What do principals do?

What do principals do?

4 min read

By Stuart Robinson


I’ve been a school business manager for most of my children’s life (my eldest is now 26). Each have asked me the question, what do principals do? It’s not an absurd question. Through the eyes of a pre-teen trying to interpret their environment, it’s quite normal. During a typical school-day they are most likely to see their principal in their public figurehead role. Speaking at assemblies, visiting classrooms, ushering dignitaries into new buildings, and other public occasions. But surely, they do more than this?

Any Principal having held the role for several years can attest, it’s not all beer and skittles.

To start the conversation, we need to define the primary role of the principal. Ask one hundred people for their response, and I can guarantee you will receive 100 different answers. Each stakeholder (students, parents, staff, the school board) will prioritise a different aspect of the principal’s role. This will be in line with their own feelings and expectations. Yet, we know that a principal cannot be all things to all people.

So, let us distil this down to the “in a nutshell” definition. The principal manages the ongoing academic and operational success of the school.

You can have great teachers, but if you don't have a good principal, you won't have a good school.

Now this is a very broad-brush definition. It does not really supply any detail to what principals do. So, let us explore some stakeholder feelings to shed further light on the duties of a principal.

stakeholder perceptions and expectations

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This table outlines some of the expectations and feelings placed upon Principals – fairly or not. But, to understand the expected role and duties of a principal we need to go back to their employer – the School Board. 

Quite literally, the only person the board employs are the principal. Before doing so they define the principal’s role, and duties, through the Position Description. This document is a good starting point to gauge what principals do.

the principal's position description

In the Position Description we start to find key phrases and terms the board views as important.

  • Establishing a management vision for the school 
  • Uphold the Mission, Vision, Values, Educational Philosophy and Goals of the College in all operations.
  • Support and ensure high quality teaching and learning.
  • Developing and leading a school executive team that will cultivate and strengthen a positive teaching, learning and working environment for all staff and students at every level of operations.
  • Making operational decisions which support the whole school vision and ensure the smooth day to day operation of the school.
  • Ensure the School’s regulatory and legal obligations are met

This is not an exhaustive list, but it does touch on the main themes. It shows that the principal manages the full oversight of the school.

are all principals created equal?

Certainly not, and thankfully not. 

Each principal brings their own personality, idiosyncrasies, preferences – and faults – to the position. They are as human as you or me, but the task of running a school successfully requires a tremendous amount of energy, intellect, and leadership skill. 

While we call them principals, they are effectively CEOs. The buck stops with them. They need to develop the systems, structures, and teams to bring about success. And they need to manage all this while juggling the expectations and feelings placed on them by all stakeholders. 

It is not an easy job, and it is not for the faint-hearted. 

what do you think principals do?

Now it is over to you. 

What do you think Principals do – or should do – as part of their role? What expectations have I missed?


Stuart Robinson

Stuart Robinson

Stuart Robinson: MBA, 25+ years in school management. Business degree, AICD graduate. Founder and author sharing expertise in educational leadership, strategy, and financial management.


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