Thursday, January 20, 2011

In The Principal's Office

At this stage of my career, I don't think I could count the number of principal's offices I've been in. I've strategized with them, looked over grants, discussed action plans, listened to them complain and celebrate and vent and dream. I've served them as a teacher, grant manager, assistant principal, program officer, director and school improvement facilitator. I've worked with confident leaders who have years of experience, and first-year administrators who look like deer caught in headlights.

I've probably logged as many hours sitting across tables and desks from principals, since I left the classroom in 2004, as I have in any given cubicle I've occupied during that time.

Yet, it's funny: Each and every time I sit and wait for a principal (and I ALWAYS sit and wait, because the nature of a principal's life is that meetings run long), there comes a moment when I get this feeling that can be described in only one way -- I feel like I'm in trouble.

You'd think that having occupied The Big Chair myself, I'd be able to shrug off this sensation after a while, but no. It's there with me every time. The other day, at Fred Florence Middle School, I nearly turned to the boy sitting next to me, who was holding an ice pack to a swollen cheek, to ask, "What're you in for?" Instead, I summoned up my best grown-up voice and said, "Are you all right, young man?" "Yes, sir," he replied politely, lying, I'm sure. One doesn't sit in the principal's waiting area with an ice pack on ones face if one is "all right."

He's in trouble. A woman in a nurse's uniform appears from a door I hadn't noticed and the boy disappears behind it with her. Eventually, the principal is done with her previous meeting and summons me to "come on in." As it turns out, I'm not in trouble. In fact, she's glad I'm there, as they usually are, because I am someone who is there to partner with them, clear up questions they may have, and generally make their lives easier. My reticence gives way to an enjoyment of what I'm doing. I derive professional satisfaction knowing that I've been of assistance to the head of the school, the person ultimately responsible for improving the lives of every child in that building.

I wish I could say I was in trouble a lot as a kid myself, that these fears represented some kind of "flashback" to my days of youthful rebellion. It would make a better story if I could. The closest I ever came to anything like that was when Coach Kearney, our Dean of Discipline at Harrison High, pulled me over in the hall one day and asked, "Danny, how's Mr. Greco's class?" I cringed and didn't answer. "You've missed a few of his classes lately." "Yeah, a couple," I agreed. "A couple? Danny, you haven't been to Mr. Greco's class in three weeks."

I explained to Mr. Kearney that my truancy was due to a technicality ("I lived in Michigan in tenth grade and missed Global Studies, and now they're making me take it, and I'm in a class full of my little brother's friends, and c'mon, Coach.").

"I really should send you down to Mr. Hunter's office," he paused for effect, looking up and down the hallway, at what, I wasn't sure. "But you're a good kid, Danny. If I talk to Joe Greco and tell him you'll make it to his class and make up the work you've missed, are you gonna make me a liar?" "No, sir," I said in the meek voice I thought he wanted to hear. "Cause I'll come after you if you do," he smiled. "Yes, sir."

And I got away with 15 cuts. Just by being a Good Kid. Maybe I've stumbled upon the reason for my anxiety whenever I sit in the main office waiting room. Would I feel less culpable if Coach Kearney had sent me to the assistant principal's office? It could very well be.

We'll never know....


  1. Thanks, James. I appreciate the encouragement, and I'm glad your enjoying the posts!

  2. A word about the photo: This is Dan Santema, the former principal of Manor Elementary School, where we send our children. We were meeting with him about our displeasure at the proposal to move Diego from his 1st grade class to another, four weeks into the school year. The photo credit goes to Jackson, who got hold of my iPhone and took a number of amusing shots of the meeting. How hilarious is THAT??