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What to do when there is a problem with the principal

Learn what the signs are of a poor principal and what you as a parent can do.

By GreatSchools Staff

What makes a great school? Strong leadership is a key factor. In What Makes a Great Principal: An Audio Slide Show, you can read about the four characteristics that great principals have in common and listen to real stories from principals on the job.

How do you know if your principal is providing the kind of leadership that it takes to make a great school? Knowledge of these warning signs will help you to become aware, if there is a problem, and to take action.

Seven warning signs of a poor principal

If you notice any of the following signs, you may want to contact your superintendent:

  1. The principal has no overall vision for the school. He doesn't have a sense of what kind of school community he and the staff are trying to establish or what values the whole school should uphold.
  2. There is no plan to address academic achievement and the schools' test scores continue to decline. Although principals can't take all the blame for declining test scores, they should have clear goals for school-wide academic improvement that they communicate to staff and students, and ways to measure improvement against the goals. They should include staff and parents in the goal-setting process.
  3. The principal spends all her time in her office pushing papers. She delegates discipline decisions and dealing with parents to the school secretary. You never see her in classrooms or on the playground. She doesn't know students' names and doesn't interact with them.
  4. The principal is seldom there. She spends much of his time away from the school in meetings or at conferences.
  5. The principal does not return your phone calls. If you have tried to contact her several times and she does not respond, you should be concerned. If you do make contact, but she doesn't provide you with any possible solution, you have a problem.
  6. The principal tells everyone what he or she wants to hear. She says "yes" to everyone but doesn't take action.
  7. The principal shows favoritism. It is obvious that certain teachers, students or parents have the ear of the principal but others do not.

When a parent should contact the principal

When you have a concern about your child's academic achievement or discipline within the classroom, you should first contact your child's teacher. If you are not satisfied with the teacher's response, you should contact the principal. It is always better to try to work out problems with the teacher first. If you have a concern about a school-wide discipline problem or the school's philosophy, you should contact the principal.

When a parent should contact the superintendent

If the principal does not return your phone calls or if you are dissatisfied with the response of the principal, then you should contact the superintendent. If you have concerns about the principal's leadership abilities and you can clearly document those concerns, you should contact the superintendent. If several parents feel the same way, make an appointment as a group to visit the superintendent. There is always greater power in numbers!  

