Education Careers: The Many Hats a School Administrator Wears

August 11, 2022

For anyone who remembers what it was like being in school decades ago, the image of the principal was likely a common and consistent one – he or she was the person in charge of everyone, carried a huge set of keys, was aloof – and a little scary – and meted out discipline whenever necessary.

While some of that remains true today, when it comes to a career in education as a building-level leader, we often don't fully understand the many hats a school administrator wears.

From the more obvious tasks such as overseeing day-to-day operations to the not so obvious responsibilities like cultivating relationships and creating a positive school culture, to unexpected events such as navigating through a global pandemic or other crises that can occur, no two days are identical for a building-level leader. And "aloof and scary" will not get anyone far in today's very people- and student-centered administrator roles.

A child gives a school administrator a high-five before boarding a bus.

What Is a "School Administrator" in 2022?

Older generations probably remember having a school principal, maybe a vice principal for buildings in larger districts, and that was it. Today, however, there is a wide range of other administrator roles in most schools.

"When I was in high school back in the '70s, you basically had a principal. There were no assistant principals, there were no department heads, there were no teacher leaders, there were no instructional facilitators or instructional coaches," says Christy Smith, assistant professor of practice for the University of Arkansas Master of Education in Educational Leadership program.

"But today we see so many more types of leadership at the building level in addition to the principal," she says. "Depending on the size of the school, you may have a curriculum council that's made up of department heads for core content areas as well as specialty areas like foreign languages, special education and other things."

Still, the person at the top who has the overarching responsibility for everything that goes on is the building-level school principal. And even that role, Smith explains, is much more diverse than it used to be.

"It's no longer the person who just carries around the big ring of keys and deals with discipline issues," she says. "When you see the role of a school leader today, it looks much different than it did 20 or 25 years ago when I first became a principal."


Ensuring High-Quality Teaching and Learning

At the top of the priority list for any school principal is empowering teachers to be at their best as a way to help students achieve academic success.

According to Smith, recent research indicates that, if a student experiences poor teaching for three years in a row, that student is at risk of underperforming for the rest of their educational experience.

Photo of Christy Smith
Christy Smith

"So, the stakes are just too high to have poor quality teachers, and a big part of what the building-level leader is responsible for is ensuring high-quality teaching in their classrooms," she says.

This includes things such as creating a school culture that's conducive to learning, making sure diversity is embraced and all students feel welcomed and supported, observing and evaluating teacher performance, and helping teachers build their skills and capacities so they can grow as educators.

"The whole purpose of having school is for kids to learn, and it's the principal's job to make sure that is going on," Smith says.

Another key aspect of achieving that goal, she says, emerged as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The pandemic has created a parallel avenue for students receiving instruction in a virtual manner that's more common now," Smith says. "Some students have flourished with that. But as a school principal you need to make sure your teachers who provide excellent face-to-face instruction are also providing engaging, high-quality instruction and lessons in that virtual format."

"Social media has created an environment that allows bullying and harassment to take root in a way that it didn't years ago. That opens up a whole new arena of unkind behavior that can create a very toxic environment in your school. You can do everything in your power to create a kind, inclusive culture at your school, but then when students go out into the community or they go home and they're surrounded by all of that outside of the school setting, it feels like you're fighting against a very, very strong current."

— Christy Smith, Assistant professor of practice

Providing the Safest Possible Learning Environment

Nothing is more important to any school administrator than the safety of their students. As a former principal and assistant principal, Smith always prioritized student safety above all else, as did her colleagues.

"If we cannot provide students with a safe environment, then it's all for naught," she says. "Obviously, with the tragic events that have happened in recent years, there is a heightened emphasis on school and student safety. I remember the anxiety of being in a school building where there were probably 50 or 60 exterior doors, the anxiety of feeling like you always needed to go around and check every door, all the time."

Focusing on student safety needs to be top-of-mind for school administrators at all times, Smith says, no matter what particular task is at hand. It starts with always being aware of what's happening around you.

