Principal vs. Principles: The Power of People

We’ve all been there. It’s an infamous juggle between what is right and what should be, or better yet what we know we should do for our students and what is supposed to match the status quo. It often takes years to see the results we hope to produce in the midst of measures that we struggle to assess. What we do as educators makes an impact; the principles we stand for in our school and classrooms matter to the students we lead daily.

It was a warm summer afternoon when the phone rang and the job was offered: assistant principal of Happy Valley Middle School. My mind had wandered for days after the interview, with thoughts rang-ing from skepticism to optimism. I entered the Ed.S. Program to get this job after all, but when and where the work would pay off was still up in the air. In a three-minute phone call I had received the news that the responsibility was mine and my role as an educator had changed.

Excitement and anxiety combined for a tumultuous feeling of the unknown. I was ready to make the move and couldn’t feel more confident and prepared even though I had never stepped foot in the building. I was ready, and no one could convince me otherwise.

It didn’t take long to figure out how much work there was to do. I buried myself in my new responsibilities and how I was going to make them my own. I filtered through every piece of the workload and wanted to make everything better than it had ever been before. I quickly made the job about me, and I wanted to send the message that I was serious and ready to make a difference. I knew everyone’s first name, last name, role, room number, and their favorite gum flavor during the first staff meeting. Preparation was my mojo, and I was sure that if I had it all together I couldn’t go wrong.

Just when things seemed to be falling into place, it all changed again.

In the same summer on a different afternoon another phone call came from the same familiar voice. There was no doubt this one had a different feeling about it. “We would like to offer you the job as principal of Happy Valley Middle School.”

In a perfect world, I would have had three to five years of experience and an office with my family pic-tures gracing the walls. In reality, I was still in search of a desk and had just finished the first coat of fresh paint on my cinderblock surroundings. My role and responsibilities were changing again, and the first day of school was only a few days away. To be exact, it was Friday and school started on Monday.

I stood in the cafeteria at 5:30 on Monday morning while searching for the light switch and fumbling through a mob of keys to get into the main office. My wife had collected my best tie and jacket the night before so I could at least look the part. In less than two hours there would be 450 middle school students and 30 professional faculty members arriving at the building expecting to see someone else leading the school other than me.

Sitting at my second desk and second office for the summer gave me an unsettled feeling of the un-known, but the clock was ticking and sooner than later school would happen.

I’ll never forget that day. I suddenly realized that even though I needed to be important, I didn’t have to be. Even if I wanted to be, I couldn’t. The longstanding principles of the teachers that were already there trumped the new principal, and without them it would have been a disaster. The blessings of a tremendous staff carried our school through a time when it arguably should have stumbled.

So here we are four years later, absorbing changes and improving old practices like everyone else. Our data rolls in and we make adjustments for each year based on what the data tells us. Student learning is our top priority, but there are plenty of roadblocks and juggling that goes along with it.

If I could have painted a picture of what my journey would have been it would be the farthest from my reality. The bottom line is that people matter, and the right team is a powerful thing. I was lucky to inherit a group of teachers that are in it for what matters most: student impact. Data will lead us, students will be our priority, and we will work for each other rather than against.

If you are a teacher reading this, realize your importance and how much of an impact you make not only on students in your classroom but on everyone around you. Principals are important people, but the business of learning happens under the watchful eye of teachers just like you. Just like at Happy Valley Middle School, our principles will for sure stand the test of time, even if the principal doesn’t.