Does the Peter “Principal” work here?

peter principleSo often in education, we see promotions from within the field.  Perhaps not from within schools or school divisions, but for the most part, it is teachers who decide that they want to take the next step into leadership by overseeing a department, a grade level, moving into an instructional specialist position, or a building principal.  Rarely do we as  educators see or seek  outside executives as direct leaders of schools.  Is it the passion for learning that one must have in order to lead a school?  I have been thinking a lot about this concept as I move into leadership myself-I am fascinated how much of education is run like a corporate business. And so, the question must be asked: Is teaching a classroom the same as running a company or running a building?  Studies have shown that “there is a strong parallel between the decision a teacher makes to move into school administration and the decisions other professionals (e.g., engineers, lawyers, physicians) make to move into corporate administration” (Gates, Chung, et al., 2003, p. 32).  And to make the transition from teacher to leadership, we often must straddle the duties that come with being an effective teacher and the duties of being an effective leader–creating lesson plans while supporting teachers, grading papers while observing classrooms–at some point, you begin to feel like you are running around in the weeds–not being effective anywhere. I often hear conversations surrounding this feeling of being in the “weeds” with my fellow leadership newcomers, which started me thinking…is it a readiness thing? A confidence thing? Or, is it possible that teachers who are recognized as being great in the classroom get recruited for leadership positions, but then potentially fail in the larger arena?  It’s a theory that arises in leadership often–the Peter Principle–developed by  educator, Laurence J. Peter in 1969, suggesting that “as people are usually promoted ‘to their level of incompetence’ (“individuals who are good in one job are not necessarily good in the job into which they are promoted”), it would be natural to expect individuals to perform worse after promotion has been achieved” (Acosto, 2010, p. 975).  We have all experienced or encountered educational leaders,who were once renowned for their exceptional reputation in the classroom, but then as leaders, they fall short with communicating to staff or sticking with decisions.

educator cartoon

As up-and-coming leaders, we must constantly remind ourselves what it is that we want to do with the bigger picture and fall back on ours strengths that we know others see and respect in us.  Yes, The ”Peter Principals” do exist out there–not all great teachers belong in leadership nor should they feel the pressure to take that path.  But, being a lifelong learner, as many of us are, it is important to reflect on our perspective and our place within the leadership field. Of course it’s a confidence thing, a readiness thing–we have to give ourselves some time.

leadership cartoonIn our recent Foundations of Educational Leadership class, we focused on leading change, and as part of that discussion, we looked at Michael Fullan (2014) regarding his perspective of considering “what happens when you find yourself needing new skills and not being proficient when you are used to knowing what you are doing” (p. 175) .  It is at this point where we determine whether we have reached our incompetence level or whether we will use our instincts and knowledge to figure it out and adapt to our own changing roles.  We cannot ask others to follow us into change if we, ourselves, are not comfortable with the unknown.  Are we always ready for what is thrown at us? No, of course not; before we jump to the assumption that we have “reached our level of incompetence,” I challenge us, as new leaders, to remember what got us this far in the first place–our grit, our own experiences, and our competence.  family curcuis







Acosta, P. (2010, 12). Promotion dynamics the Peter Principle: Incumbents vs. external hires. Labour Economics, 17(6), 975-986. doi:10.1016/j.labeco.2010.02.005

Fullan, M. (2014). Leading in a Culture of Change. Wiley.

Gates, S. M., Chung, C. H., Ross, K. E., Santibanez, L., & Ringel, J. S. (2003). Who is Leading Our Schools? an Overview of School Administrators and Their Careers. RAND Education.

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