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Emma, the Passionate School Principal

Updated: Dec 14, 2023

Emma scored her  job as 10/10 depending on the day (with ten being the most fantastic job imaginable).

by Caroline Knight and Daniela Andrei

Emma, a Primary School Principal in Western Australia, confirms the view of the job as complex and demanding, and stressful at times (see the other story about the pressures of being a principal).  Yet she says she can’t think of anything she would prefer to do’, scoring her job a 10 out of 10. How can this be?


Emma detailed two key roles she performs as a principal: a) being a manager; and b) being a leader. She described the former as ‘operational’ and ‘less interesting’, involving tasks just as administering school finances and working our how best to spend the money the school has to meet the children’s needs. This role also encompasses timetabling duties, coordinating festivals and carnivals, ensuring reports are completed and legislation adhered to. Being a manager is important, but it is not what really motivates Emma.


The second role,  being a leader, is the one Emma talks most animatedly about, describing how she views the school as the only place in the community where children can learn literacy and numeracy. Her job is to ensure consistency across the school, so that all children learn the same things and grow and develop accordingly.


Emma aspires to being a ‘driver’, helping students and others to develop confidence and do things they weren’t able to do before, such as walking into a doctor’s surgery or talking to a social worker. Interestingly, this aspiration is very close to the definition of a transformational leader.

Being transformational requires people skills: gaining rapport with the children and their parents, building a cohesive staff force with a shared vision, and navigating challenges and difficulties all require interpersonal capabiliities[2]. ‘Relationships’, as Emma succinctly puts it, is a ‘keyword for the job’. She states that ‘everywhere you look in this school, people are interacting with other people, children are interacting with others, and through these interactions, teaching and learning occurs’.


As a leader, Emma is able to make a difference to other people, have an impact and see the significance of her work. She finds it highly rewarding to see first-hand how the children and her staff benefit from her work, which she describes as ‘seeing all the ducks line up’. In work design terms, this is termed ‘task significance’; a work characteristic that is associated with desired outcomes such as health, well-being, and performance. In one well designed, rigorous experiment, Grant and Hofmann[1] found that university fundraisers raised more money when they had contact with beneficiaries of the money they raised and could see the value of their work, that is, they understood the task significance. 


It is this opportunity to make a difference which Emma loves. Currently, Emma is acting in the job of Principal. She was initially unsure about taking on this role because she really enjoys being in the classroom and teaching. Having tried out the more senior role of a Princuple, although recognising the challenges of the role, she is increasingly considering a permanent position as Principal. Why? Because she feels that in this role she can have even more impact.

[1] Grant, A., & Hofmann, D. A. (2011). Outsourcing inspiration: The performance effects of ideological messages from leaders and beneficiaries. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 116, 173-187.

[2] Bass, B. M. (1990). From transactional to transformational leadership: Learning to share the vision. Organizational dynamics, 18(3), 19-31.

Behind The Scenes

We head towards the small administrative quarters of the school just after the morning recess. Heading there, we see Emma hurrying towards her car. She had to leave for a few minutes, the administrative assistant tells us, but she will be right back. Indeed, in about 10 minutes Emma is back and our interview can start. These things can happen quite often she said, only yesterday she was caught up in several meetings outside the school.


Emma’s office is situated at the end of the admin quarter and is cosy and quiet. She mentions that it doesn’t feel that it is fully her office – most of the things belong to the usual principal who Emma is substituting for, but she doesn’t seem very phased about it. We have the sense that spending time in this office is not what Emma likes to do anyway, she seems a very hands-on, involved Principal who likes to walk around the school and get involved in activities that are happening with the children.

Emma is a Principal at a small public school in WA. There are not many children running around. The atmosphere is calm and friendly compared to larger schools, and all the children seem to know each other. Normally, the Principal would also know each and every child in the school, and Emma is beginning to achieve this, despite only temporarily occupying the position of Principal. Emma appeared to be very active and involved in the school, trying to make her mark and implement a few of her ideas during her short stay.  

We noted that this is not the first time that Emma is substituting a Principal, she has taken on a few of these temporary appointments in the past 2 years, at different schools across WA. Her usual role is as Deputy Principal but she has enjoyed the opportunities provided by the Principal position and is now considering a full transition to a Principal role.

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