Not long ago I shadowed a relatively new principal who runs a K-8 school. It was a long day for the boss – 8 am to almost 6 pm – with plenty of challenges along the way. Three big difficulties were readily apparent. First, the school’s design is cold, rambling, open, and therefore impossible to navigate efficiently or to use comfortably for play during inclement weather, classes, and meals. The fixed operating costs related to the physical plant leave minimal discretionary funds for equipment and supplies, let alone extra staffing, which would really help in the management of transition times, to say nothing of student academic needs, after-school activities, field trips, and so on.
Second, there was an undercurrent of distrust of the administration voiced by parents in conversations that I overheard. While I felt that the parents themselves needed some help with their reasoning and communication skills, I was alarmed that in one case, a senior school official who ranks above the principal undermined the principal in various ways during a conversation held in the principal’s absence, exacerbating the lack of confidence.
Third, the students, especially the middle school students, were not well-managed as they moved from classroom to classroom or from cafeteria to auditorium, lockers to gym, and so forth; they did not manage themselves, which I would have expected most of them to be able to do – we’re in the second half of the school year. One young middle-schooler came in for a talking-to because he was seen pushing or hitting a girl. He claimed to have been taunted by the girl and her friends – and the faculty member involved seemed to think this was true, though no excuse for physical contact. But the little boy – physically small — was having a very hard time accepting the injustice, and later his parent made matters worse by yelling at him publicly.
There were bright spots during the day: a group of eighth graders going on a field trip to visit a college, a lively math class with everyone engaged, a receptionist who seemed unconditionally helpful and cheerful. The building was very clean, and there’s a beautiful library. And though there has not been a steep, straight-line upward-moving trajectory from low performance on academic measures to high, progress has been made in some areas over the last five or six years.
Back in 1995, I rode along with a Baltimore City policewoman on her 8-4 shift, during the middle of summer, in a high-crime, downtown district. My feeling after that experience was similar to my feeling after a day with the school principal: gratitude that we have young, energetic, dedicated people in key positions and concern that we ask so much of them and often don’t give them the support they need.