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The Changing Role of the Principal: Leading Schools in Turbulent Times

The position of principals in Ontario has become increasingly complex. 1Principals are having to balance competing sets of demands. School boundaries have become more and more transparent. The new curriculum, parent and community demands, government policy, changing technology, and staff morale issues have all contributed to a complex school environment.

Principals are taking on roles which are still in the process of being defined and refined throughout the province. Changes which have contributed to these new roles include:

  • increase in class size in grades 4 to 8 and secondary schools;
  • proposed new processes and procedures regarding hiring teachers;
  • responsibilities in undertaking teacher performance appraisals;
  • role and authority as a member of the school council;
  • administration of tests under the Education Quality and Accountability Office Act, 1996;
  • new duties and responsibilities under the safe schools amendments to the Education Act;and
  • an enhanced role as a member of the school board management team.

The position of principal and vice-principal requires an ability to manage and lead in turbulent times. It is a role with enhanced responsibilities as senior administrator, team leader and statesperson.

Recent education reforms have created new relationships and demands on principals and vice-principals.

Section 8 of the School Boards Collective Bargaining Act, 2014 provides that principals and vice-principals are not eligible to be members of any bargaining unit of employees of a school board. They are clearly members of management and have duties and responsibilities to conduct performance appraisals and supervise teachers and other personnel in their school or under their authority.

In this regard, there has been a “cultural shift” in the education community.2  It is essential that principals, vice-principals, teachers and school staff develop an understanding of each other’s roles and responsibilities.3

On March 15, 2019, Education Minister Lisa Thompson announced plans to increase class size for high school and some elementary grades, as part of a sweeping change to the province’s education system which included proposed changes to the teacher hiring regulation, banning cellphones in the classroom, a “back-to-basics” approach to math, revised sex-education curriculum and required e-learning courses. 4The Ford government have indicated that they are committed to “modernizing” classrooms in Ontario.

Increase in Class Size

The minister indicated that over the next four years, the average class size would increase by one student in grades 4 to 8, and from 22 to 28 students in high school. These remarks immediately set the stage for a confrontation with the relevant teachers’ unions. Harvey Bishof, the president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), said that the change would provoke “massive resistance”.5

Mr. Bishof indicated that the class size increases would mean a reduction of more than 20 per cent of teaching positions in high schools. He said that increasing class sizes would mean schools would have a difficult time offering as many specialized classes, such as technology studies, that require smaller classes of students. He predicted that classes in core subjects, such as math, could grow to as high as 40 students.

The Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) said that the class increases from grades 4 through to high school would result in the loss of 5,000 teaching positions in its schools. Liz Stuart, the president of OECTA, stated that her union will “use all means” to fight the changes. Ms. Stuart said that “there is no doubt that increasing class sizes will make Ontario’s intermediate and high school classrooms more crowded, more chaotic and less productive”.6

Sam Hammond, the president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), said that while he appreciates that the government listened to concerns about class sizes in the primary grades, he’s “very disappointed” with what is planned. “We’ve already said that we are absolutely opposed to that, and we’ll do whatever we need to defend class size averages that are reasonable, from kindergarten to grade 12.”7

At the news conference announcing the new changes, the minister asserted that “Not one teacher, not one, will lose their job because of our class-size strategy”.8The minister stated that the reductions will take place over four years. She indicated that the changes will come through retirements, resignations and other attrition. Asked about the resistance from the teachers’ unions to class size increases, the minister said that Ontario has one of the lowest student-teacher ratios among provinces that have restrictions on class sizes, and the increase would align it with other jurisdictions.

Over the last number of months, the government has held a series of consultations both with education stakeholders and the broader public on a range of issues from class sizes in primary and staffing in full-day kindergarten to a cellphone ban in classrooms and rewriting the controversial sex-ed curriculum.

Minister Thompson confirmed that the government will not change class sizes in kindergarten, nor will it remove the cap of 23 students in grades 1 to 3.