"As a school leader, you'll find yourself constantly surveying the environment," she says. "When I used to be on lunch duty, I was always looking around and seeing if someone had spilled something on the floor because if there's a spill, we've got to attend to that immediately so nobody stepped in it and fell. If I saw something spilled, I would go stand right over it and get on the radio to contact custodial staff, and while you're doing that you're also watching what's going on to see if students are engaged in any kind of conflict, or see if there's a fight about to break out."

The presence of social media and cyberbullying brings additional challenges to school administrators today that they didn't have to think about years ago. Divisive rhetoric and vitriol that can occur through social media can have a very real impact on student safety and a school's culture in general, Smith says.

"Social media has created an environment that allows bullying and harassment to take root in a way that it didn't years ago," she says. "That opens up a whole new arena of unkind behavior that can create a very toxic environment in your school. You can do everything in your power to create a kind, inclusive culture at your school, but then when students go out into the community or they go home and they're surrounded by all of that outside of the school setting, it feels like you're fighting against a very, very strong current."

A school security officer speaks to students as the principal listens.

Building Relationships Inside and Outside the School

One of the common perceptions of the school leader from years past is that of the "scary principal" who dishes out punishment and strikes fear into the hearts of their students. While every administrator has their own leadership style, it's essential for the school administrator today to build strong, meaningful relationships with students, teachers and staff, as well as individuals and organizations throughout the community.

"The principal is the relationship-builder," Smith says. "They shouldn't be the scary person that students are afraid of; the principal needs to be seen as someone who's on their side and focused on supporting their learning experience."

It's just as important for the school principal to develop strong relationships with teachers and administrative staff as well, Smith says. Forming collegial relationships with teachers helps ensure they have everything they need to be their best as educators, and having strong working relationships with staff can positively impact the overall school experience for everyone.

"Building and maintaining good working relationships with all levels of administrative staff, the secretaries, the cafeteria workers, the custodial staff, the bus drivers that are getting students to and from school safely, is really vital," Smith says. "All those stakeholders play an important role in the quality of work being done in the building, and the principal needs to have good working relationships with all of them."

The role of relationship-builder also extends beyond the school building, Smith says. "Businesses in the community, chambers of commerce, alumni, community leaders – these are all important relationships because they're essential sources of support for the school," she says.


Creating Systems To Keep the Building Operational

When you think of all the little things that have to be running smoothly to get through a typical school day, it adds up to a lot. The phones, the computer labs, the lights, the copiers, the heat and air conditioning, the signage, the physical infrastructure, and even the parking lot, to name just a few, are all things that can't be allowed to falter.

Smith says that a big part of a school administrator's job is to always think ahead and have plans and systems in place if and when a problem somewhere in the building or on campus arises.

"A principal can't be running around with their hair on fire trying to troubleshoot every little problem that comes up," she says. "They need to have systems in place ahead of time for when something happens to keep things running smoothly."

As an assistant principal at a large high school in the early 2000s, Smith says even something as small as a copy machine going down could create a major disruption.

"This was before students had all the devices they do today; teachers would come to the office in the morning and make their copies – and if the copier wasn't functioning, then utter mayhem ensued," she says. "So, principals need to have a system that takes into account, ‘What are we going to do if the copier breaks? Do we have a backup? What systems can we implement?'"


Leadership Traits That Make for a Good Fit as a School Administrator

With everything that a school administrator is responsible for, there are a number of personal traits, leadership skills and characteristics that can make someone a good fit for the role. In many cases, those who move into school leadership and administrative positions begin their careers as teachers, so clearly, a serious interest in education is a must.

In addition to that, Smith says there are a variety of things that can make someone a great fit as a school administrator. At the top of her list is someone who wants to form positive connections with students.

"A person who wants to be a leader in a school building has got to love kids. And you've got to love all kids," Smith says. "Now, there are some kids you're not going to like all the time because sometimes they'll make some pretty questionable decisions, but the work that a building leader does is high-stakes work. So, if your heart is not in it, you need to be doing something else."

