Teachers Reject “Captain Bligh” Principals

As Teaching Ambassador Fellow Greg Mullenholz ends his tenure at ED, he reflects on what he has heard from teachers and principals about effective school leadership.

My wife has an uncle, Craig, who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and, as with many of his colleagues, Craig has an utter fascination with all things nautical. Take, for instance, one particular t-shirt that Craig wears with the Jolly Roger, emblazoned with the slogan, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” A satirical take on the ineffectiveness of punishment or forced adherence, this phrase, of unknown origination, says a lot about what qualifies one to take on a leadership role on a ship—or a school. Dictators only encourage mutiny.

The role of principals in student achievement is critical. Principals are in fact the “captains,” guiding the direction of the school through calm and stormy seas, tasked with ensuring the safe passage of all souls aboard in reaching the intended harbor. This is a tough job because lately school systems have been asking the principal to play multiple roles, including the quarter master, taking care of all of the supply ordering, furniture procurement, and food shipments. Many principals also juggle the role of boatswain—handling large-scale maintenance issues—or rigger—running the sails, and single-handedly analyzing the winds to identify the appropriate tack in order that the ship stay on course. The role of the principal is so overloaded that if we are asking these leaders to implement new evaluation systems or oversee college- and career-ready standards implementation, we need to shift their role back to being that of the captain.

Here’s why. According to the research,

    • Many schools across the nation are facing a money-crunch. This, compounded by a predicted uptick in student enrollment is causing districts to have their principals take on the yoke of many more executive-level decisions, including finances, hiring, and management operations. This takes a great deal from the time that a principal has to be in classrooms working with teachers and students.
    • The level of stress for administrators is increasing. Safety concerns, budgeting, teacher shortages, overcrowding, and a bevy of other factors are constraining administrators.
    • The Government Accountability Office finds that the amount of time administrators spend on disciplinary, referral, and suspension matters has begun to rise and that they are becoming less and less the instructional leaders they envisioned themselves being.

The job is certainly a challenging undertaking, but it has a great impact on student achievement. We’ve heard all year, from teachers across the country, that they would follow a great leader to the depths of the Earth and back. Teachers would probably agree with a recent research study that showed that these administrators were more likely to have “pervasive and sustained” student learning, communicated clearly, established priorities, and created professional environments where expectations were high for staff and students while ensuring that everyone felt like they had a stake in the success of the organization.

During my conversations with the NAESP Distinguished Principals and the NASSP Assistant Principals of the Year, these leaders didn’t speak a whole lot about textbook ordering or maintenance issues. Instead, they spoke about their passion for student learning, their willingness to get into classrooms, and their expectations that teachers continually grow and students continually improve. They spoke like teachers, like what we teachers call a “teacher’s principal.” And, given that the role of the principal is so critical, it might not surprise many that a core tenet of Title II, the same pot of money that is distributed to states for professional development, focuses on the preparation, recruitment and development of high-quality principals who can positively impact student achievement. We need these leaders in schools!

With the role of the principal being “maxed out,” the importance of a culture of shared leadership becomes paramount. The principal must be an instructional leader who can step into a classroom, observe and analyze teaching and learning, and offer the actionable and meaningful feedback that can help a teacher to “right the ship.” They are—or should be—Masters and Commanders of effective teaching.

Greg Mullenholz

Greg Mullenholz is a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow on loan from Montgomery County, Maryland.


  1. I definitely agree with the point that due having many demands such as “safety concerns, budgeting, teacher shortage, and overcrowding, principals have a difficult time juggling all of their responsibilities on the business end of running a school with supporting their staff and students. However, having come from a school where with all of that stress came disrespect, which was called commitment, I strongly feel that having all of those responsibilities or stresses is not an excuse. Once you take on and are given the responsibility of running a school, it’s important to show your staff and students that you genuinely care about them and make time to say hello to ALL staff and ALL students on a daily basis and not based on the mood that you’re in or what you’re maybe asked to do from your superiors.
    As educators, we all have a lot of responsibilities, principals and teachers alike, however I think this is a good time to really make it a point to set clear expectations for not only teachers but for principals as well. Having come from a school where the principal talked about supporting everyone and doing what’s best for the students on the outside, while behind closed doors being a hypocrite with rules based on who she felt was supportive of her. Once any teacher had his/her own opinion and wanted to express it in a way to start a conversation and not to be oppositional, the principal lashed out by taking away the teacher’s responsibilities or giving U ratings and saying that he/she wasn’t needed any more, while those teachers who did whatever she said and didn’t question her, while not following the standards, were given tenure and treated like gold.
    I guess, my point is that even though principals do have a lot of aspects of their job which they may not have thought would take precedent over being a role model, a leader and a support system to their staff, it should not give them an excuse to take their stress out on their staff. I also believe that it’s really important to set up and evaluation system for principals as well because many situations occur between them and teachers that go unnoticed.

  2. I am the “Principal Teacher” of my school. The only requirement that I place on the teachers that I work with is that they teach. We don’t do anything else. I teach one period a day (Government last year, AP English this year). We have a well established curriculum, know what the state’s standards are, and we teach. I make sure that my teachers and students have the resources to deliver exceptional instruction, and we teach. We hold ourselves and our students to high, well-defined and communicated expectations. If we’re not teaching, why would we be at school?

