Person of the Week
Elementary School Principal
If you want a job that is very diverse, changes from day to day……be an elementary school principal. It’s a very exciting field to be in…..
1. What led you to the mission of being an elementary school principal?
I was remembering a high school group talking about, “What do we want to be when we grow up?” Everybody had had different experiences with what they thought they wanted to be – like an accountant. My experience had been working at summer camp and visiting my dad’s sixth grade class. I really felt like working with children was the direction I needed to go.
I taught for one year while a lot of people were leaving education for a job in business. I thought, “Something must be going on, so maybe I’d better try business too.” In 1979 there was a recession and I left to work as a drill press operator, a photographer, and a shoe salesman. After a year of doing those three jobs, I thought, “I really miss the creativity of the teaching profession and being able to touch lives.” At the time, I had repetitive work — drilling pieces of metal — and I missed having variety from day to day. That idea brought me back into elementary education.
I went back to the classroom and started making the transition to education administration. A mentor said, “You have to make that mental break from being a classroom teacher to being an administrator. They are two different jobs.” That’s very difficult to do because during my first years as an administrator, I was still doing some teaching. For instance, as an administrator, I’d be on the phone with a parent, and suddenly the bell would ring for me to go and teach class. At that point, I recognized I wanted to do more of the administration.
My heart is still with the teaching part of the profession even though I’m working in the administrative end. Whenever I pick up a book to read, it isn’t so much about school leadership, but about teaching strategies and how to help children be successful. Here’s a good example. I went out and read books and went to conferences on differentiating instruction. Then I used our faculty meetings for the purpose of helping teachers gain strategies.
Now I’m working on a graduate program called the Online Educator. One of the courses is web development. I had never developed a web page before, so I developed several web pages that have to do with differentiation strategies. I’ve made that available to teachers at our school. Being able to help both teachers and students makes it fun to be in the professional development role.
2. What does this mission mean to you?
There are several aspects. First, this mission means I’m helping and encouraging the teachers to be the best that they can be — by keeping up with best practices and thinking creatively and in an inspired way about teaching. Second, I’m having direct interaction with students. Every morning I’m out in front of the school and greeting the students when they come in. I shake their hands and right away I can see if they are ready for a good day or if they are struggling with something. Sometimes they need a word of assurance that everything is going to be OK. I visit the classrooms, walk around, see the work they are doing, and sometimes I kneel down by a child and help with a math problem. I also work with the parents and help them understand how their children can progress. I help develop the relationship between the school and the home and continue to support that valuable partnership.
3. What was your best day as an elementary school principal?
I want to tell about two days that happened recently. One day I was reading about project based learning. Our faculty read a book together on that topic. Project based learning seemed like it was going to be a lot of hard work. Teachers were finding it hard to get motivated to go in that direction.
I brought in a teacher to present how he was doing project based learning in another school’s classroom. His example was so valuable for the teachers to hear. Afterwards one of the teachers came in and said, “Oh let me tell you. I’ve already changed a unit that I’m about to teach to make it project based learning.” It was very exciting to see how the right idea of bringing in this other teacher got our teachers excited about doing projects. The teachers here have continued doing really good projects with the students.
Another good day was this year’s autumn festival. The parents came in and joined the children and teachers at school. There is such a sense of community. We were able to interact informally with our families. We had parents and children playing games together with the teachers. We had the chance to talk with each other and get to know each other better. There’s a wonderful sense of community that comes forward at an activity like the fall festival.
4. What was your worst day as an elementary school principal?
I thought about what was my most challenging day. As an elementary school principal, I was sitting with a group of students who had been fighting with each other and playing pranks on each other. They were also doing things to annoy each other. This was not the first time that I had met with these individuals. I remember thinking, “Am I making any progress here?”
5. How did you survive your worst day?
This group gave me the opportunity to think very clearly about my role as a principal. When I hear of a discipline problem, there are different roles and hats that I have to play:
Investigator – I have to find out all the details of what happened.
Judge – I have to decide what really happened because people will have different perspectives about what took place.
Jury — I have to assign consequences.
Communicator – I have to talk to the parents. No parent loves getting a call that his or her child has been involved in a discipline situation, but I have to make that call. I have to communicate accurately what I know and what happened. At the same time I have to try to understand what they are feeling as a parent getting that phone call.
I have to help the parent see that we are going to be working as partners to help their child progress. That’s the resiliency part. I keep reminding myself that whenever we have discipline problems, we are trying to reach and change thought. It’s a character moment. Yes, it is a discipline moment, but it’s also a character education and training moment. That helps me keep that higher view of what this is all about.
I do find that there’s a lot of guidance and counseling that goes into working with the students. Yes there are often consequences, but the consequences themselves may not reach thought. It’s the discussions that are so important.
I work at a school location where I can watch children grow from division to division – preschool to high school — and that enables me to see the end results as the children grow up. Things that were big issues at one point in the elementary school have completely faded away. That helps me in my communication with parents. I can say, “This is a big deal at the moment, but we need to have the long view and recognize that this is just part of your child’s growth and character training. We don’t want to get so caught up in the moment that we forget that this is just part of helping them become who they are eventually going to be.” The children grow up to be fine and upstanding individuals.
6. What would you want to say to other people who might be thinking about being an elementary school principal?
I would say if you want a job that is very diverse, changes from day to day, gives you an opportunity to use your knowledge about education strategies, provides a place where you can use your people skills, puts you in situations to make careful observations, challenges you to think reflectively, and forces you to grow as an individual, then being a principal is a good profession to get into. I’m sure other principals will tell you it’s not always an easy profession. You have lots of demands.
I once read an article in which the question was posed, “How many dentist, physicians, and lawyers deal with thirty clients at one time all having their own demands and interests?” When you think about an elementary teacher’s job, you realize they have to work with classrooms of varying sizes and meet all those individual needs. As an elementary principal, you have to meet students’ needs, work with teachers who have different interest needs and ideas, and then meet with parent groups as well. You’ll have lots of people who will want to communicate with you and you just need to keep digging into your inner strength and listening for those right ideas that are going to help you be successful with each of those different groups.
Education is at an interesting crossroads right now. There has been so much emphasis on testing and learning basic facts, but at the same time education has become very scientific in the area of research. People are identifying what are the best practices in helping individuals achieve outcomes. I’m finding that public and private schools are coalescing around key ideas that are meant to help children to progress and succeed. Therefore those who are in education as teachers and administrators have to be life long learners. They can’t allow themselves to become stagnant. They have to always be alert and see what the best ideas are out there and how they can be applied to their local situations. It’s a very exciting field to be in right now, so I would encourage anyone to give it consideration.