Comments from readers

"I pretty much have the same thing, I have a principal who blew up a good strings program and replaced it with a HORRIBLE one. "
"really dissapointed in our little town..they pulled our officer out of the schools they pulled the dare program and when complaints have been filed to the teacher,principle,and even to the school board, of all kinds of kids being tripped,made fun of,taunted and cyber bullied..and no one does any thing other then a..a let me tell you what you want to hear conversation, or there's no follow up ..Then where do you go.. this has gone on long enough.. We need help in our 3 schools we have here it shouldn't be that hard to care....can you help me get the ball rolling here in Proctor MN I am willing to do what it takes to make this a safe place for my daughter and her friends to go to school.. "
"My 5 year old son was recently found a half mile from the school. As a result I ended up going to school with him. While in his class I watched his teacher grab a student by the face and yell at him in front of everyone that he wasn't allowed to growl in her room and for an aide to remove him immediately. After talking to the principal, because I didnt know what else to do, I was confronted in the cafeteria by the teacher in front of his kindergarten class and everyone else and told that it didnt matter who I told and that "It didnt happen" Ive since been yelled at by the teacher in front of the principal, then later just flat out told that I was a liar. The boy she grabbed doesnt say more than 5 words that I heard. He will however come up and grab your hand , very sweet little guy. When his mother showed up at the end of the day, she was handed a happy face sheet and the teacher told her with a scowl "He had a very bad day" and that was it. The principal and superintendent ! came to the optimal conclusion (?) that my child who had nothing to do with the incident be moved to another class. I am so upset about this, I have no idea what to do now. This was the superintendents solution. "
"There are comments from 2006!! Why is GS recycling such old articles? And it's obvious no one is reading the comments or this article would have been updated to provide more relevant information. Like going to the Board if you're not satisfied with the Superintendent's handling of the situation. Like working with the PTO to help change the environment of the school. Like rallying parents through Facebook and Twitter. Taking your concerns to the media. Six years later and this article is no more useful that it was when first published! Enough with the laziness. "
"As long as teachers unions are strong you don't have much of a chance. just hope your child safe that day pray summer vacation soon........ Elba,N.Y "
"my son is beening hurt at school by other student to the point i had to rush him to the emergency room twice and the principal dont do anything but tells me she dont have to explain nothing to me went to the superintendent and it took him 3 weeks to call me back and when he did he tells me he agrees with what ever the principal told me. "
"what does one do when it is the Principal and Superintendent attacking not only the child but the Parents? Calling child a Drama Queen and lier. Not following directions for another child (mental Issues) by the State Councilors and telling Parents they don't feed the child enough and they are bad parents. Superintendent emailing parent saying he will contact council if parent didn't stop lieing. Calling CPS on Parents due to Principal thinking they don't feed said child with problems. Excuse Bulling of Daughter for two years by Bulling-have done nothing Another problem kid pushed against wall twice in one day by the throat and head smashed against wall. School did nothing to Bully. was not suspended. Tape showing one of the attacks just disappeared. only tape showing is where boy was pushed. something ugly going on in a district in Northidaho "
"My principal takes away students lunch 4th grade and up if they can't get 45 digits multiplication in two minutes after she said children can never become faster after 3rd grade! What can I do!? "
"What do you do about a principal that yells at students and at teachers on a regular basis. Then the next day acts as though nothing happened. It is a small school and none of the students or parents have complained. The teachers act as though nothing can be done. Isn't this bullying by the principal? As a concerned parent, what can I do? "
"You're kidding right? How about posting some information that "actually works" instead of some fantasy that might work in a utopian society. It seems like the only realistic but painful option is to change schools. "
"I think that when discussing any job title it should not be defined as a she or he!!!! "
"I've noticed that most schools in Georgia have enormous problems with Principals, teachers, and staff showing favoritism. This article addresses this. The school that my child attends has numerous problems in many areas. Most of the parents talk about these issues amongst themselves, but would not be willing to go as a group before the Superintendent or any other higher authority for fear of retribution. So, most of our school system's problems continue to go uncorrected. How should parents deal with this? Just move your kids to a different school when you can? Sadly, that's what tends to happen here. "
"Thank you for asking parents to please call the teacher first. The parent is creating tension with the teacher when they go to the principal first. "
" What do teachers do when the principal deliberately gives bad evaluations because he doesn't like them? He bullies teachers into practices that aren't educationally sound for students. "
"I need help! I am a PTO vice president of a school with a principal who does not care about the children, school, teachers, parents or community. We as a pto board have been to the school superintendant several times with hopes of help but finding none. (she only gets worse when she finds we have gone to the superintendant). She will let everyone know this is 'HER SCHOOL.' we are losing the better teachers to other schools and parents who can afford it are putting their children in private school. I, myself, will be doing the same. I just cant deal with this another year. (this is my 4th year at this school. It makes me furious that i have to pay for private school when this was an excellent school before her. please help with any advice, the school board and superintendent dont care. we have evidence of things that should open eyes, but no one will see what we are dealing with. I have never seen anything like this! it should not be this hard to be part of your ! childs education."
