Cafeteria Duty, Hugs, and Suspensions

A day in the life of an interim assistant principal.

Eleven years. That is the number of years I taught seventh grade before even thinking about delving into administration. The thought of moving my home base out of the classroom and into the office had always given me a similar reaction to that of eating one of my least favorite foods. However, a myriad of events occurred that created an assistant principal opening in my building.

Teaching is difficult, and I know there are many areas of my practice in which I need to improve. For me, this is what makes teaching so exciting—it is an art that is never perfected. This assistant principal opening sparked an interest in me because it was a way to “test the waters” of administration without making a permanent commitment that took me away from teaching.

From day one, what struck me the most was how people reacted to me. Simply having a different title made everyone (students, teachers, parents, secretaries, etc.) react to me differently than they had more than over a decade. I was deemed an expert without being tested; the real test would come in the months to follow.

As a teacher, each day was filled with new experiences yet my class schedule remained the same. I knew how the day would progress (basically) before I even went to work. As an administrator, this is not always the case.

While I had a set schedule (passing time between classes, cafeteria duty, etc.) the activities of the day would determine how my time was spent. Some days I spent hours as Nancy Drew investigating who flushed the teddy bear in the toilet or as Dr. Phil counseling a group of “Mean Girls” on the error of their ways. Other days, however, how I spent my time was completely in my control- this is what I believe separates excellent administrators from average or ineffective ones. Do they choose to make their office “home base” and wait for issues to come to them? Or do they roam the school to interact with students and staff in an effort to form relationships? A teacher does not have the luxury of simply closing her office door and hiding if she doesn’t feel well or is tired, and an effective administrator shouldn’t either.

One unforeseen benefit of my different role as an administrator took place during my interactions with fellow teachers, many of whom I had worked with for a decade. Acting as an administrator allowed me to view another side of them that had not previously been visible. Many times I was able to hear the good things going on in our middle school and the kindness teachers had shown directly from students. The young adolescents who came in my office were more than willing to have a frank conversation about how their school year and classes were going at any given moment. It became apparent to me which teachers were the most passionate about their jobs and their students. On the flip side, it also became glaringly obvious which teachers were frustrated, tired, and showing up each day simply to collect a paycheck. This forced me to reflect upon my practice and my interactions with students. This also helped me realize that, as teachers, we sometimes do not understand administrators’ actions due to a lack of communication, access to information, or limited viewpoints.

As any seasoned middle school teacher knows, taking yourself (or life) too seriously with this age group will not get you very far. This holds true not only for teachers, but administrators as well. Due to the serious nature of what I dealt with at times—from CPS visits and paperwork to bullying and angry parents to name a few—I felt a strong urge to control every aspect of the day. No surprises seemed like the best possible scenario to me. Quiet lunches meant no drama. Two people near the air hockey table meant no flying pucks. One trip to the lunch line. Walking feet … you get the point.

I soon realized that by controlling every aspect of the school I would be taking away the very parts of working with middle schoolers that I loved the most – the unpredictability, humor, and numerous opportunities to help develop young adolescents. While they may look more grown up than they act at times, middle schoolers are continually questioning, observing, and finding their place in the world around them. A dictatorship would not successfully foster learning both in and out of the classroom. At the end of my tenure, as I was getting pies thrown in my face by sixth graders who met their goals, I believe I fully learned this lesson.

When the school year concluded I returned to a position as a teacher, but I know that I am a much better one because of those eight months. At some point I might decide that administration is for me and pursue opportunities as they present themselves or I might stay might stay in the classroom for the rest of my career. Either way, I encourage anyone who is presented with an opportunity to “try out” administration to do so because the value of such an experience cannot be quantified. Whatever position we hold, it is our responsibility to ensure that each student attends a safe, caring, innovative, and challenging middle school where they can make mistakes, learn from others, and continually grow.