Michael Beyer is a former teacher and principal in the Chicago Public School District. Michael taught and worked as a principal at several schools in Chicago. He shared his honest perspective on working as a principal, and provided advice for anyone thinking about taking this path. During our discussions, Michael also shared his belief in the importance of saving money for the unexpected challenges life may bring, especially if someone decides they want to change careers, like he did (Michael now works in real estate).
Date of Interview:July 11, 2021
Teacher then principal [and now real estate]
Employer while working as a Teacher/Principal
Chicago Public Schools. Worked at W.E.B. Du Bois Elementary School; Alfred Nobel Elementary School; Morrill Math & Science Elementary School; Ogden International School of Chicago
Industry you work in
Education (former); Real Estate (currently)
City you work in
[Compensation data was not provided by the interviewee. The below compensation information was retrieved from Glassdoor.com data. These averages come from compensation data that is self-reported by employees of various institutions.]
$149,911 is the average base salary for a Principal in the United States. Generally, public school employee salaries are available as public information.
Years as a Principal?
Three years as high school principal 2004 to 2006 at Du Bois.
2004 to 2006 at Du Bois
2006-2009 at Alfred Nobel
2010 in Central Office
2011 – 2015 at Morrill
2015-2018 at Ogden
Years working in your field, including time at previous employers
I started substitute teaching at Walsh Elementary School in Pilsen. When I got my degree, my first full time teaching job was at Du Bois Elementary School on the far south side of Chicago.
I taught at Du Bois for 1.5 years, then their enrollment dropped. From there, I went to Nobel Elementary in Humboldt Park. I taught mainly 5th-6th grades. I’m high energy, so at both schools I was always looking for things to get involved in. I always volunteered for any committees where they needed a teacher. I think it’s good advice for any career – no task is too small. You should never put yourself above anything. Even as a principal, I wouldn’t hesitate to grab a mop and clean up a spill in the lunchroom. Demonstrate that you are not above any other job.
Since I was always helping with other initiatives, people began to see me as a leader and would tell me I would make a good principal.
Can you describe your educational background?
I started with art, but it was not what I thought it would be, so I dropped out. I joined the air force (did avionics) in England and then finished my bachelor’s degree in psychology at an overseas extension college with limited degree options. There was a business option that may have been a better idea for me in retrospect, but I wasn’t interested at the time. I returned to the US after an honorable discharge and pursued a Master’s of Art History program at UIC [University of Illinois at Chicago] using my GI Bill. I wanted to go back overseas and teach at an extension college after completing the master’s program, since I had taken classes in Europe previously.I ended up meeting my wife in the program upon my return to the US and settled down. I did try to work in the art world, but it was not the right fit for me. A lot of patience is required to sit in an art gallery all day, especially for a high-energy person like me.
I knew I needed to make a decent income if I wanted to support a family without struggling like my parents had. After deciding to pursue education instead,I went back to get a second master’s degree in teaching from Chicago State University.
I got two masters degrees, paid for by the military. It’s a fantastic option, if you can’t afford college. Despite being an anti-war individual, I encourage kids who are middle and lower class to join the military, especially the Air Force, where you are far from combat. When you use your GI bill in college, you get 120 hours at college, plus over $1,000/month cash. I didn’t have to pay for college, other than for some small fees/books.
From there I started looking for doctoral programs, as I also had an interest in teaching at the college level. I found one at UIC – a Doctor of Education (EdD). Also, I did a paid internship (i.e. a resident principal for one year). This fast forwarded me into administration. It was a highly selective program – only about 12 people per year. I did my residency at Talman Elementary and spent a year in the Central Office in the performance management department. While doing performance management, I was deployed across much of Chicago working with principals at low performing schools to help them improve their metrics. I got to know one school, Morrill, and their principal was retiring. I applied and got my first principal gig and worked there for four years.
What college did you go to?
Art – University of Texas at Austin
MA Art History – University of Illinois at Chicago
MA Teaching – Chicago State University
Doctor of Education (EdD) – University of Illinois at Chicago
What is the minimum required schooling or training for your job?
It’s changed over the years. You could potentially become a principal after just teaching in Chicago. You would need a principal endorsement which requires some schooling [master’s degree] and some other requirements. Now that there are so many other options (e.g. charter schools, private schools, religious schools), the requirements can vary and at some places, you could become a principal much quicker than probably should be allowed.
