Uncovering the Principal-Student Relationship

Uncovering the Principal-Student Relationship

by Jamie Kudlats — April 10, 2017

Scholarly insights into the principal-student relationship are scarce compared to scholarship regarding the teacher-student relationship. This commentary considers questions that may arise from a deeper examination of the principal-student relationship and calls for increased attention to the topic.

Principals review test scores to look for patterns and anomalies. They observe teachers and review lesson plans. Principals run countless meetings to discuss field trips, student discipline, and Individualized Education Programs. They also create policies and procedures regarding grading, attendance, and homework. Principals troubleshoot carpool inefficiencies, run interference between parents and teachers, coordinate assemblies, and monitor the security of the campus. These duties, among so many others, typically make up ten or more hours a day on campus, an additional few hours at home in the evenings, and sometimes a handful of hours over the weekend. But even during the countless hours of administrative tasks and meetings, when not even one learner is present, students are always the beneficiaries of a principal’s work, either directly or indirectly. If students are the ultimate beneficiaries of a principal’s work, should a relationship between the two be so elusive?

It may almost seem too obvious to mention that students are affected by our work as principals. Of course they are. We are educators. We work in schoolsThey are what this is all about. However, as my own recent doctoral studies have progressed, I have been surprised to find little scholarly work that is devoted to the principal-student relationship. As a former middle school principal, this relationship was crucial for me. Spending time with my students provided me with more data about the teaching and learning that was taking place than most of what comes from standardized tests. During this time, I would hear about or observe firsthand, the behavior of cliques, fluctuations in homework loads, students' fondness for or concerns with teachers, and numerous other conditions that would influence the lives of those for whom I was responsible. So when I would draft policies or facilitate meetings, that firsthand information was essential. My direct interaction with students became an important focus of my time and energy because it helped me do my job. It was not easy. I had to carve out time to be with students. In addition to periodically sitting in on classes, I would make sure that I was in the halls during class transitions. I would spend time in the cafeteria during lunch. I would stand outside the building before and after school as students arrived and departed. I would hang out at extracurricular activities and sports practices. Thanks to the student relationships I attempted to cultivate, the result was that I developed a richer and more meaningful connection to my community.

However, scholarship devoted to human relations that exist within schools seems far less studied in educational leadership circles than are issues concerning academic standards, instructional leadership, testing, or teacher evaluation. Karen Louis, Joseph Murphy, and Mark Smylie (2016) claim that while much of the scholarly work on educational leadership has focused on “raising course rigor, implementing higher standards, monitoring and evaluating teaching, student testing, and ending social promotion” (p. 311) or what is often referred to as academic press, “[l]ess empirical and theoretical attention has been given to creating communities of support that promote student development” (p. 311). They acknowledge the importance of academic press on student success and achievement, but they also recognize the significant contributions toward student success when quality social relations are promoted and nurtured. Louis, Murphy, and Smylie posit that, “teaching and learning, and press and support, are functions of the nature and qualities of social relationships between and among students, teachers, leaders, and parents” (pp. 311–312).

As a result, quality social relations can influence student success and achievement. Even within academic parameters where the terms success and achievement are so often defined, quality social relations play an influential role. They should not be considered peripheral or inconsequential because they are harder to define, quantify, or are more difficult to directly associate with test scores. Few would argue that these relations are peripheral or inconsequential. Outside of educational leadership scholarship, these relations are deservedly given much more attention. A recent Google Scholar search for teacher-student relationship yielded about 40,000 results. However, a search for principal-student relationship at the same time produced 35 results. Of course, the nature of a teacher’s daily routine is vastly different than that of a principal’s in terms of student contact, but does this mean that principal-student interaction is inconsequential just because it occurs less often?

Effective leadership is driven by, or at the very least heavily influenced by, cultivating meaningful relationships with all stakeholders for whom one is responsible (Fullan, 2001, 2003). While relationships with teachers, support staff, parents, and community members are important, as school leaders we are responsible to our students first and foremost. As a result, relationships with them should be a priority. In some cases, principals are dealing with hundreds of staff members and thousands of students. Cultivating meaningful relationships in larger schools can seem daunting, if not impossible. But one need not have a meaningful relationship with every community member to impact the culture and climate of the community. As most of us are all too aware, word travels fast in schools. A principal who is friendly, accessible, present, and supportive to the teachers with whom he has a relationship is often known by this same reputation to other teachers. This can help promote a supportive and friendly climate among staff members. The same holds true for students. A principal does not need to attempt to get to know every student. Again, this might not be realistic. But the relationships he does have might contribute similarly to the climate of the student community, but also provide him with valuable perspectives that might help him perform his duties.

Does the lack of research on the principal-student relationship mean that meaningful interactions between principals and students are not taking place or does it simply mean that these relationships are not studied? Based upon casual conversations with other principals over the years, my assumption is that the latter is more likely. This appears to be a very interesting topic worthy of scholarly consideration. What is the nature of these relationships between principals and students? Are they limited to disciplinary or academic conversations where the principal serves as the last resort authoritarian or are they made up of more casual, subtle, and nuanced interactions? How do these relationships influence the principal? How do they affect the student? How do they contribute to the school’s community of support? Do these relationships take on different qualities depending on the socioeconomic makeup of the school or could the size of the school have an effect? Could the relationships differ from elementary to middle to secondary schools or could they vary solely from one principal to another based only on his or her personality and leadership style? All of these questions are worthy of consideration and exploration, but those of us concerned with educational leadership must remember that our school leaders work with people, not objects to be classified, categorized, and risk-assessed according to rubrics of predetermined goals. People have histories, emotions, desires, and fears. As a result, the relationship between two people is completely unique. We must be careful not to reduce the humanistic complexity of these relationships to a set of do’s and don’ts, mandates, or instructions for future leadership. We should primarily acknowledge and appreciate these relationships for what they are: important.


Fullan, M. (2001). Leading in a culture of change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Fullan, M. (2003). The moral imperative of school leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Louis, K. S., Murphy, J., & Smylie, M. (2016). Caring leadership in schools: Findings from exploratory analyses. Educational Administration Quarterly, 52(2), 310–348.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 10, 2017