What makes a great school? Strong leadership is a key factor. A 2021 research report commissioned by the Wallace Foundation that looked at data from more than 22,000 school principals in four states concluded that replacing a below-average principal with an above-average principal results, on average, in an extra 2.9 months of math learning and 2.7 months of reading learning.

In our article What makes a great principal? you can learn about the four characteristics that great principals have in common and read real stories from principals on the job.

But what if your school has a bad principal? 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 identify if there is a problem and, if necessary, how to take action.

7 warning signs of a bad 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.

The school principal 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. In their book, Qualities of Effective Principals, authors James H. Stronge and XIanXuan XU, the number one quality is “facilitating the development, communication, implementation, and evaluation of a shared vision of learning that reflects excellence.”

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 a lot of time in their office pushing papers.

The principal delegates discipline decisions and dealing with parents to the school secretary. You never see the principal in classrooms or on the playground. The principal doesn’t know students’ names and doesn’t interact with them.

4. The principal is seldom there.

The principal spends much of his time away from the school in meetings or at conferences.

5. The principal does not return your phone calls or emails.

If you have tried to contact the principal several times and he does not respond, you should be concerned. If you do make contact, but he doesn’t provide you with any possible solution, you have a problem.

6. The principal tells everyone what they want to hear.

The principal 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. A 2020 study titled “What are the practices of unethical leaders? Exploring how teachers experience the “dark side” of administrative leadership” lists “displays of favoritism” as one of the six categories of irresponsible leadership.

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!

Remember: the principal has a boss. The superintendent is in charge of hiring and firing principals. Likewise, superintendents are hired and fired by the school district’s Board of Education. If you have complaints that aren’t being addressed, deliver those concerns to people higher up the chain of command.