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COVID-19 fundamentally changed how we work. In our series "At Work," we hear from folks in the Bay Area about how what they do has changed.

It's the Principal

Principal of Sanchez at recess with rainbow
Sandra Halladey
Principal of Sanchez at recess with rainbow

We often hear about teacher shortages, and how hard it is to be a teacher, but there's another key figure in schools that is also critical: the Principal. What’s it like to be a Principal? Tagging along with a principal at one school, it turns out it’s not an easy job.

Marin:Buenos dias! Como estas, Martin? How are you, Martin? Good morning!” 

It's a rainy day at Sanchez Elementary School in San Francisco's Mission District. Parents are shaking off umbrellas as they drop off their kids.

Principal Ann Marin is the first person the kids see as they walk into the hallway.

Marin: “Good job I’m so proud of you. Have you eaten breakfast? No? Okay,  grab breakfast please. I hope you have a good morning.  

I feel like it's really important to greet my community. So I try to be the face in the front and it also gives me an opportunity to kind of check in with folks.”  

Principal of Sanchez greeting families
Sandra Halladey
Principal of Sanchez greeting families

Sanchez Elementary is a block and a half from Dolores Park, serving a mostly Latino population with an English and a Bilingual program.

 Marin: “Have a good day. Check in later if you need. ”  

Ms. Marin lugs her PA system out to the playground. The entire school gathers in a big circle, with her at the center.

Marin: Good morning, Sanchez school.

Children: Good morning.

Marin: Buenas días, Escuela Sanchez.

“Let’s change our energy to get ready for school today. We're going to breathe in through our nose  and out through our mouth  to get ready to learn together.  Here's big deep breath number one, Remember that that breath can be used today to change your energy when you  need it .”

The school bell rings. Then the students head to their classrooms, and Ms. Marin lugs her PA system back inside. She checks in on a couple of classes before her site team meetings.

Marin: “I love my job. I love my school community. I love my job”

Ms. Marin joined Sanchez as a special education teacher in 2005 and became the Principal in 2016.

Marin: “I don't know how many other jobs you can kind of go from building a tower in preschool to facilitating a leadership two team meeting, to meeting with a family about a concern that they may be holding for their child and that kind of dynamic nature of the job keeps it really interesting.” 

Ms. Marin didn’t necessarily set out to do this work. After teaching for seven years, she worked as an instructional coach. But then when Sanchez’s third Principal in 5 years told her he would be leaving, she got her administrative credential as part of the district's leadership program and became the principal.

Marin:My road to leadership had more to do with my commitment to this school community specifically and not a specific interest in the role of principal as is.”  

After Ms. Marin’s morning leadership team meetings, she heads outside for recess duty and then it’s back to her office for a budget meeting. It’s exhausting watching her!

The school secretary, Ms. Linda Castro says:

I call her the invisible because she passes by me so quickly and I don't even know it half the time.I'm like, does she have a secret room in the back?  And that's just her day. She's constantly moving around.”

A principal has to do so much: be the instructional leader, but also think about the budget, manage personnel, represent the school and facilitate collaborations among staff. Research shows that a principal impacts the whole school.

Here’s third grade teacher Eyad Abdel Khaleq:

“Having a good principal not only provides leadership for the school, but they set the tone for everybody else. So expectations from teachers to students, strong parent communication.”

Because of the rain, it’s inside lunch in the cafeteria. The echo prone room amplifies the noise and squeals of excitement as kids choose indoor activities like drawing, blocks and puzzles. I couldn't hear myself think but Ms. Marin was graceful and calm as she made the rounds.

Marin: “Come on over.  Remember to fill your tummy and get ready for learning. And your tummy needs more than just bread.

So let's see what we got.” 

She acts as a nutritionist while also helping manage conflicts.

Principal of Sanchez talking with a student
Sandra Halladey
Principal of Sanchez talking with a student

Marin: “You know, it's okay for you to tell her, please don't touch my hair.  She wants to hear you because she likes you. She's your friend. If she's doing something that bothers you, we should talk to her about it, okay?” 

And somehow, she manages to sneak in her lunch as well

Marin: “I eat in here. I like the big kids to see me eat the school lunch.” 

Let's do the numbers.

 Nationally, the turnover rate for principals is around 20%. San Francisco Unified School District is slightly higher than that.What's the cause of the turnover? The SF school district doesn’t do exit interviews to understand why principals leave, but it’s obvious that they’re up against a lot. In addition to having an intense workload, there is so much that the principal doesn't have any control over that affects their job and the school: Low pay for teachers, lack of affordable housing near the schools, lack of school resources. All this can make it hard to attract new principals, too.

This is D’Andre Ball*, head of Talent Acquisition at the San Francisco Unified School District.

“School districts need to develop leaders within their system to step in, step up, to be leaders within their system, and that's what SFUSD is doing. When we hire someone as a new administrator with SFUSD, they're not just put into a classroom and expected to figure out how to run a school on their own. They get a coach who helps them navigate all the various challenges and ups and downs a school leader has throughout the year. In addition, they're able to meet as a cohort over the course of two years as well.”

SFUSD is mostly recruiting principals from within, but with a teacher shortagethat means there’s less people to recruit from.

Ball says if resources weren’t an issue, he would like to see closer relationships with institutes of higher education, more training opportunities, as well as tuition reimbursement and retention bonuses.

When it comes to Principal recruitment as well as other policies and initiatives, Ms. Marin hopes the District leadership listens to:

A huge number of incredibly passionate, enthusiastic educators who have been doing this work and have some institutional knowledge and it feels like really making sure that we're tapping into those bright spots with an eye toward what we know has worked for us here in San Francisco.”

Ms. Marin looks to a future where:

Every school in our school district is a school where we would all send any of our children and I think that has to be the goal.”

She sends her own kids to Sanchez and got into this work specifically because she loves her school.

Despite all the challenges of being a principal, Ms. Marin has used the relationships she built as a teacher to be an effective leader.

“I think just that relationship based approach to teaching and learning and the commitment that our community has to serving every child made me feel like my students – my own children – would have really great opportunities here.”

At the end of the school day at Sanchez, Ms. Marin is back in the hallway, saying goodbye to the kids.

Bye, y'all. See you Tuesday.”

Her day is not finished yet though - she’s off to more meetings.

*D’Andre Ball was a fellow in the KALW Audio Academy class of 2022

Crosscurrents Education
Sandra Halladey is a member of the 2024 KALW Audio Academy.
Passionate about speaking up for and building a constituency of support for public institutions — especially public education and the arts.