Tuesday, November 3, 2009

It's The Principal of the thing....

I was thinking the last few days of a friend of mine who is ill with cancer. A really nice guy who years ago got me started into playing the bagpipes. At the time he was a principal of an elementary school and I had invited him to my house for an evening with a few teacher friends of mine and a bunch of student teachers. My intent was for the teachers and Mr. H, the principal to talk about teaching and answer questions from the student teachers. And that is precisely what happened.....it was a worthwhile exercise.

The reason I asked Mr. H. was, in my opinion, that he was one of the good guys in the principal ranks. Not that there are good and bad but one can sense the atmosphere of a school soon after entering the front doors and by and large it is the principal that sets the tone. I have met a number of principals that I have admired and respected. There was no question in my mind that Mr. H. was in charge of the school but he remained in the background much like a coach might act with a sports team. He was a very gentle man and in all the years, I never heard him raise his voice or get upset. A genuine nice guy.

I remember a number of times when Mr. H. and I would go over the list of new student teachers coming to this school and we would discuss how we thought the personalities of the cooperating teacher would work with the new incoming student teachers. Most of the time, we would enjoy a successful cooperating/student teacher pairing.

Before I continue, another sidebar for you to consider. Colleges of Educations have an interesting dilemma. They are required by state law to provide an internship for wannabe K-12 school teachers-- BUT the school districts don't have to accept them. IF the college does a good job of preparation of the new student teacher, most school districts will look favorably on accepting them into the schools. It means more adults to help children and young adults learn. But there can be problems that exist for both the college and the school district. Foremost, it is hard work for the teacher to take on another person to teach what is going on, i.e., the student teacher. And the cooperating teacher has to "give up" to a degree his/her class loosing some control. And if the student teacher has problems, it is the cooperating teacher that really has to take charge with the class. The students in the classroom are the most important product; the student teacher is further down the importance list. Then the cooperating teacher has to work with the college instructor who is doing the supervision. Most of us supervisors try to be in the classroom for a period of time at least once a week to observe. But we also have to make arrangements to talk to the cooperating teacher about what is happening when the supervisor is not available, take that into account and then make time to talk and instruct the student teacher. This is not efficient by college standards--my college dean would much prefer that I teach a class of fifty students rather then supervise five student teachers. A good cooperating teacher is pure gold.

Anyway, Mr. H. always took time to try to figure out the best pairing of student teacher to experience teacher. He was correct most of the time. And that is why he came to my house that one night. Now retired, Mr. H was one of the best.

There was an elementary principal in Seattle some years ago that I also thought was pretty sharp. I never had student teachers in Seattle but I did meet with teachers and through the grapevine heard positive comments about him....from teachers. So I called to make an appointment to visit the school. Certainly I could come but not on Fridays. So I made some time available and went to visit the school. Let me be upfront about one thing--I have my elementary
administrative (read: principal) credentials but I have never been a principal. After I got my credentials, I decided I didn't want to leave teaching. Maybe if I had visited this one school earlier I would maybe have gone another route in my career. When I got to this south side Seattle school and as I walked up the front door, children came over and welcomed me to the school. From a quick look it was a mixed population of African-Americans, Asian and Asian-Americans, Polynesians, Hispanics and white Americans. Whites were the minority here.

But it was easy to see that the atmosphere was positive--my first impressions was it was a happy school. The building was old (most school building are) and it had one of those cement playgrounds. I dislike that but they are in abundance around the state. Hard on kids who run and fall. My first stop in any school is the office to let them know what strangers are in the school. They were expecting me...and the principal, Mr. S. was waiting for me. Quite a difference from schools in which I have to wait a while to see the principal. Sort of letting me know who is in charge.

Mr. S. and I immediately took a tour of the building, almost a difficult feat. As we walked the halls, every child said hello to Mr. S. and some even hugged him. AND he knew every child's name. So what do we have--maybe 300 children with ten grades and two kindergartens. You with me so far? And this principal seemed to know each child. "How's your math doing?" or "Is your mom feeling better?" or "I heard you did well on your spelling test, nice going." Our progress was slow. And then when we entered a classroom, everyone's face would light up--including the teacher. Everyone loved this guy.

It turn out that when he was made principal of this school three years earlier, the school was down, not a good feeling about it. The first thing he did was to say to the teachers that he, the principal would take one of their classrooms each Friday for the whole day and they would be allowed to do whatever they wanted that would help them with their teaching--make lesson plans, visit libraries, go to other schools and watch what they were doing--whatever they wanted to do. Then he and the teachers set up the schedule for the year. Each teacher knew when their Friday was coming and could make plans.

But the flip side of all this is that he got to learn the kids in his school. There wasn't a child who didn't love Mr. S. from kindergarten to fifth grade. The parents loved him as well; he told me that many of the parents spoke poor English and he wished that he could speak some of their languages. What I found out was that this school went from one of the poorest in Seattle to one of the better ones in only four years. No teachers requested a transfer even though it was a "tough" school to teach at. But the administration was not overly pleased with the "Friday Off" policy that Mr. S. had started. I'm not sure why. It was one school where I could see the teachers were excited and looking forward to teaching their children.

I have a method of evaluating principals, rather simplistic in nature. I ask myself if I would like to teach in the school I'm visiting. Mr. H who always took our student teachers and Mr. S. were two of the best. Yes, I would like to have taught in those schools.

Have you thanked a teacher lately for teaching our children? We need to thank more of them any chance we get.

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