It’s back to school time, at least for now. Can we be sure of anything these days? After the students return, if the new COVID variant starts spiraling out of control, will it soon be “back to home” time again?
As an education reporter, I have learned that being an educator is stressful even in good times. Long before masks, distancing and vaccinations, teachers had enough to worry about. Who knew that we would someday long for the days when the hottest school topics were dress codes, standardized tests and a shortage of substitute teachers?
Now more than ever, principals have my utmost respect and even sympathy. On top of everything else (hiring a faculty and staff, overseeing academics and discipline and attending umpteen meetings at central office), now they must supervise several hundred kids and adults, all on edge about the potential virus spread.
Most of the principals I know understand my role. If their school has great test scores, or wins a big award, I should put it on the news. But if their school is vandalized, or a teacher gets in trouble, I must report that too. Early on, a few principals hit me with this painful accusation: “You only come here when something bad happens.” Sadly, too often they were right. I pledged to give them positive coverage when something good was going on, too. That is still my goal.
As you might expect, I get plenty of complaints from parents. They rarely complain about their own children, who are, of course, perfect angels.
Most of the complaints are about bus drivers, teachers and principals. I look into each one. Most are the result of poor communication, and when the two sides actually talk, the problem usually resolves itself.
The best principals are the ones who understand what I believe to be the three most important parts of their job. I often tell them they should spend 40% of their time on academics, 40% on discipline and 40% on public/parent relations. Yes, that adds up to 120%, but any principal will tell you they put in that extra time.
That is especially true for high school principals, who are paid quite well. But who among us wants to unlock the door at 6 a.m., be responsible for the safety of hundreds of teenagers in this unstable world and attend every athletic event, PTA meeting, dance and fundraiser? Folks, they earn their money.
Most of them understand they’re the face of their school, and the good ones set the right tone for their campus. One of my favorite principals is at a rural high school. Walking down the hall with him one day, I saw him spot a 9th grader out of dress code.
“Boy, you better get that shirt tail in, or I’ll whup your (butt),” he said sternly. He could tell I was a bit startled by his colorful language.
“Aw, that’s nothing,” he said. “I grew up with that boy’s daddy. That’s the only kind of talk he understands. And he knows I’m not really gonna whup his (butt). I’d let his daddy handle that.”
A relatively new trend is an increase in female high school principals. When I ask superintendents (many whom are also female) about this, they say, “Today’s principals attend many more meetings and are responsible for far more accountability and record-keeping than in the past. The high school principal job used to be a last stop for male coaches and other disciplinarians, but now they’re just not interested. And frankly, the female principals are very detail-oriented, and that’s the kind of person we need.”
Sadly, all public schools are not created equal. The richer schools benefit from wealthy community members, and many poor schools get much-needed help from the government. But schools “in the middle,” those that fall just short of the poverty level, get very little from any source. And while some students have full access to great arts programs, musical instruments, uniforms and athletic facilities, others get by on duct tape and hand-me-downs.
Having said that, it makes me cringe when I see a politician wearing a thousand-dollar suit, promising to “fix” schools.
Truth #1: He probably didn’t attend public school.
Truth #2: His children will never attend a public school.
Truth #3: He will never support a funding increase for public schools, because his voter base (mostly older) stopped worrying about them long ago.
So, as classes resume, I hope there’s a special place in your heart for our friends who are trying to keep school open during an unprecedented time. Last year was tough. This year brings new, equally frightening challenges.
After observing school leaders quite closely, especially during the past year, I can say this with certainty: I’d rather report on principals than be one.