Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Sad Truth About Most Principals: We Care So Much It Hurts

So, today, I made the rounds to some inner-city schools about two hours north of my home. One school I visited touch my heart and I'm having a difficult time getting it out of my head.

The school is a K-6 elementary school in a predominantly Aftrican-American district. The district is the only predominantly African-American district in the city that remains accredited by the state. That's pretty amazing. They must be doing something right there.

I arrived at 1:00p.m. and discovered that the principal and I had crossed our appointment times and she was expecting me at 1:30. I told her it was absolutely no problem and that I would be happy to wait for her.

The office was pretty small to begin with and it was PACKED with kids. Most of them appeared to be between second and fourth grade students. It was pretty chaotic in there and the Principal was heavily engaged in conflict resolution and just maintaining order. Some students were seated at two small tables. They were obviously working on some missing homework or classwork. I smiled and walked out of the office to take a seat on a bench outside in the main hallway.

Sitting out there allowed me to watch students and teachers come and go and interact with one another. In my 30 minute wait, I observed the following:

1. Nice straight lines of kindergarten students taking a restroom break. They were in pretty nice little rows and just about every one of them gave me a little wave and a smile. I waved back and I smiled broadly. They were so sweet and innocent looking. Some had little pigtails, others had braids, one little boy had a mohawk, another child had lots and lots of colorful beads in her hair and others just had "normal" hair.

2. I also noticed the clothing the children were wearing. I thought it might be a uniform because there were a lot of pastel pullover polos but I also saw plenty of kids in t-shirts. Many of the children had clothes with holes in them. Some of the clothes were dingy and threadbear. There were others who had nice clothing that looked relatively new. Typically, their shoes were in a similar condition to their clothes. My heart broke a bit for the children with the threadbear, dingy and holey clothes.

3. The table to my immediate right had a sign above it that said "Peace Table" on it. I wondered what that was about until two 5th or 6th grade girls who had come in to the office came back out, sat down at the table and began to have a "conversation":
Girl 1: Why are you mad at me?
Girl 2: Because you called me a H-O-E! (I smiled and looked away when she spelled it. I wondered if she realized she'd spelled out the gardening tool and not the slang word for whore.)
G1: I did not call you that. I don't know who told you that, but that's not what I said.
G2: You DID call me a H-O-E and you been turning people fake on me!
G1: Whatchoo mean I'm turning people fake on you?
G2: You making Tawanna fake, you making Ashley fake, you making Sharay fake!
G1: How am I making them fake?
G2: I don't even know how to explain it to you!
And the conversation went on and on and on. It was obvious that Girl 1 had a much better vocabulary and was better at controlling her language and temper.

Girl 2 was becoming more demonstrative with her nonverbal actions: her foot was tapping, she was flailing her arms around, she would slap a foot down, she would slink down in the chair, her eyes would roll, her head would loll around. She was absolutely at a loss as to how to explain herself other than to repeat the same phrase over and over: You making them fake! Because of her lack of words, her lack of a command of the English language, she was unable to express herself clearly and it was frustrating her tremendously.

Girl 1, I think, was aware that she was winning this battle of words but was kind enough to offer Girl 2 multiple opportunities and ways to explain what she meant. For Girl 2, this must have appeared like an attempt to frustrate or embarrass Girl 1. She was being as clear as she could and it wasn't HER fault that Girl 1 couldn't understand it.

4. Two boys in probably 5th or 6th grade stopped by to introduce themselves to me. Both held out hands, asked me my name and told me theirs. It was obvious that they were in the Special Education class but I was notably impressed with their excellent manners. I smiled as I thought of how I would tell my wife about them. She works with kids with disabilities and it makes her smile to hear about my encounters with them.

5. One second or third grade boy came strolling down the hall like he was in a mall just looking in the storefronts. He strolled up to me, stuck out his hand, introduced himself and asked me my name. This kid had a sparkle in his eye along with a hint of mishcief. I asked him how he was and whether he liked the school. He told me he did. He then offered to sit beside me and talk for a while but I suggested that he make his way to his original destination. He gave me a knowing grin and walked off after telling me to have a nice day. (I wasn't a principal for five years without learning the look of a con man, even if he was only in second or third grade.) Again, I smiled to myself as he sauntered away.

