Christian Education: Difference Between Headmaster and Principal (Pt. 1)

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the editorial opinion of The Christian Post or its editors.

It wasn't too long ago that a local Christian school without resident leadership put out the word for a Headmaster. After the collection of résumés and a series of interviews a fine person was selected and hired. All of this appears to be normal except for the fact that those doing the hiring didn't understand what a headmaster was or did. While the title headmaster has fallen somewhat out of fashion in favor of head-of-school, the job description has remained the same.

The interesting twist to this tale is that which transpired during what amounted to a relatively brief tenure. It seems that the personnel committee and school board wanted a principal and not a headmaster. So, why is this a problem, couldn't a few adjustments be made and the problem solved? Well, no.

If you continue to move through the headmaster, head-of-school transition and through the confusion with principal to the more recently used terms: head principle or senior administrator the bewilderment intensifies. The boundaries have become as distinct as the impressionism of a Monet painting or Debussy arabesques.

While the title headmaster is usually loosely defined as "head of a preparatory school," the responsibilities are traditionally well defined. As the only employee responsibilities to the board, everyone else reporting to the headmaster, human resources expectations are intense. The headmaster implements policies, makes major decisions, and delegates work essentially serving as the "chief executive officer."

The public generally confuses a headmaster with a principal. When asked for clarification I have kept the distinction in my response simple. "If you wish to meet with the headmaster you will need to schedule an appointment. This is necessary because at least 60% of the headmaster's time is away from the school acting as an advocate for the school, sharing the "brand" for student recruitment and meeting with donors and prospects "closing" gifts.

On the other hand, while you will probably need to make an appointment to meet with the principal, the principal will most always be in the building, but not necessarily in the office. It is the responsibility of the principal to oversee day-to-day operations, solve problems, and enforce discipline. The principal is more like a "chief operating officer," clearly understanding responsibilities and very careful not to over-reach into the headmaster's arena. This relationship is the same as that of college president and provost.

By now you should understand why the aforementioned headmaster candidate, a good friend of mine, with the "short tenure" didn't work out so well. His understanding of the job and that of the hiring board didn't coincide; actually he felt he had been misled. The reason for this unfortunate case and that in so many other Christian schools is that a tight, well-defined "job description" does not exist. Furthermore even when some sort of document can be found, inattentive or perhaps inept governors, managers, or trustees do not make a point of a careful review of that document in preparation for the hiring practice.

So, with this existing confusion between "headmaster" and "principal," what then is a "head administrator?" Now that's a "horse of a different color" needing separate time and space covered in "Part Two" of this discussion!