Under the ministry’s plan, the average class size requirements in secondary schools would be adjusted from 22 to 28 students. The ministry takes the view that this change in class size aligns with secondary class sizes in other provinces across Canada. School boards would be required to maintain a board-wide average class size of 28 or less and the funded average class size would be increased to 28 to support this change.9

A memorandum issued by Nancy Naylor, the Deputy Minister of Education, to the Directors of Education on March 15, 2019, indicated that although these are “proposed changes” for the 2019-20 school year, the “government looks forward to the continued consultation with education partners to help shape the government’s plans”. Ms. Naylor stated that the consultation period will continue until May 31, 2019. She committed that to provide families, staff and school boards with certainty on the government’s direction, it will move forward on next steps, including any required legislation, in time for the next school year.10

Notwithstanding the commitment to continue to consult with families, staff and school boards, the intent of the ministry’s announcement was to provide school boards with information to build their budgets and staffing models for the 2019/2020 school year.

The concern arises that fewer teachers will mean reduced options for students and less adults in the schools to supervise. 11The government has spent a lot of time talking about preparing students for the future, however, fewer teachers will result in larger classes, fewer courses and loss of expertise in our schools. This reduction of teachers in secondary schools will likely lead to a loss of programs that have smaller class sizes that serve specialized students.12

Changes to the Teaching Hiring Regulation

The ministry announced there would be changes to the teacher hiring regulation. Ontario Regulation 274/12 under the Education Act, established mandatory processes that all English-language school boards must follow when hiring long-term occasional and permanent teachers.13  The expectation is that the Regulation will be revised in June or July of 2019.

The ministry has confirmed that its objective is to work with education partners to improve teacher mobility while increasing transparency, fairness, consistency and accountability in teacher hiring across all school boards. The goal of the ministry is to ensure that “principals are able to hire teachers based on merit who are a good fit for the role”.14

Banning Cellphones in Classrooms

The government announced that it would ban cellphones in classrooms unless certain exceptions apply. Use of personal mobile devices during instructional time will be permitted under the following circumstances:

  • for educational purposes, as directed by the teacher;
  • for health and medical purposes; or
  • to support special education needs.

The ministry stated that school boards and stakeholders will be consulted to ensure students and parents are clear on the new guidelines.15

New Math Strategy

The government announced a new four-year math strategy to ensure students have a strong understanding of math fundamentals and how to apply them. The plan is to phase in a new math curriculum that moves away from the current approach known as discovery math. The ministry stated that new strategy will:

  • improve student performance in math;
  • help students solve everyday math problems; and
  • increase students’ employability into the jobs of tomorrow.

The new curriculum will emphasize basic concepts and skills contributing to students’ future success and be accompanied by parent and teacher resources. The first elements of the new curriculum will be available in September 2019.16

Revised Health and Physical Education Curriculum (HPE)

The minister indicated that the province would implement a new “age-appropriate” HPE curriculum.

Students will learn the proper names of body parts in grade 1, as they did under the previous 2015 curriculum introduced by the Liberal government. Students will also begin to learn about positive body images in grades 2 and 3, family and healthy relationships in grade 2 and consent and online safety in grades 2 and 3.

In the new curriculum, students will not learn about gender identity and gender expression until grade 8. In the 2015 curriculum, students were taught those topics in grade 6.

In grades 7 to 8, students will begin to learn about important topics such as sexting, contraception, tolerance and respect, intercourse and sexually transmitted infections.

The ministry has indicated that to ensure parents are respected, it would provide an “opt-out” policy so parents would be able to exempt their children from sexual-health education.17  The government is still working through the process on how this opt-out would work. The ministry is also proposing to provide an opportunity for families to use educational materials online to teach the subject at home.

New E-learning Courses

In addition, the ministry stated that starting in the 2020/2021 school year, it will centralize the delivery of e-learning courses to allow students greater access to programming and educational opportunities. The e-learning classes will have an average class size of 35.

Secondary students will take a minimum of four e-learning credits out of the 30 credits needed to fulfill the requirements for achieving an Ontario Secondary School Diploma. In this regard, students will be required to take one credit per year online, with exemptions for some students on an individualized basis.