6. There were some loud teachers in different parts of the building. I could hear raised voices. One male voice I heard repeatedly. He sounded angry or frustrated and he was having a hard time getting the students to do what he wanted.

I was finally called in by the secretary. She looked frazzled and she apologized for my wait. I walked past the Peace Table and the girls were still going at it. It appeared to me that the Peace Table had become a Frustration Table as I walked on by. In the office, I walked through a small gauntlet of little people. Several asked me why I was there. The secretary told them to be quiet and get back to work. She wasn't mean, just matter of fact.

I walked into the principal's office and was greeted by a lovely and elegant African American lady sitting behind a desk piled with papers and assorted books, brochures, pens, and the random junk that we tend to accumulate. She smiled faintly at me and apologized for my wait. Her phone rang, she answered it and pointed to a chair for me to sit in.

I sat and waited for her to get off the phone. As I waited, I noticed the peace sign pillows, tons and tons and tons of books, some dolls placed on delicately balanced books, and her diplomas on the walls along with a few posters.

She got off the phone, I introduced myself and began by telling her that I was a former junior high principal and that she had my deepest admiration and respect. She smiled at me and told me that it had been a particularly hard day.

We talked a bit about the planners I sell and what differentiates them from the competition. I showed her several different series and explained the content partnerships of each planner. She was interested and we talked a bit. While we talked, we were probably interupted no less than 10 times by students, the secretary and a teacher. Each time, our conversation paused, she addressed the issue and we resumed our talk.

At one point, as we were talking about a particular planner, she looked up, looked me in the eye and said, "Why did you get out?" The question was so out of place that it took me by surprise. I paused for a moment as I thought about how to answer her. This is always a tricky question. How deeply do I answer this question?

I looked at her and said, "There were a lot of factors that played into my decision. Family time was very important to me and very limited in my position. The requirements of NCLB were just stifling, too. It was just time for a change for me."

She looked at me for a few seconds and then, in a very soft voice that trembled just a bit, she said, "Sometimes I wonder why I do this. I feel like such a failure at times. I stay awake at night wondering what I've done wrong or how I can do better." As she finished speaking, she lowered her eyes and head for a second.

I'm rarely speechless, but this was a time for a little silence. I sat still until she looked up at me and, before she could speak, I said, "You are not a failure. I've been in that seat, with that stack of papers on my desk and with the insanity that is swirling around you today. I've wondered the same thing. I've lost sleep. I've been physically ill from worrying about my students or from wondering why we weren't making a difference and showing improvement."

She told me that she's been losing sleep over the issues she's facing this year.

We sat in silence for a few minutes before she said, "I don't know why I'm telling you all of this." I didn't respond, but I thought to myself: Because you NEED to tell someone you think might understand you and you NEED to be validated. I've been where you are. I remember feeling what you're feeling.

As we continued looking at planners and talking about resources, she mentioned to me that her children are so language-deprived. I was immediately taken to the conversation taking place at the Peace Table. She explained that many of her students come in so far behind where they should be in language. They are literally missing hundreds of words that should be in their vocabulary by kindergarten and first grade.

We talked about her own children. All are grown. Two of her daughters have master's degrees and one will graduate with a doctorate in pharmacology in May. Her son quit college his sophomore year but is working in technology. She was proud of them.

For whatever reason, she and I connected and we were able to feel a kindred spirit. We both cared passionately about the children we worked with. We both worried ourselves sick over what would happen to certain children when they got home. We both struggled with the fact that we love our own children enough to make education a priority and we were dealing with children from a social structure that doesn't value education. In many instances, that structure doesn't even value the child.

That's foreign to us. We can't understand it. We can't process it. It keeps us up at night. It makes us wonder where we are going wrong. It makes us ill.

It's a sad truth: Most principals care so much it hurts.


  1. Lovely writing. Sounds like stuff I've seen a millions times, too, but you have more insight.

  2. Outstanding! Sadly, some conditions are such that even an extraordinary sense of empathy, commitment and teaching skill cannot overcome numerous societal barriers blocking the achievement of academic success and much needed social skills.


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