I was a high school principal.
I became a high school principal as result of an article I wrote as a vice principal in 1994 lamenting the effects of a budget cutback that was published in a local newsletter. My superintendent at the time decided I was no longer fit for school administration and after a tirade of about forty-five minutes pronounced that he could no longer protect me. I was summarily assigned back to the classroom. That was not how I saw things. I liked administration so I applied elsewhere. The “elsewhere” I was offered was a position as principal of a small high school. I took up the challenge.
At my first meeting with the superintendent of the district I had some questions. “When would I meet my Vice Principal?” “Well,” he said, “she is in Ontario. Her mother is very sick and I’m not sure she’ll be back much before school begins. By the way she has asked to be transferred to the elementary school but I haven’t answered her request … yet.” I paused, a little taken aback and wondering what it would be like to be in a new town at a new school with no continuity in the administrative team.
“What about the secretarial staff?” “Well,” he said, “the secretary was married to one of our board members and the board went on a retreat and there was this ‘Payton Place’ kind of thing that happened so she has left town….. There is a part time secretary. She’s delightful but she doesn’t know anything about the student records system.” My eyebrows moved a centimetre higher.
“What about the counselor?” “Well,” he said, “you have been assigned a new counselor. Last year’s counselor was the Phys Ed guy. He isn’t looking forward to going back to the gym but we have this psychologist who used to be in central office who needed the position. He lives in the city and commutes 5 hours every weekend so he probably won’t be here until just before school starts. We have a counselor coming back off deferred salary leave but we are putting her into the behavioural needs program. She hasn’t done that before so you’ll have to let her go to visit some other programs before we get ours really up and running. We are having a ministerial review on the new program she will be implementing in January or February so we need to get it right. We’re fighting some bad publicity on that one so it has to be a Cracker Jack program. She and her husband were on deferred salary leave last year travelling. Her husband has been placed at the middle school in grade 8. You might know him. He was the principal here before they left on their trip around the world.” ‘Oh great’ I thought. What next?
“What about the Community School Program?” “Well,” he said, “As you know the funding has been cut. I need you to make sure we squeeze enough money out of this budget to maintain the half time coordinator. She is great and should retire soon.” Hmmmm.
“What about the community library?” “Well,” he said, “the school librarian and the municipal librarian hate each other…. They have sort of drawn a line with masking tape down the middle of the library space. We are hoping that with your background in libraries that you will be able to get that library working the way it should.” “Okay” I thought “add it to my list of miracles.”
“When will the teachers be back?” “Well,” he said, “I wanted to talk to you about that. We had this Teacher’s Association thing and I’m not sure how it was left. Teachers were asking for some independence on the organizational days and hinting that they might stay home to get organized… so if they don’t show up on the 27th be sure and let me know. By the way”, he added, “the students were quite fond of the old principal. They demonstrated when we let him go. They chained themselves to the door. We had the media in and everything. I think they are over that now. And you should probably keep an eye on the caretaking staff. These ladies have been doing this work for years. This year we went to contracts so they formed their own company and made a bid. I’m not sure how it is going to work out.” Of course, I thought. Not even the custodial work will be simple. “We have great parents in this community” the super continued “… a little rebellious at times. So far they have refused to form a school council…”
As I left the meeting with the Super, I found my thoughts racing in chaotic concert with my emotions, but soon convinced myself that the reality of the current school situation could not be as bad as I imagined. Once I actually entered the school, life would be challenging but I would manage from a place of centeredness and logic as I always had in the past.
My first day in the building, I arrived early. It had been raining hard all night but had cleared to a glorious sunny August morning. I was met at the door by a man who said “You don’t want to go in there.” “I’m the new principal.” “I know who you are and you don’t want to go in there.” Reluctantly he led me in and showed me the newly painted and carpeted office that would be mine now splattered with tar from the hole in the roof that had been covered by a tarp the night before awaiting the new overhead heating unit that would arrive today. “We’ll have to do it all again” he said as he showed me to my temporary quarters across the hall in the small Community School Office cramped with four desks where one used to sit comfortably. Shortly after I had set up camp I met my first teacher. I greeted him warmly apologizing for not having found the master schedule by then so that I could provide him with a timetable he was requesting. “Well,” he said, “if there are computer courses on it I’m going to grieve it!”
That was the beginning, a shock orientation to a new reality for which I felt ill prepared. Later that year the small district that hired me was amalgamated with a bigger district and the few supports we had from the central office, including the superintendent who had put his faith in me, were gone overnight. Budget concerns loomed large and uncertainty was everywhere. Many times thoughts of running away crossed my mind but eventually one by one I was able to build the relationships that resulted in a well functioning school. Over the course of the following years, managing and leading as principal, I always wondered whether there was a better way to prepare leaders and the staff they serve for change and the inevitable very human, often messy transitions that follow.
Dr. Nancy Love, Author