The Principal’s Role is Becoming Increasingly Complex

All of these current and proposed revisions will result in further changes in the principals’ duties and responsibilities. For example, the revisions to the class size regulation may make secondary school staffing and timetabling more difficult and will likely lead to larger classes, fewer courses and loss of expertise in schools. The new ban on cell phones in classrooms, with specific exceptions, will likely be difficult to enforce and administer for school administrators. The new sex-ed curriculum will likely result in additional challenges for elementary school principals where parents apply to exempt their children from sexual-health education. On the other hand, once finalized, the new processes and procedures for hiring teachers should give principals more flexibility in finding staff that are a good fit for their school. Overall, the current and proposed changes to the Education Act, its regulations and Ministry policies will add significant complexity to the principals’ role.

Principals have a critical role to play in leading change in the school as an organization. Researchers have made a distinction between leadership and management, and emphasize that both are essential. Leadership relates to mission, direction and inspiration. Management involves designing and carrying out plans, getting things done and working effectively with people.18

Important requirements for leadership involve: (i) articulating a vision; (ii) getting shared ownership; (iii) evolutionary planning; (iv)creating a collaborative school culture; and (v) fostering staff development. Management involves: (i) negotiating demands and resources; and (ii) coordinated and persistent problem-solving. It should be recognized that both sets of characteristics are essential and must be blended within the same person or team.19

Researchers have attempted to unravel the meaning of problem-solving by attempting to examine how “expert” principals go about solving actual problems. They found that successful principals took action to strengthen their schools’ improvement culture. In addition, researchers concluded that effective principals fostered long-term staff development, engaged in direct and frequent communication about cultural norms and values, and shared power and responsibility with others.20

Professor Rosenholtz, an expert in education management and governance, points out that an effective principal is a collaborative teacher who makes continuous improvements in the school as an organization. She states:

“Great principals do not pluck their acumen and resourcefulness straight out of the air. In our data, successful schools weren’t led by philosopher kings with supreme character and unerring method, but by a steady accumulation of common wisdom and hope distilled from vibrant, shared experience both with teacher leaders in schools and colleagues district wide.”21

The role of the principal is not solely one of implementing innovations in specific classrooms. There is a limit to how much time a principal can spend in individual classrooms. The larger goal is to transform the culture of the school. This points to the centrality of the role of the principal in working with teachers to shape the school as a workplace with shared goals, teacher learning opportunities and teacher commitment, focused on student learning.

The revisions to the Education Act over the past decade and the changes that are being implemented this year by the Ford government have created and will continue to create a sea of changes in the education environment across the province. More than ever, principals need to understand their legal rights and responsibilities. An awareness of the legal framework and an understanding of the past and current changes to the Education Act, its regulations and Ministry policies are critical to ensure that our school leaders are successful and effective in their role.


1 E. Roher and M. Lipinski,An Educator’s Guide to the Role of the Principal, Third Edition, Toronto: Thomson Reuters, 2019.

2 J. Judson and K. Tranquilli, “The Changing Role of the Principal: Life After Bill 160”, in W.F. Foster and W.J. Smith, eds.,Focusing on the Future: Seeking Legal and Policy Solutions in Education(Georgetown: Canadian Association for the Practical Study of Law in Education, 2000), p. 257.

3 Ibid., at p. 258.

4 Nancy Naylor, "New Vision for Education,"Ontario Ministry of Education, 2019:B08 memo, March 15, 2019.

5 Caroline Alphonso, “Ford government to increase class sizes, modify sex-ed and math curricula,”The Globe and Mail,March 15, 2019.

6 Ibid.

7 Kristin Rushowy, “Ford Government announces hikes to high school class size, but no changes to kindergarten,The Toronto Star, March 15, 2019.

8 Caroline Alphonso,op. cit. at footnote 5.

9 New Vision for Education,op. cit. at footnote 4, at p. 2.

10 Ibid. at p. 2.

11 Paul Hunter, “Ontario’s Plan to raise class sizes will lead to loss of 800 public high school teaching jobs in Toronto, TDSB documents shows,”The Toronto Star, March 17, 2019.

12 Ibid.

13 New Vision for Education,op. cit. at footnote 4, at p. 3.

14 Ibid., at p.4.

15 Ibid.,at pp 5-6.

16 Ibid., at p. 6.

17 Ibid., at p. 8.

18 M. Fullan,Successful School Improvement:  The Implementation Perspective and Beyond (Toronto:  OISE Press, 1992), at p. 85.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid., at p. 86.

21 Ibid.