Smith adds that a school administrator needs to be flexible, have thick skin, be willing to listen to others and acknowledge that they're not always going to have the answer for everything. Being a school principal is hard work that involves many tough decisions, she says, and that leaves little room for leaders who bring a mindset of "It's my way or the highway."

"A school leader needs to be someone who looks for solutions. Someone willing to build relationships," Smith says. "You need to be laid back enough to not go into the role with preconceived notions of 'Well, this is what I'm going to do when I'm principal,' because the culture of a building is going to be constantly shifting based on the students that are rising into your building and those that are leaving.

"Each class has its own flavor, its own mix of personalities," she says. "The same is true with your teaching staff; you may have some veteran teachers who have great authority with their colleagues and then when they retire and others move in, that's going to change the whole tenor of your building."


The University of Arkansas ONLINE M.Ed. Program

For those who know that a career as a school administrator is the right path for them, it also takes a quality graduate program to help them develop the knowledge and leadership skills to do the job effectively.

Many programs offer a master's degree in educational leadership (M.Ed.), which is typically a necessary credential for the profession. But not all M.Ed. programs are created equal, and there are several aspects of the University of Arkansas ONLINE program that set it apart.

While offering a master's degree program online has become fairly common, the University of Arkansas program includes a distinctive element to its online delivery model – a weekly virtual class in real time with students interacting with one another.

"This is different from many other online programs where the work is online but it's asynchronous and students go in and read the material and do the assignments and submit the assignments, but they don't interact in real time," Smith says. "Our program is done in a synchronous manner where students are in the same virtual space on a particular night of the week with the other students in their class and they're engaging in conversation and they get to know the people in their class."

Other distinctive strengths that help the program better prepare future school administrators are the high degree of personalized mentorship, faculty who bring a blend of scholarly research and real-world experience in the field and a unique internship experience.

With the internship, students in the program fulfill a wide range of on-site school administrator activities in both an elementary and secondary school setting. Smith coordinates the internship program and says its alignment with the National Educational Leadership Preparation standards helps ensure students gain the most current and relevant experience.

"The program prepares them to be a school leader in a pre-K through the 12th-grade building," Smith says. "If a person completes the program and gets their license in Arkansas, they can be a principal in a kindergarten building or a high school building. So, we make sure they have internship experiences that are going to cover pre-K through 12th grade. Students will have one mentor for elementary and one mentor for secondary."

"I realized that, as one person, if I could help all of my teachers in the building do better with their group of 150 students, the impact I could make would be exponentially greater."

Christy Smith, Assistant professor of practice
Teachers and administrators discuss school policies.

School Administrators Ready to Affect Countless Futures

The real heart of the University of Arkansas ONLINE M.Ed. program are the faculty, staff and students who bring a true passion for education.

For Smith, the realization of just how big an impact she could have as a school administrator happened when she was a history teacher at a school that had just brought on a new superintendent and principal who quickly re-energized the school's culture.

"It was then that I had this epiphany that having new leadership made me better as a teacher. As a classroom teacher, I interacted with a maximum of 150 students a day," she says. "I realized that, as one person, if I could help all of my teachers in the building do better with their group of 150 students, the impact I could make would be exponentially greater."

From there, she earned her M.Ed. and doctorate through the University of Arkansas, started working as a school principal in a small district, then as an assistant principal in a large district before moving on to a district-level position as a special education director. Smith also holds bachelor's and specialist degrees in education from the U of A.

She's now back at her alma mater, helping aspiring school administrators achieve their goals.

"In this role, if I can make one teacher into a quality administrator who's going to have a broad impact over a school or a district – what an incredible way to end a career," she says.

If you would like to learn more about the program and about education careers, visit the online M.Ed. program page at the University of Arkansas ONLINE.

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Master of Education in Educational Leadership

This master’s degree program provides professional preparation for educators seeking administrative positions in elementary and secondary schools. The program now has a 100 percent pass rate on the School Leaders Licensure Assessment (SLLA). An internship (not online) is required for building-level licensure. Apply anytime through rolling application process.

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