  3. Principals, need to be able to learn by being able to manage their site, teachers need to teach and not try to manage how they feel a school should be ran. I f principals would learn to not be afraid of the end results more students would succeed in our system. To many people are inserting their opinions while they have no formal training in how to improve our students and teach our children to critically think. Principals need to focus on moving their sites towards unity between understanding of children,young adults and professionalism of teachers to be teachers not mothers or fathers let the principal be this person.

  4. I am a “new” (5-year) second-career teacher. In my short teaching career I have noted that many principals and administrators have been out of the classroom for far too long, or even weren’t ever in the classroom for more than 3 years. My suggestion is that ALL school administrators should be required to rotate to a full classroom teacher position with full, regular teaching responsibilites every 5 years, for the duration of 1 year, so they can, in addition to keeping their teaching skills sharp, experience first-hand how the classroom/ school/ district/ nation/ politics/ whatever has changed in its effect on teachers and students. I was thrilled to read that the Navy appears to agree with the general idea of rotating higher level folks out of their positions regularly.

    • I agree with you comment. Sometimes they don’t know what goes on in the classroom or only stick their heads in to see something chaotic that hardly ever happens. I think if they had to take a teacher’s role every so often, it would help them identify with the students and teachers better.

  5. Speaking as the proverbial first mate, (assistant principal) and a former history teacher of 8 years in public school here in MA. I appreciate Mr. Mullenholz’s take on the ever increasing responsiblities of the school principal in the 21st century. However, the question remains as to how school pricipal’s will effectively complete all the demands required of them and still lead a building into the second decade of the 21 century.
    In the so called,” Age of accountability” administrators are so twisted up in how we will evaluate our faculty and ourselves it takes away from the essential “plotting” of a meaningful course. From the “Kahn Academy” style of teaching, the Flipped Classroom, Anytime Anywhere learning, and traditonal methods of instruction it becomes nearly impossible to say one is better or more effective than the other and (in my state anyway) the new teacher evaluation system is of primary concern for the teacher corp. and adminstration. Politicians and Policy makers please stop “the Beatings” morale is not improving. Let us Teach, Explore and most importantly Lead our schools towards effective and productive waters. Teaming with insight, wisdom and understand of our field and stop with the systematic “anchors” of accountability.

  6. Having served in the Navy prior to my education career, I think the comparison is a little off. I do agree the Principal is the “captain” of the ship that is the school, but I disagree with the assessment. Successful ship captains will tell you that when at sea, they are solely in charge. Not only do they take responsibility for every aspect of the ship, the are accountable for the successes AND failures of the ship. To a sailor, the notion of “the captain going down with the ship” isn’t a caution, its a responsibility. If a school fails, the the principal should be the first to stand up and say, “It’s my fault”. The converse is true too.
    The life of a principal isn’t overcrowded. Actually if a principal is trying to take on all those aspects of the school they are in fact matching the awesome responsibility entrusted to them. But at least in the Navy, we don’t expect our captain’s to live like this for 5-10-15 years. The stress is too great. Typically a ship captain is rotated after 2-3 years. To a staff job where they can be with their family on a more regular basis. And typically their command is preceded by 6 months of elite leadership training which is also preceded by 16 years of experience and careful vetting.
    I agree we need to support our principals and give them all the training and fiscal resources to be successful, but taking “things off their plate” to focus on one aspect of their job will only distort the true responsibility and accountability they should have.

  7. Maybe the solution is to be found in reassessing what managerial and administrative decisions need to be made at the school level and which can be pushed up the ladder. Likewise, what ed leadership tasks can be fulfilled by “Team Leaders” instead of being required of the overworked Principal. It seems that for a principal to be effective in this environment he or she must be able to recognize the tasks, assign responsibility and coordinate desired outcomes. There’s too much that must be done to expect one person to accomplish it all successfully, but there are tools that can be utilized to encourage collaboration and consensus building where it wasn’t possible in the past.

  8. Everyone is saying principals should be instructional leaders but the amount of administrative and managerial responsibilities they are performing takes away time that they could be spending on instructions. I agree with the comment…what now? How can we support this very important role that principals should play? Shared leadership is certainly one option but are principals empowered to delegate those responsibilities at the school level?

  9. Some act like Gestapo and are only interested in state championships. They will drive away good math or science teachers just for looking at them funny or daring to exercise their freedom of speech.

    Often, they lack the courage to act directly so they act behind the scenes with district administrators and have them do their dirty work showing a lack of ethics and integrity in the process.

    Either way the honest, decent teachers and students lose.

  10. so, what is the next step? Greg clearly articulated some of the various and sundry demands placed on the principal. the next step is the discussion about what needs to be put into place to support the role of the principal as educational, instructional leader? how will the principal once again become the “principal teacher? What are we prepared to do to make sure that happens?

    • First of all, any administrator whether it is a principal, assistant principal, or anything closely related should always be a person who was a successful classroom teacher. This person should be someone who was well respected by his/her colleagues and effective in the classroom. When administrators who have had little classroom experience or who obviously were ineffective teachers are put into positions of leadership, there are problems. All teachers know what these problems are. We can all point to administrators we have had experiences with who obviously did not or would not be effective in the classroom. If we want to improve education, we have to start with administration. Everyone is talking about teacher accountability. What about administrator accountability? We need administrators who understand the challenges that teachers, students, and parents face. A good administrator can make or break the morale of an entire faculty. This has trickle down effects to the students and community. I know this is true because I have a “teachers” principal who supports our learning environment, not just the status quo or the pursuit of test scores.

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