How school leaders are redefining their roles in 2020

Typically, school leaders hold the title of the most misunderstood people in education. It would be close to impossible to have a young student walk past a principal’s office without a shudder of fear: ‘There’s the principal’s office, there’s where you go if you get into trouble’. Popular representations of the school principal or any school leader are commonly reduced to a figure of bad news and the prison guard of students’ freedom.

Ironically, the role of the principal is responsible for holding positive influences on school leadership and student learning, in addition to overcoming many problems faced within the school, quite the opposite of holding students captive. Additionally, their role is one of the most complex figures in educational leadership and has changed several times as a result of historical educational changes.

At the turn of the 19th century, the primary attention of the principal was redirected from the classroom to the administrative structure thereby isolating the role in their new office. Further along the line, however, in the 20th century, the role became more complicated and required them to perform a variety of roles including political and managerial roles, embedding technology, higher standards, student discipline as well as balancing local education initiatives. In 2013, a MetLife survey found that over 52% of current practicing principals found that the new role of the principal has become too complex.

Fast forward to 2020, and irrespective of the increasing responsibilities added to the principal’s traditional job description, educators are finding themselves further redefining their roles and what it takes to be a leader in today’s contemporary education system. They are not only managing students and teachers but they are also:


School leaders are here to help, they want to be seen as friendly and approachable and often this may mean they are acting as a counselor when talking between parents and students. In addition to putting out fires in regards to behavior issues or other difficulties with students, in 2020, leadership roles are ensuring they accommodate heartfelt words of encouragement.

A financial judge and a jury:

Financial freedom comes with financial responsibility therefore, school leaders also strive to be a diplomatic and balanced financial judge. In an increasing STEAM society, this ensures that the right expenditure is prioritized, coming up with innovative fund-raising techniques, and ensuring all departments feel equally treated is a key defining role for principals.

They’re learners!

School leaders are keeping an open mind. Despite years of experience and professional development, they are still learning new things and being exposed to varying areas of learning and development, or situations that they can proudly grow from.

An innovator:

As society and the education industry begin to reflect the tenets of digital culture, there is a growing desire for leaders to reflect more versatility. Therefore, in 2020, school leaders in engaging in strategic thinking and play a part in inventing and producing new innovations to fit the growing needs of teachers and students of an increasingly tech-focused society. For example, more leaders are looking at new ways of encouraging collaboration for the teacher workforce, in hopes to reduce planning time. Research from the University of Washington found that the teacher’s perceptions of the ‘most innovative’ principals were among those who introduced and encouraged collaboration among teachers.

Human resource management:

In an ever-increasing and expanding industry, school’s are employing a greater range of teachers and staff members to ensure things run smoothly and successfully. This is when school leaders take on the role of harnessing each employee’s talent as well as putting their feedback in perspective in terms of career goals and employee satisfaction.


Arising pressures within the education industry for students to perform well and show demonstrable results has caused principals and teachers to urgently seek solutions that will relieve the pressure brought on by greater accountability. Unfortunately, whilst structural solutions such as class size reduction, higher standards, etc. haven’t worked, this is causing school leaders and teachers to leave the field. On the plus side, research suggests that good leadership and reinventing the role of school leaders is a critical piece in solving the dilemma in which schools find themselves in regards to teacher retention, teacher motivation and work settings.

As John Chambers once said, ‘if you’re not understanding that you need to constantly reinvent yourself every three to five years, you will not survive’. For more information and resources, be sure to check out our CastTeacherly podcasts, our first series is titled; ‘The Mindsets Guiding School Leaders in 2020’, and will provide valuable insights from a variety of guests and their take on leadership in the 21st-century education landscape. Our first episode focuses on Jeremy Williams, a school principal here in UAE, who provides us with a ‘Dose of Leadership’, and touches upon struggles and obstacles faced as a school leader, in addition to insightful discussion into professional development.