And when you work for one, it can be hard to know how to deal. Do you stick it out, particularly if you enjoy other aspects of your school? Do you confront your principal about particularly aggressive behaviors? Do you go to district admin or your union reps?
We asked our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE members, many of whom have worked for bad principals in the past. Here’s the advice they had to share:
1. Document everything
And when we say everything, we mean everything. Lesson plans, all communication with parents and administrators, and any kind of problematic behavior you have in the classroom. Whether your principal is a micromanager or seemingly absentee, written proof of what you do on the job will help your case. “Communicate in writing as much as possible,” stresses Brittany N. And if your principal insists on having a face-to-face conversation, “nothing saying you can’t send an email confirmation afterward,” says Susan H.
“Communicate in writing as much as possible,” stresses Brittany N. And if your principal insists on having a face-to-face conversation, “nothing saying you can’t send an email confirmation afterward,” says Susan H.
If things are really bad? Consider recording conversations or in-person encounters, but first, make sure it is legal in your state. “We had an awful principal and he would lie like crazy when we made complaints,” says Alice H. “Finally we caught him on tape. The tape directly contradicted what he and his coerced witness had given in testimony in a grievance hearing. He is now gone.”
2. Keep calm and do your job
If your principal is flagrantly breaking laws or ethical codes, it may be important to speak up. But many of our veteran teachers advised that for your more run-of-the-mill bad principal, the best course of action is to stay out of the way. “I know it sounds awful, but the less contact the easier it is for you,” says Phil F.
A principal can go from bad to worse if she feels aggrieved or attacked, so try to stay calm and professional in your interactions whenever possible.
“Keep opinions and gossip to yourself and focus on the kids,” says Barbara N.
3. Tap your union reps
Better to go to your union before district admin, say veteran teachers. They can advise on next steps to take and stand by your side if any official complaints are brought against you. This is what your union is there for—take advantage of it.
4. Kill them with kindness
It might seem counterintuitive, but sometimes just being nice to your bad principal can go a long way and even help to flip his or her behavior. “I had a principal who would not even acknowledge me each morning,” says Lydia L. “So … in the most pleasant, non-sarcastic voice I could muster, I would happily say, ‘Good morning, __________!’ Eventually, she figured out that she wouldn’t get away with ignoring me and started greeting me like a normal, respectful person would.”
5. Get out of there, pronto
As with the corporate world, sometimes the only solution to dealing with a bad principal is to leave the school—quickly. This is especially true if you feel like your physical or mental health is suffering. “Eight months after leaving my toxic principal, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I know it sounds crazy, but I do wonder if the stress raging through my body had anything to do with the tumor,” says Lydia L.
“It can be a major drain on your health,” says Linda D. “Really, if you can, leave.”