Do you feel that your school’s reputation had a significant impact on getting a job in your field?
Yes, going to Chicago State University helped. When I was interviewing at Du Bois, I was sitting there with my suit and tie as a young guy in my early thirties and the principal came out. She was a black woman and just kind of looked past me while saying “I’ll be with you in a second.” She thought because I went to Chicago State University, which is a historically black college, that I was going to be a black man. Du Bois was also primarily a school with black students and black teachers.
We need more black teachers and especially black males in elementary. Males generally gravitate towards high school. So getting a black male teacher in elementary school, or even just a male teacher in elementary school is rare. So that kind of helped me get my foot in the door. Going to Chicago State University helped open my eyes a lot, so I think it was useful to get a job in teaching.
Also, attending UIC helped my career as a principal. People tend to think the more prestigious a university you go to, the better off you are. UIC is a great college, but it isn’t considered prestigious. It would probably be considered a middle tier university. However, UIC is so ingrained in the local educational environment that it was probably more helpful than if I went to Harvard.
Job Demand & Stability
How long did it take to land your first job in your field after graduating?
I started my career first as a teacher, then as an administrator. I finished my program and got my teaching certificate at an odd time. I finished in December and was looking for a job in December and January. That’s the middle of the school year, and there aren’t many openings during that time. I ended up taking a job far away, since I was impatient. The process took a month or two.
For my principal career, it took longer [about a year]. I had my license from the Illinois State Board of Education, but CPS has their own internal criteria for principals. I didn’t pass their test at first, despite getting a doctorate and national board certification. I ended up passing the test later to get on the approved list. Some people are more fortunate and they’ll get a principal job at the first school they apply to. A good friend of mine only applied to one school and got the job. It really varies.
Did you have any internships?
I did a paid internship (i.e. a resident principal for one year) as part of my Doctoral of Education program.
Assuming you were currently a principal, If you lost your job tomorrow, would it be difficult to get a similar or better job?
I think I would find a job extremely easily because, once you have a proven track record, then you can get another job. In fact, I could go back and be a principal right now.
Nature of Job and Schedule
Describe your day-to-day activities [what does a principal do?]
That’s hard to summarize, but there are two themes principals focus on. The first is academics – to ensure the teaching and learning are top-notch. Teachers are most effective when they have the best and most rigorous curriculum. This also involves making sure the students are engaged.
The second broad theme that principals focus on is the culture and climate of the school. I would say the culture and climate of the school is probably even more important than the academics. You’d have to be very egotistical as a principal to think that you are such a great educator that you could provide advice to every single teacher in the building. Whether a principal is an administrator of an elementary or a high school, probably half the teachers in the building are teaching things that the principal has never taught. For example, I taught fourth through sixth grade, but I never taught kindergarten and first-grade. I would not have a clue how to teach those grades. Also, I was a principal at a high school and I never taught at that level. I wasn’t even that good at math in high school. So what kind of advice could I give to a high school honors math teacher on their curriculum? There are ways you can coach teachers, but it’s on their instructional strategies.
Ultimately, I truly believe the most powerful thing a principal does on a day-to-day basis is ensure the school’s culture and climate is safe and supportive for all people including teachers, students, parents, and community. Whoever walks into that building should feel safe and supported, and also excited and invigorated to learn. If a principal creates this environment, it’s like a magical mixture where teachers start challenging each other in a good, friendly manner. It influences collaboration to get better at their craft and they’ll give each other advice. If that environment is created, which we created at Morrill [Math & Science Academy], it really becomes magical, but it’s hard to do.
Describe your daily and weekly schedule
Monday-Friday is 10-12 hours per day, and there are obligations on weekends, too. To a certain extent, if you’re not putting in the time, then you’re not doing the job. Although, I think it can be less the longer you do the job. I have former colleagues who had worked at their school for ten or fifteen years and they had only eight hour days. The longer you stay at the same school, then you can create systems and routines that help. It really depends on the type of school and the situation.
