The Principal’s Office: What’s the principalship really like?


Years ago, I was interviewed by a college class and asked what it was “really like” to be a principal. While doing some spring cleaning (and much-needed pruning of my files), I came across the notes from that interview. I got a kick out of rereading those answers, and would like to share them with readers. It’s another one of my Top 10 lists.  I’ll detail the first five in this column, and the second five in the next.

1. What was the most important part of your job? Without a doubt, the health and safety of faculty, staff and students is Priority One. That goes without saying. But as I stated repeatedly in a recent series, hiring comes next. The staff selections you (and your colleagues) make will affect thousands of students for generations to come.

2. What was your biggest surprise? No question about it: building concerns. I was dependent on my head custodian. In short, I was responsible for a large building plant: everything from heating problems to slippery spots. If the pencil sharpener in a classroom didn’t work, that became my problem. And all of this was compounded by the fact that I was operating under many regulations regarding building occupation.

3. What skills are most necessary to be successful? In the previous column, I enumerated the three skills for a successful administrator: conceptual, technical and interpersonal. Two without the third won’t do. Remember the example I gave last time? What does a three-legged stool need to stand? Three legs. Without the third, it topples. 

However, all three are subsumed by a single skill: time management. The successful principal must learn to budget time. There is an endless number of responsibilities. The old adage, “Work expands to fill the time,” holds. For example, if I had to complete a certain report, and I wasn’t careful, it could take the entire morning. My “m.o.” was to plan my day the night before. I listed all the things I had to do for the next school day and allotted a dedicated number of minutes to each. 

Here is a typical day: I arrived a few minutes before 7 a.m. My first task was to check with the secretary to see which staff members were absent and to check the substitute assignments. Then from 7 to 7 a.m., I stood at the counter to greet teachers. Not only did this give me a chance to interact with staff, but as people passed through I could sense if there were any issues. In short, I took the pulse of the school. At times, parents showed up, unannounced to see me at this time. I gently but firmly told them that they could make an appointment, even that day, to meet with me. But unless it was a true emergency, that time was reserved for faculty and staff. 

At 7:30, I went back into my office for what I called “drop-in time,” reserved for students to come in without an appointment. It was feast or famine: Some days, there was nobody. Other days, it looked as though the bus had stopped at my door.

When the bell rang for the first period, I took my daily tour of the school, following the same route, covering the same territory with random stopovers and drop-ins. This was one of my favorite parts of the day. 

I usually reserved second period for a formal classroom observation — principals were required to complete many! These included a pre- and post-conference.

The remainder of the day was structured — and no two were the same. Some events were scheduled for me, such as meetings and events. But to repeat: time management was the key.

4. What was the most boring part of your job? Confession is good for the soul, so I have to admit it: Anything to do with budget was my “least favorite” responsibility. The public deserves an accounting of every penny spent of the precious tax dollars. As a result, the budgeting and accounting processes are time-consuming and laborious. I had to carefully review budget codes, conference forms, overtime cards and every single purchase. Yes, very necessary — but as you can sense, not my favorite part of the job.

5. What was the most challenging part of your job? Getting organized — and staying that way! Just above, I talked about efficient time management. But it’s more than that. Check out a principal’s in-basket. Mail, directives and things to sign are coming from all directions. One student gave me a cartoon of a juggler and appended the word “principal” to the picture. How true! Fortunately, I am fairly organized to begin with — almost obsessive-compulsive! Color-coded paper and wire baskets became my best tools. They helped me handle the avalanche of paper that descended upon my office.

Five down and five to go.

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Dr. Steve Kussin was a high school principal for 21 years. You can hear his “CBS on Education” reports three times a day weekdays on WCBS Newsradio 880. He is also an adjunct professor at Hofstra University and an educational consultant for school districts around the country.  Contact him at