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A Day in the Life of a School Administrator

Administrators, unlike teachers, work a twelve-month year and are fairly busy most of that time. Whether running a small, private day-care center or an overcrowded public high school, an administrator’s tasks are many and various, ranging from curriculum development to student discipline. The most familiar school administrator is the principal. Assisting the principal are vice-principals, whose duties tend to be more specialized and who have more responsibility for the day-to-day operation of the school. In a central administration office, other specialists work with some or all the schools in a given district, overseeing particular programs, such as the evaluation of student academic achievement. Any one of these administrators may be responsible for infrastructure maintenance, the hiring and training of teachers, and student affairs. Administrators abound at colleges and universities as well. Among them are the deans of faculty, who handle academic issues, and the deans of students, who see to the well-being and appropriate conduct of the student body. Registrars process student records and many financial matters, while provosts serve as university-wide troubleshooters. As in smaller primary and secondary schools, colleges often require their teachers to perform administrative work. To a college student, the most familiar teacher-administrator is probably the department chair. And anyone who has applied to college knows all about the Dean of Admissions. School administration is a combination of brain work and grunt work. Organizational skills are key, as is the ability to operate within constantly tightening budgetary constraints. Since duties can range from hiring a basketball coach to AIDS education, administrators need to be versatile and flexible. An administrator must have a great deal of patience to deal with the enormous bureaucracy often associated with educational institutions. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, since administrators are responsible for the education of young people, a particular dedication to and understanding of children’s needs is essential.

Paying Your Dues

Most beginning administrators have acquired related work experience-usually in teaching or management posts-and, as might be expected in an academic environment, they also have advanced degrees, including doctorates, in education or administration or a combination of the two. Recently, some schools have begun demanding that their applicants have an M.B.A. At the university-level, deans are, of course, expected to bring a rich academic and professional background to their jobs. As with many educational jobs in the U.S., applicants must have gone through a certification process (usually administered on the state level).

Present and Future

Teachers once ran their own schools, and some still do, but as the world has become more specialized, so have schools. The need for specialists to maintain an ever-increasing public and private educational system became apparent early in U.S. history. In the nineteenth century, it became clear that administrators and teachers could be the reformers of America’s educational programs, as was the case with Horace Mann. To this day educators and school administrators sometimes find themselves in the thick of great controversies and revolutions. The future holds even more complicated challenges for school administrators. Health, political, and cultural issues all play a significant role in the life of the contemporary school administrator. Because so many administrative jobs are tied to state funding and a strict hierarchy, few administrators can expect to get rich quick running schools. Nevertheless, many administrators belong to unions, which see to it that the school system provides such benefits as health insurance and child care. At private schools, salaries tend to be lower and fringe benefits are uncommon.

Quality of Life


Many school systems assign new administrators to posts low on the ladder and allow them to advance only according to a set timetable. Other systems are quite willing to convert a seasoned teacher into a principal overnight, but this is less common in larger systems. Some beginners may work in school headquarters before moving on to a particular school as a vice principal or principal.


Because school administration involves so many specialized tasks, some administrators at this stage have greater responsibilities in one aspect of education administration, such as curriculum development. Other administrators, such as a school principal or, in the case of college administrators, a student dean, have more generalized duties. A principal’s duties vary according to the school system. Some must refer constantly to a central administrative body before instituting changes, while others operate with virtual autonomy. Another option for administrators is to move to a larger school system, where greater opportunities and challenges exist.


Many respected principals hold their jobs for decades, leaving an indelible impression on entire generations of students. Others move on to different challenges, seeking the position of school superintendent. At the college level, the trend is somewhat different. Respected college deans often hang up their administrative hats and return to the classroom or the research center. Still others seek the office of university president or chancellor. Dwight D. Eisenhower left his job as president of Columbia University to run for president of the United States.