Geek-Turned-Teacher Year 2: The Principal
My mom used to say I could get along with anybody. “If the devil himself came to Earth, Mark could find a way to get along with him.”, she used to say. Maybe it’s because I’m the textbook middle child: the peacemaker who follows all the rules. Or maybe it’s because I abhor open conflict and want everyone to like me. Whatever the reason, I was able to work with and work for some very difficult people in my previous 12-year career. I’ve worked with people who were openly bigoted and sexist. I’ve worked for bosses who loved me like a son and ones who wanted to fire me every day. So when I heard the principal I was working for was difficult, I thought to myself, “If I can work for her my first year and survive, I’ll be ready for anything.” I was right….almost.
After she moved me from a classroom teacher to a resource teacher, I was so grateful to my principal that I didn’t care about anything else. She had saved my teaching career. I didn’t have to go crawling back to the business world as a failure. All the encouragement and admiration from my former co-workers would not be in vain after all. But I began to notice things happening at my school that bothered me. Teachers would be moved to different grade levels with almost no notice at all. Teachers who I knew were getting fired every week. Whenever I was called to the office, it was to substitute a class at the expense of servicing my own students or to be berated for something I did wrong. Worst of all, everyone was so paranoid about getting fired that we were too afraid to help anyone else. The constant daily fear was so pervasive you could cut it with a knife. I’m convinced the only reason I didn’t get fired that year was because I was male and special education certified, two rare commodities in an elementary school.
When you met my principal, you had no idea at first all this was happening. She was like your little grandmother, but she had a large presence. Like a real grandmother, you deferred to her no matter how old or big you were, and woe be the person who makes grandma mad. At the time she seemed overly harsh to teachers, parents, and students. But as I look back five years later, I see her in a different light. While I still see using fear as a motivator flawed and counter-productive, I now see the benefit of running a school like that with an iron fist. My principal talked about the book A Framework for the Culture of Poverty by Ruby Payne. In that book, she said we as educators were responsible for breaking the cycle of generational poverty our students live in. We break that cycle by teaching them middle class values, which is how the business world operates, in the hopes the students will leave the culture of poverty and be successful after school. She was using her forceful leadership style to break that cycle. Instead of the chaos of a poverty home life, school life was orderly and predictable. While violence and disrespect were commonplace in poverty, in school neither were accepted in any form. To us as adults, the culture at the school was stifling, but to the students, it was comfort. Behavior problems were minimal. Belligerent parents were non-existent. I rarely saw either of those things because the administration tightly controlled it. But that control came at a high price. When you have a staff so fearful for their jobs, they do exactly what they are told and nothing more. New and innovative ideas never surface because the staff are too afraid to speak up.
After that year our principal moved on to a different school. To my shock, several teachers left with her. I guess they liked the order and protection she provided. As for me, I needed more open leadership. And it did come the next year….with a very high price……..
Next: I am NOT a Euro-snob…well, maybe a little