"What do you do when a principal openly admits to denying a child food that was only 5 years old? When the board of ed does nothing nor the superitendent. This is just one of the many many things the administration of our school has done and really begin to wonder what he will do next. I feel he believes he can get away with anything and it is our children that are suffering. The school board as I stated will not do a thing to get rid of this monster and we have already lost 63 excellent teachers becase of him as well as families of this community that have pulled their children out of this school distric becasue of the things that this man has done. He is feared by everyone parents, children and teachers. Anyone who dares to stand up against him, their children are singled out and punished purely for us as parents speaking our minds and wanting whats best for our kids. How can this man get away with the things he has done and still be put in charge of our kids. What can ! we as parents do?????"
"Unfortunately, teachers also have to put up with bad principals. I have a principal who overrode my evaluation of children for gifted evaluations. When the date of the test came, she told the evaluator which two children to test. I walked into the testing room, took those two children out, and brought in the two children who had gone through the screening process and who had parent consent forms filled out. These two were found to be highly gifted. When there is a principal who feels she and only she can make decisions, there is a problem. She also shows a lack of respect in dealing with parents, so much so that several very good parents with students who are achievers have left our school. I hope that she is gone soon."
"very good information. than you"
"Bad principal should be fired out from school. School does not need bad or weak principal. Bad pricipal would result bad school and produce bad students. Teaching permit should be revocked right away. No place for bad principal. They should never be in the teaching profession after all. They do not deserve to be in any school."
"My husband and I are both proud parents of two wonderful boys. We transfered them out of a big town and moved them to my hometown, because we both felt like they were getting lost in the shuffle. The principal was very helpful. But now they have a new one She is awefulNew Haven does not listen help. The first day was fine I asked the librarian at the school if I could use it as an inlet for my son to finish school work and to help him read there was no problems,even the the cleaning dept. did not have a problem with it, So for the second year in a roll I got to use the library, The new principal On the second week when my son finished homework and put it away in the desk , we walked outside and the principal followed us and said 'as of today you will not be allowed in the library!' I thought a teacher was mad so I asked what teacher said that She gave no reason My son and I have always been helpful and never had any problems I don't have any reason to go on and it made me so! upset I contacted the superintendent and he said new person new rules. I'm like what' My eyes are still bulging!"
"We have as a group talked to the superintendent about the issues we had with the principal. Not returning phone calls, bullying teachers, students and parents, playing favorites, when in a situation that a person should listen to both sides she only listens to one-does not even ask the other person, having kids take off cross necklaces, etc. The superintendent does nothing. We have sent greivences to the school board, again nothing. We even had the students protest, still nothing. What do we do? "
"I have 2 children that are in the same school but its only been a short time that they have both been inroled at this school and one child is doing great and has made cheer leading squad for next year but the other one has already been giving OSS twice in the 5 weeks they have been inroled. They have always been good kids never in any trouble and made good grades for the most part. And I'm not saying my kids don't get into trouble or aren't capible of it, but they are pretty honest with us when they do something wrong even to know they will be in trouble for instance the first time he was giving OSS we took care of that and talked it over with him so it don't happen again and he agreed it wasn't a good decision on his part but this time he says he didn't do it but we don't want to cause a problem with the principle. We have ask for a meeting with her and to view the video that could show he was or wasn't involved with this issue he has been accused of. What is the best ! way to handle this where the principle don't feel we are going against what she feels happened or what she was told happened We just want to see it for ourselves if he did do it?"
"I have a principal (female) who is never at the school and when she is her door is always closed. She talks about the staff members and spends most of her time trying to get back at them. She has told me on more then one occasion that she can make their lives miserable if she wanted to. I have asked her not to discuss her personal hangups with me or about the other staff. She is not a leader and takes personal revenge to an entirely new level. She can not seem to focus on her job when she is trying to get back at someone or when she is trying to prove they did something wrong. She is very good at delegating HER job to me but takes credit for it. She gets upset because the staff have contacted their Unions for advice. Can you give me some advice before I lose it. She also has expressed she loves the power that comes with being a principal."
"great and informative..."
"I have a grand son 15yrs. old I have custody of because his father was killed in son and the principal had words one day, my grandson was taken out of this school put in another by his dad then after the dad was killed i put him back in the school due to being in our wife and i appoligized for my son.when we inrolled him.but this principal has it in for my grand son.whatcan we do."
"informative and concise."
"I have an incident with my son's teacher in that she involves the principal in every discipline issue involving my son only. He is presently working with the CST with a behavior chart and is going much better overall. When he does not make chart, she write in all caps DID NOT MAKE CHART!. I don't know who to complain to now. I am thinking about getting a child advocate since I feel my son is being targeted."
"The principal in my son's school threatened me that I 'would be sorry' I finally heard back from the Superintendent. Now we are meeting with lawyers to see what can be done. What's our opinion?"
