everything, working very closely with the IT director, looking at our computer science grant together, liaising between the technical department and teachers. The managerial aspect is ensuring business as usual, covering student safety, health, happiness, and learning.”
What does that entail? “I ensure the curriculum is followed through, while also trying to be an instructional leader, modeling best practices, helping teachers grow professionally to give students our absolute best.”
It’s not just achievement and academia, but their social-emotional wellbeing. “Making connections with students and seeing the impact you can have on a child is my greatest source of satisfaction. Some students don’t have positive relationships with adults, so it’s about bringing positive energy into students, families, and teachers.”
The people management side of the job, meanwhile, involves overcoming educators’ complacency. “Adults get really comfortable in what we do. Educators are creatures of habit, but the best ones are always learning and trying new things—I encourage them to embrace new classroom technology. I think pushing us in this direction will force us to continue doing things better.”
To help educators advance their classroom practice in this way, school leaders need to actively consult all educator voices at a strategic level. School leaders can then target areas where educators lack confidence or are struggling to innovate. While 90% of school leaders contribute to their school strategy, according to The State of Technology in Education Report, 40% of teachers have no input. Improving this will also increase buy-in from educators and confidence in the school leader managing them.
The challenges of being a school leader
“It’s a challenge juggling everything and being pulled in a million directions. It’s hard to be an instructional leader when I might have to cover a class, or am interrupted to deal with an upset parent—the day-to-day events you can’t plan for.”
School leaders have to manage the expectations and pressures that come from people’s familiarity with the education system and their school experience. “Everyone went to school, so everyone’s an expert on what happens in them. Everyone believes they know what schools should be and look like. There are also negative connotations towards school, and I have to tell stakeholders about the skills our students need.”
Growing students’ tech skills depends on providing adequate tech access. “We can give them a device to learn on while at home, but it won’t work if they don’t have high-quality internet. So it’s about ensuring all students get what they need—which is different for each student. Some students are digitally fluent, but some struggle.
“And it all has to work within the budget. We’re funded by our taxbase, meaning we’ve had some grant money through the federal and local government, but we have to be smart about the resources we use.”
So what does our research show about how smart school leaders are about their budget allocation? There’s a feeling among 34% of educators that tech budgets are at the right level but can be invested in the wrong things. This can be improved by targeting investments at the real staff and student needs, so they serve day-to-day teaching and learning. Entrusting IT administrators in the process also fields their knowledge and insight on the most valuable edtech innovations.