A good principal can be the difference between a school that thrives and one that struggles. Great principals can make real differences in all aspects of a school’s welfare, as well as in the lives of their staff and students. Research shows that having an effective principal in secondary schools is essential to attracting, supporting, and retaining high-quality teaching staff. The same research also shows that effective principals positively impact student achievement. Just think back and you’ll probably recall one or two memories of your favorite principal.
To showcase their complex, often humorous, and always demanding jobs, we’ve gathered a list of the best - and a few of the worst - principals from popular culture. These characters are memorable for the way they inspired administrators, wrangled unruly parents, or made a lasting— if somewhat unorthodox—impression on their students. They will hopefully bring a smile to your face and may even put some of your least favorite administrative experiences into perspective. For better or worse, these are the 10 most memorable principals from TV and film.
Principal Skinner, The Simpsons
Skinner’s character was the stereotypical “educational bureaucrat” with a heart of gold. He genuinely cared about his students but was often underestimated and exhibited an insecure, non-confrontational disposition, caused in part by his overbearing mother. Most of Principal Skinner’s efforts throughout the series revolved around securing resources for the chronically underfunded Springfield Elementary, and trying to improve the quality of education for his students. Despite having a strict disciplinarian background Principal Skinner was the frequent victim of pranks, vandalisms and other mischiefs, caused almost entirely by Bart Simpson.
Dean Edward R. Rooney, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Ed Rooney was not what most would consider a “good” Dean of Students; he knocked out a dog, broke into a student’s home, and spent most of his time stalking suspected truants. His one professional and personal purpose in life was to take down Ferris Bueller. But despite his clear role as a villain in one of John Hughes’ most popular movies, he still elicited sympathy. After he wasted the entire movie on a wild goose chase, his car was towed and impounded, his suit and reputation destroyed, and he had to hitch a ride back to work on the school bus.
Principal Carl Moss, King of the Hill
Throughout the series, Principal Moss was always at the center of Tom Landry Middle School’s minor scandals including when he: raised money for a staff vacation by installing vending machines that sold sugary beverages exclusively; placed below-average learners who were not learning disabled into special education classes that prevented them from taking standardized state tests; and he even faked a heart attack to avoid casting the tie-breaking vote during a Tom Landry PTA meeting. Principal Moss constantly rejected teachers’ requests for supplies, citing budget cuts as the reason. Principal Moss’ corner-cutting—though exaggerated—exemplified what could happen if someone who underestimated the responsibilities of a principalship was put in charge of a school.
Principal Angela Li, Daria
Principal Li ruled the halls of Lawndale High with an iron fist and smartly tailored pantsuit. Despite the show coming out in 1997, her character did a good—if not over-the-top—job foreshadowing some of the stricter security measures that have since become commonplace at some schools. Things like bomb-sniffing dogs, fingerprinting and urine tests were completely normal at Lawndale High. Aside from her obsession with safety, Principal Li was known for her extreme corruption and inability to handle the school’s budget. In fact, one of the running jokes in the series revolved around how much money she spent despite being so tight-fisted about employee benefits and raises.
Principal Duvall, Mean Girls
Quirky, funny and just a tad unprofessional, Principal Duvall was the forward-thinking leader of North Shore High School. Even though he graduated from DePaul University, he displayed a Northwestern University pennant in his office. He helped calm the riot started by the mean girls’ Burn Book and had a crush on Ms. Norbury, that finally blossomed at the end of the movie when the two danced at the Spring Fling event. Interestingly, Duvall was the only character from Mean Girls that also appeared in Mean Girls 2, and his relationship with Ms. Norbury was never again referenced.
Principal Belding, Saved By The Bell
Richard Belding, the beloved Principal of Bayside High School was known for his high-pitched laugh and catchphrase of “Hey, hey, hey, what is going on here?” Principal Belding was able to maintain a friendly relationship with the students of Bayside High, while still fulfilling the authoritative responsibilities of his position. Principal Belding genuinely cared about the students, what they thought about him, and doing the right thing. It was easy to see why Mr. Belding was the most popular TV principal of the 1990s.
Principal Gerald Strickland, Back to the Future
Mr. Strickland was perhaps one of the best examples of a classic disciplinarian. In his 30+ year career as principal and disciplinarian of Hill Valley High School, his head was always clean-shaven and his bow tie crisp. Mr. Strickland patrolled his halls with the tenacity of a bulldog, barking at any “slackers” he found wandering. His strong sense of discipline was hereditary. He came from a long line of military men, one of whom was the original sheriff at odds with “Mad Dog” Tannen in Back to The Future III.
Principal Arthur Himbry, Scream
Despite his unfortunate end as the third victim of Ghostface, Principal Himbry was a positive example for the students of Woodsboro High School. He had a tough-love attitude and didn’t hesitate to suspend those who made light of the school’s unfortunate circumstances—albeit with some pretty inappropriate language. Himbry set a good example when he cooperated with the police department, and kept the students in line, but he didn’t hold much sway over the parents and was out of touch with the student body. Too bad for Principal Himbry, he met his demise while working after hours at the school. Ironically, the character of Principal Himbry was played by Happy Days’ cool-guy Henry Winkler, aka The Fonz.
Principal Joe Clark, Lean on Me
Some of the best pop culture principals were based on real life stories, and such is the case for Lean on Me’s Principal Clark. In 1987, when one New Jersey high school was riddled with drugs, gangs, and violence, Joe Clark, a man with the nickname of “Crazy Joe,” was made principal. Principal Clark made some immediate changes; however, his brash actions caused strong reactions from the parents, some of whom tried to have him fired. His positive results triumphed in the end. Principal Clark’s methodology effectively saved the high school from being turned over to state administration by increasing the student exam pass rate to over 75 percent.
Principal McKenna, Hard Lessons
Rounding out our list is one more shining example of what a determined principal can achieve. The movie Hard Lessons, also known as The George McKenna Story, is based on the true life story of a man who sacrificed everything to do the right thing for his students. In the movie, Principal McKenna sacrificed his personal and romantic life for the betterment of his school. The tale took place at Washington Preparatory High School in 1979 Los Angeles. His first day on the job he had to break up gang initiations and put out hallway fires, all while being met with resistance from parents and the teaching staff, most of whom assumed he wouldn’t last, at every step of the way. But because he had such a deep commitment to the students and community, his efforts successfully turned around the school. Today, the attendance rate at Washington Prep is 90 percent and there is a waiting list to attend.
Do you think this list does a good job of highlighting the most memorable school principals on tv or in the movies? Are there others you’d include or some you’d eliminate? Tell us what you think in the comments!
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(All images sourced from YouTube.)