"hi i am writing because i need to know who to talk to or write to about and incident that took place at my sons high school involving a 15 year old girl and the vice principle.. i have spoken with the superintendent and he believes that the vice principles behavior was 'okay' because he said he was sorry and justified his behavior by saying 'he just lost it... on april 30 th the young lady was in the vice principles office having a discussion with him (a very loud discussion) some bad language was passed between the two them and the vice principle obviously had enough because he got rite in this young ladies face with his fist drawn in the air an stated ' if i could f...... pop you i would' sorry for the language but that is what he said, he admitted to the principle and the superintendent that this did take place and stated that he 'just lost it' i am writing because this was very wrong on the principles part an am personally concerned about my child safety when he 'just loses' again.. like i said i have expressed my concerns to the superintendent .. there is nothing justifiable about this incident and it should be looked at but i do not believe they are going to look at it.. We teach our children that swearing and hitting is wrong.. then we have someone that our children are suppose to look up to for guidance through there school years behave in this manner and get away with it because he is sorry and he ' just lost it' doesnt work that way when a child in school just loses it !!!. it should be no different just because he is a vice principle... so if you can't help me could you guide me into the right direction. i am from wisconsin so dont know if you can help me A very concerned parent"
"I have a safety issue in a private school sector in which the principal is guilty of 4 of the 7 above red flags. We were forced to remove our daughter from the private school in order to provide her with a safe enviornment away from an aggressive student in which the Principal 'turned the other cheek' and avoided confrontation with the parents of the aggressive student; only to place the discipline of the student and meeting with the parents with the teacher time and again. As the altercations became more aggressive, the Principal still felt she should not be involved with the aggresive students parents....any advice on how I should deal with the private school sector on this isssue. I do not know who oversees the private school sector?"
"I would call the news.People that are doing something wrong hate may help.Don't give up!"
"Interesting article with some good advice but what if the Superintendent is also the problem."
"Unfortunately, in my school district the superintendents have no intention on responding to parent complaints. The Board of Education will not deal with the problems either. They promptly send us right back to this bad apple principal to work out problems. He makes all of these promises but of course does not follow through and the situations get worse. He even uses some inexperienced or lazy teachers to retaliate against the children of the more vocal parents. At this point most of the parents are simply silently enduring. The children's academics are suffering. He takes no responsibility but attempts to shove off responsibility and blame onto the children and the parents. One particular teacher will not give back graded papers or tests. Won't even let the parents or children see papers or tests. Even during prearranged conferences she comes empty handed and the Principal does nothing. He knows he has all the power and let's the parents know if we so much as dare! to ask any questions. What can I do as a concerned parent? "
"My son was upgraded from proficient level to advance level, which was long over due since he has above 94 averages. He is doing well in everything except social studies. He had an average above 97 and with the new teacher has major issues that I believe are related to her teaching style. Even though we studied for his latest test extensively for several days and quizzed him at home his test result was 75. The test had 37 questions including subject China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea. The teacher included a few trick question like 'why did woman do better in communism in Japan?' (trick: Japan does not have a communist government). In general I am not satisfied with the teaching style- too much home work and too many tests. I spoke with the guidance office that referred me to the teacher. Two weeks ago we had a pleasant conversation and I expressed my concern. After the last test I spoke with her today and she accused that I’ve been disrespectful to her when we talked prev! iously. She took this very personal and I am afraid my son will suffer for this. I am looking for advice on how to handle this issue without compromising my son’s progress with this teacher. I'd really like to hear from some one that can relate to this subject. "
"Write up or file incidences with the district. In some situations, when trying to communicate with the principal or a particular teacher, your statements can be ignored. In other words your complaints blocked off with 'well, your child this, your child that' not putting any focus on the staff member of which the complaint is about."
"I really need to know what I should do about my sons school. The school had an honor roll ceremony this weekend, there was also an special famous, sports athelete guest that was to suprise the kids at this event. All in all 176 kids made honor roll,and the honor roll grade was lowered to 80 from 85. I'm not sure if this act was ok by the principal, but it seems morally wrong."
" here is what happened with my child's principal.It is all true Making a long story very short. the principal calls me up and tells me my son is acting in a very strange way she says ' you have to come here right now ' I replied I'm not at home right now it will take me about a half hour to get there. I arrive and she sits me down and starts telling me she feels my son is a danger to the kids in school and he needs to be seen by a shrink and don't feel like only crazy people go to shrinks because my children and I go regularly. I asked her what did he do she then told me 'as he was sitting at his desk he started to spit on the desk and the floor and got his hands and rubbed it into his face' .She then told me she thinks home schooling would be better for him I was shocked so I told her let me speak to him and ask him what happened in front of her When I asked him ' did you do this what the principal was saying ?' He said no I didn't the principal said no he did right away and told me I'll call in his teacher to make see what he says His teacher comes in and the principal then asks didn't you tell me that he done all this. He looked at her with a strange look and said I never told you that. She then said she was sorry to my son for being mad at him. so we went home and I sat down and talked to my son and asked him what is going on in school? He told me after I asked him so many times that there was alot of kids beating him up,cursing and calling him names I was so shocked and told him don't be afraid I'll talk to the principal and tell her what is going on here.He told me please don't talk in front of the kids at school he was afraid they would know he told on them. So I went to her on the 30th of oct. and told her all of this she said we will have to get to the bottom of this ,but your son has spitted on children and was causing her to be very concerned about his mental health. I told her well we will think about him seeing a shrink since it's up to me if I feel he is in need of one(so I thought) the next day on oct. 31 halloween there school was having a parade and i went to give my son his costume and as i walked to his class room the teacher told me he was in the bathroom,So I went in the bathroom and seen about six kids surounding him and I asked whats going on in here? the kids left really fast and started to say I'm gonna knock him out your son is a s.o.b . I was shocked again and asked my son what happened but he didnt say anything to me and he didn't want to go on the parade .His teacher came and told me you can take him home with you since school was almost over anyway. Later that day I recived a letter saying my son was suspended for two days for spitting and hitting a boys butocks . Then on friday the people from child abuse comes knocking on my door ,They had recived a call that my son has bizzare behavor and he has a blank look in his eyes when asked a question. As they were reading all this to me I could not belive what I was hearing They then gave me a phone number for him incase he wants to hurt himself then they spoke to my son and asked him did you ever think of hurting yourself or others? He said no as all this is going on I'm thinking what is going on here. monday comes and I go to speak to the principal and want to ask her about the bullying that is going on.She then tells me she don't feel it would be right to talk to me without everyone present and to make a appointment on weds. I asked her who do you mean everyone ? she said the shrink and the people from the child abuse and some other people I can't remeber I told her but what does that have to do with the kids that are hurting my son? she said we will talk about it weds. At this point I know she is a very bad principal and I don't know what she is trying to do. Ok so I wait until weds. and go to the school and she tells me we made the appontment for friday now I told her wait I have to speak to you now about my son I waited for so long and I'm not going to wait for friday to speak about this so we started to talk about my son getting beaten in school and I told her all that he said to me,She then tells me I looked into his story and i found nothing happening to him he is never left alone and there is never that many kids in the bathroom at one time,no children are ever in the hall by them self.So I asked in other words you don't belive him? and your gonna do nothing about this She said we will watch him more but I asure you this is a story he is telling. I then asked her(the principal) If anything happens to my son in this school who is responsable? She replied after a second and said 'the city and the board of education..and This conversation is over!' I told her so your throwing me out of your office? and you don't want to hear about my concerns? she said nothing,So I left once I get home no more then ten minutes later the principal calls me to say my son is in the nurse's office he was kicked very hard and was crying I said I'll be there now When I get there I go into the nurse's office and ask her to see my son,She said What do you mean and what are you talking about ,she then started to call the main office so I left and went to the main office and asked them where is my son the principal called me and told me he is hurt and in the nurse's office They said we didn't hear of anything and they don't know where he is So now I'm getting paniced I ask another person in the school the security guard and she dont know what I'm talking about to then as I'm going to is teacher upstairs who do i see is the principal I ask her where is my son and how is he? she says 'I don't know' then she tells me I have suspended the child that kicked him I told her good so now you belive him She replied no I don't belive his stories I told her what are you waiting for to see him in blood before you start to belive him? your insance I told her and i walked away. went to his teacher and asked him about my son and where is he,He said I don't know where he is but he is ok and Ill help you find him after walking all around the school with him we found him in the lunch room, I asked him if he was ok and checked where he was hit I told the teacher I'm taking him home. As I get home 20mins. later the police call and leave a message they want to speak to when I call they say we are at the school and I have to go there and talk to them I said fine I'll be there in about 30mins. I walk in the school and go to the office the principal looks with a mean face and points they are in here waiting for you. so I walk in and they start telling me that they had a call from the school that i was combative(don't know what that means)and I told them I was a nervouse wreck because of everything that is going on with this schoool and the beatins my son is getting from the kids and to top it all off nobody knew where my son was for 15mins. when we was looking for him so they said we will file this complaint and my son will be transferd to another school. I said thats fine with me What you are reading now is just a short version of what I'm going threw right now if I was to wright it all down it would be a book I think this is the worst principle I have ever seen in my life and now I don't know what to expect next from her tell me what do you think I can do? "
"Please send feedback about how I should proceed. My 5 year old son was 'restrained' by the pricipal on the first day of kindergarden. This action resulted in a rug burn and bruise on his temple. Law enforement states this is not a criminal matter and refused to file a report."
"I had a major problem with my children's elementary school principal. Bottom line: she didn't take severe bullying (actually, assault) seriously. She had a asst. principal who was a 'yes' man. My child, a gifted, quiet student, is still dealing with the after effects of the bullying. This article was enlightening- my principal clearly demonstrated 5 out of the 7 'warning signs'. She has since 'left' the district. Believe it or not, we are located in a very affluent community and a top-rated schoool district. Bad principals can be anywhere. I'm sadddened thatI didn't pursue action against her with the superintendent."
"What do you do if your school teachers and aides and even parents have a problem with the principal. What can we do to get rid of the principal and get another one hopefully much better than the one we have now."
"Going to the Superintendent only works if this person responds to parents. Our superintendent doesn't. The parents in our district were so upset with the current superintendent they had marches against her. While I don't think she is as bad as some say, she's not open to communicating with parents. Good luck trying to get help from our superintendent, it probably will not work."