Being a principal is a seven days per week job, in my opinion because principals deal with people’s children. To some extent, one of my mistakes was probably allowing the responsibilities to creep into my [personal] time. But there can be serious emergencies with children and parents need to get a hold of the principal. On the southwest side [of Chicago], kids would be shot on the weekends. I had to answer calls from the Safety and Security department, so I was basically on call all the time. Parents had my phone number and would text me or call me. Also, there are weekend and weeknight school events (e.g. sports) where you are expected to make an appearance. The job can really take over your life, if you allow it to.
What parts of your job are repetitive?
Probably all the forms and Excel spreadsheets the school district expected me to complete. There was never any feedback received on the forms and I never knew how they were using them. I had to fill these things out a million times for any new reason the district would come up with.
What parts of your job require learning or performing new duties/responsibilities?
Education is a field that is constantly changing, probably to a detriment. Education has way too many fads. If you learn the constructivist methods that have been around for almost a century now, that’s all that’s necessary to know. But people are constantly repackaging it and calling it a new version of sliced bread so principals have to go to training to learn the newest way to make a sandwich. There is a responsibility to stay on top of educational fads. Because a principal’s main job is managing people, they really have to go to training to push themselves to make sure they are performing well. It’s easy to get into a rut managing people poorly. It’s not necessarily new training, but you have to refresh your mindset on working with people.
Describe the setting you work in most
All over the place – the office, classrooms, lunchrooms, the hallways. There’s not an inch of the school I did not step foot in. I know some principals who spent the majority of their time in the office, but I would argue they are probably not as effective as principals that scour the school making sure everything is alright.
Describe the nature and frequency of working with other people while doing your job
It’s constant. I would search for places to hide so I could do some work in peace and I don’t think I ever found a place where I was not found. I read a study that said the average principal has something like a thousand interactions a day – many could be micro encounters of a second or less, but I was constantly working with others – students, teachers, staff, and parents.
Does your job require travel?
Not much other than the occasional conference.
What is the most enjoyable or rewarding part of your job?
When students share genuine appreciation for something that I did. I could tell when it’s genuine, versus something forced by a parent for example. Also, watching kids enjoy school in some way is the best. Seeing kids enjoy learning or be surprised, amazed or curious, then its great.
What is the most challenging or stressful part of your job?
Dealing with the emotions of adults. Adults can get emotional, then they get irrational and no matter what you say to them, it does not solve the issue because they get stuck in this state of panic about their children or their job. It can be a huge challenge. I used to joke that I used my psychology degree more often than my education degree.
Does your job provide work/life balance?
No, but that’s unique to Chicago Public Schools or schools like Chicago Public Schools. I have plenty of colleagues who have left the district and have gone to the suburbs or other states. They all say Chicago Public Schools are insane. I think you can have a work life balance. I have a friend who got a job at a north shore elementary school and his superintendent told him that he just wants him to manage the front office and it’s basically a 9AM-5PM gig. So I think, in other districts, you can have work/life balance.
How much time off do you take from work?
We got about 20 days of vacation per year and used most of it during the summer or during winter break when the kids are off. In the summer I’d still work full days, but it’s reduced hours and I could wear shorts and flip flops. I dealt with other issues during the summer like budgeting and hiring. Despite what people might think, the summer is often the most stressful time for principals. Some schools also host summer school, but there’s no extra pay for it.
Any interesting/enjoyable perks of your job?
I got to use the gym for my kid’s birthday one time. Also, at Ogden there were more perks because there was more wealth. There are always presents wherever a principal works but the wealthier school districts end up getting nicer gifts. One teacher I knew received a MacBook and another received a diamond necklace. They should not have accepted those gifts as they violated ethics rules, but they were before I was principal. The best thing I received was a nice bottle of whiskey. I made sure it was below the $50 limit before I took a sip.
Why did you pick your job?I got into teaching because I knew I needed to make a decent income if I wanted to support a family without struggling like my parents had. My in-laws lived comfortably from teaching careers which sparked my interest, too.
When I was teaching in Humboldt Park, I started to become frustrated with various initiatives teachers had to deal with. People also told me that I would make a good principal/leader based on my interest in volunteering for so many different school programs.
Advice For Success
What advice would you provide to someone on how to become a school principal?
First, teach for 5-10 years then decide if you want to be a principal. It’s more a long-term job and you have to understand teaching pretty well. I think I jumped into administration too soon and wanted to fix all the issues in the district. If I had taken my time and taught maybe five more years, then I might not have even gone into administration because I would’ve had a better sense of the insanity.