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How to Become a Principal

Photo of a High School Principal

Matt Utterback is the principal at Clackamas High School in Clackamas, Oregon. His family has been in the teaching field since the 1860s, and his wife is also an English teacher at Clackamas High School. He has an impressive background, having held multiple positions in the education field. Matt earned his Bachelor of Arts in secondary education, social studies, and science at Western Oregon University and his Master of Teaching at Lewis and Clark College. He also completed his Administration Certification at Lewis and Clark College. 

He taught middle school social studies and science for six years, when he became an assistant middle school principal and was later promoted to principal. After several years at the middle school level, Matt moved into a district position as the assistant superintendent of the North Clackamas School District. However, Matt had always wanted to work with high school students, and when the principal position opened up at Clackamas High School three years ago, he jumped at the opportunity.

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What is an educator?

An educator is much more than simply a deliverer of content. People often go into the education field because of passion for a particular content area, but as educators, we are responsible for much more. Educators are mentors who guide students. Educators equip students with skills and strategies and teach them how to think critically and form opinions based on available information. The content can be the vehicle for that, but teaching the actual content is only one factor. Educators must also relate to the age group they are teaching, because not all people are suited to teach all ages.

Why did you decide to go into the field of education?

I grew up in a family of educators, and seeing my parents work as teachers had a strong influence on me. In addition, I loved high school. The whole experience was quite positive, and I loved the learning and the activities. I had particularly fantastic high school social studies teachers who instilled in me a love for the subject, and inspired me to pursue teaching.

I was also involved in high school leadership, and through my involvement in my school and community, I decided during my sophomore year to someday become a principal. I love working with high school students and teachers. There are not many jobs as exciting, challenging, and inspiring as this.

Are there common misconceptions about your profession?

I think that people have a few misconceptions about both teachers and principals. Because almost everyone in our country has been through the education system, a lot of people assume that they know what an educator does. But I am not convinced that people truly understand what it takes to be a teacher. People don’t realize the level of skill that is required to design a great project, write a great assessment or provide authentic feedback. Few people realize how much knowledge teachers must have. They must constantly adjust and update their teaching and attend workshops and classes, because their knowledge is always becoming outdated. Teachers also spend a lot more time than people realize thinking about individual students, and trying to come up with ways to adjust their teaching to help struggling students. We put our teachers in classes of 36 or more students, for six periods a day, and not only do we ask them to do it all, but we ask them to do it well. That takes talent, and I think that sometimes that goes unrecognized.

There are also misconceptions about the job of a principal. There are many more components to my job than people understand. As an instructional leader, I am responsible for making sure that we can offer the classes we need, we have enough textbooks, athletic programs are in place, money is allocated and buses are on time. In addition, there are always day-to-day issues that arise. I must be the visionary person who will push the school forward while also handling the daily demands, and there is never enough time in the day. Some days, I am not sure my job is humanly possible.

What is a typical day like for you?

My day usually starts at about 7:30 a.m. For that first hour before the kids arrive, I connect with teachers. Once the kids arrive at school, my day is non-stop. I usually have several meetings. Sometimes I meet with our special education department, our ESL teachers, or our custodians. I have meetings to discuss all sorts of things, including classroom instruction and athletic issues.

In addition to meetings, I spend a lot of my day supervising and interacting with students. We are a 2,300-student, two-campus school, and I try to make myself visible, particularly during lunch and after school. I also evaluate teachers and their performance, and I try to get into classrooms regularly.

When I am not interacting with teachers and students, a big part of my job is responding to emails. I get upwards of 100 emails each day, and I try to keep on top of them throughout the day or I can’t possibly get through them all. At the end of the day, I usually leave a little bit before 5:00 and go home for dinner. About three days a week, I return to school for school events, such as athletic games, drama and theater, and music performances. Although these events make my long days longer, I have fun and I truly enjoy seeing the kids engaged in something that they love. On the nights when there are no school events to attend, I continue working and responding to emails. Some nights I finish my work at about 7 p.m., and some nights I finish as late as 9 p.m. I also work at least two Saturdays each month, attending school functions. In all, my work week is about 65 to 75 hours long.

What are your favorite aspects of your job?

My favorite aspect of my job is that I can walk into a classroom and see kids engaged in some amazing teaching, being pushed and challenged, and performing something that they didn’t know they were capable of. That is very rewarding.

I also love the way that my days seem to fly by. I never look at the clock. This job is challenging and demanding, and to me, that is energizing. This is one of the first jobs I have ever had which I am not sure I can ever fully master. It is incredibly dynamic and I never get bored with it. It is not for everybody, but I thrive in this environment.

What are your least favorite aspects of your job?

My least favorite aspect of my job is the fact that I sometimes have to put employees and students in situations which are less than ideal. We only have each student for four years, and I worry about their experience during their time here. It bothers me to see how many kids are in our classrooms, and it bothers me that we don’t have the resources to buy the books that we need. I worry that the oversized classes make the students feel as if they are just numbers, rather than individuals. These are external factors beyond my control, and that adds a layer of frustration for me.

What classes did you take in college that are the most relevant to your job?

I loved my administration program at Lewis and Clark. It was a great combination of theoretical research and practical application. I took an introductory course on school administration that helped me think more globally about school leadership. I also took some great classes on leadership style, and they were quite beneficial.

What personality traits do you think would help someone to be successful as an educator?

There are several personality traits that I think would help someone to be successful in the education field. Patience is a must. A sense of humor is also important, because we have to be able to laugh at the kids in a positive way. Kids do silly things as adolescents, and educators must be able to relate and just see the humor in the situation, without getting upset.

Educators must also have a strong work ethic. The two-month summer break is great, but anyone who becomes an educator for the summer break will be sorely disappointed, because there is a long time between August and June. Teachers need school breaks because they can’t possibly perform day after day, and have the number of interactions that they have, without opportunities to recharge. Anyone entering the education field should be prepared and willing to work long, hard hours.

What personality traits do you think might hinder someone's success as an educator?

People who are quiet or are not self-assured will not be successful in managing classrooms full of kids. Kids can sense weakness and a lack of self confidence, and that will lead to classroom-management issues.

What advice, or words of caution, would you give to a student who is considering studying to become an educator?

If you are considering studying to become an educator, I suggest that you broaden your background and bring something unusual to the table. For example, earn your special education certification, become certified in multiple content areas or become bilingual. Most states are struggling with education funding, and there are hundreds of applicants for each teaching job. I look for applicants who can offer more than just student teaching experience, because everyone has done that.

Above all, educators must have a genuine passion for making a difference in the lives of kids. If you are not motivated by a desire to make a difference, you should consider another profession. Great educators are driven to influence their students, and give them the skills to be successful and make a difference in the world. You need to make sure you are going into it for the right reasons.

I would tell anyone who is interested in education that this profession is incredibly rewarding. I can see my work, and the work of the teachers, manifest itself in students. It is gratifying to know that we are making a difference and having an impact in a positive and moral way. That is a great feeling, and a huge benefit to working as an educator.

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