Toughest Job in Education?

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It's hard for Mike Donnell to ignore the ironed-on message blaring from the black, hooded sweatshirt of the 9th grader sitting in his office: "Die! Die! My Darling." But the assistant principal, a stocky, white-haired ex-coach on his second pacemaker, looks right past it. After a few words with the student, Jason, about various misdemeanors—skipping class, mainly—and possible punishments, Donnell changes the subject, hoping to teach the freshman a little something.

"What's your science project?"

Jason, a thin teenager with a crew cut and clunky black boots, replies that it's about molecules, which invites the former science teacher to question him about the elements, including the symbol for lead.

"Pb," Donnell urges Jason to remember as the student walks out the office door. "I'm going to ask you again to see what your short- and long-term memory is."

Jason looks annoyed as he leaves, his mind nevertheless on science and his wandering frame under the assistant principal's watchful eye.

It may be the toughest job in American education.

That settled, there's plenty more for Donnell to do. A morning in his company at Hingham High School is like riding a crop-duster's airplane, and painfully familiar to anyone who has spent much time in the central office of a high school. He holds the telephone away from his ear when an angry parent calls. He counsels a girl about why she shouldn't quit school, plans a meeting with student government leaders, hurries to a teacher-evaluation meeting, and holds a hallway conference with a student—interrupted by a teacher who needs him to unlock a faculty restroom for a student who is sick.

Events like these fill an assistant principal's day, far more often than anything having to do with classroom instruction. In an age when scholars and leading educators talk about how important it is for principals to be "instructional leaders," most assistant principals—who are often learning to become principals—spend little time on anything that resembles student learning or school leadership.

"It's a very hard job which drains you incredibly," said Catherine Marshall, an education professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who has studied the role of assistant principals.

There are plenty of substantive duties: talking with the faculty, arranging student schedules, meeting with parents, addressing the school board.

But other pressing tasks often intrude: fielding telephone calls from parents, sitting in the bleachers at basketball games, driving the van, cleaning up the spill.

And, of course, there is discipline. Suspensions, expulsions, scoldings: For many assistant principals, a large part of the day is spent as police officer, prosecutor, and judge as a seemingly endless line of sullen teenagers forms outside the office door.

It may be the toughest job in American education, an often-thankless position that places heavy demands on those who take it, while rewarding them with only a few thousand dollars more a year—or even less—than the highest-paid teachers.

Yet, interviews with Donnell and other assistant principals around the country suggest that it can also be among the profession's most challenging— and rewarding.

"Every year, there's something more that's dropped on your plate," says Donnell, a 54-year-old educator who is one of two assistant principals at this 850-student high school. Now in his 12th year in the role, he quickly adds that he loves his job: "I'm not burnt out, and I still enjoy kids."

Many others who hold the job feel the same way. They're exhausted and overwhelmed, and spending too much time on discipline, but they say they enjoy the chance to do what their unique role does allow: helping students and families through their most difficult moments.

Long ignored by schools of education and scholars, the role of assistant principals is finally drawing some attention amid the renewed interest in school leadership, Marshall says.

More state and national education groups are offering workshops and classes aimed specifically at assistant principals, she adds. And some assistant principals are raising new questions about how they spend their time and what the job itself entails and produces. "They're wanting a definition of the role," Marshall says.

"The job description is wide open," says Dennis Clarke, the associate principal of 1,520-student Oconee High School in Watkinsville, Ga., near the university town of Athens. "My wife sometimes calls me a firefighter," he adds. "You don't have much of an opportunity to set an agenda for each day."

On top of almost every assistant principal's list of responsibilities is discipline.

"We're intervening in crises all the time," says Donnell, sitting in his office with his sleeves rolled up and his tie a little loose after a long day. "Everybody wants the assistant principal to fix it. 'Fix this kid.' We are spending too much time on discipline."

Even in Hingham, a well-to-do New England town 20 miles south of Boston, where most parents earn salaries far higher than those of the people who teach their children and run their schools, problems with student behavior dominate Donnell's time. Nine out of 10 students in the district go on to college.

Most of the incidents Donnell handles aren't terribly serious. He says he has never seen a gun on campus, and only a few knives. Instead, students curse out a teacher. Someone skips class. A boy refuses to serve a detention. A girl is late and doesn't have a reasonable explanation.

Donnell says he'd like to spend more time working with teachers, but not a great deal more time. What he'd really like to do is spend more time supporting students. He recently helped plan a last-day event for seniors, scheduled for later this spring, that will showcase student performers, provide a time for yearbook signings, and give teachers time to visit with kids who'll be leaving for college.

Most assistant principals spend little time on anything that resembles student learning or school leadership.

That sounds good to Casey Fitzmaurice, a senior at Hingham High who serves on Donnell's committee for the senior celebration. "Assistant principals kind of get a bad name because they're who you go to when you get in trouble," she says. When administrators like Donnell get out of their offices and work with students in different ways, she says, "kids really like that."

Some assistant principals say all the time they spend on discipline wears them down.

"There have been some good years and some bad years," says Don Glaze, who is in his ninth year as the assistant principal of the 500-student Nikiski Middle School and High School in the rural southern Alaskan town of Nikiski.

"Two years ago, a parent verbally assaulted me and the principal," Glaze recalls. "He actually spit in our faces. You can only take so much of that."

Glaze says he'd like to move beyond discipline more often to deal with bigger issues. "I'd take that time and spend it in the classrooms," he says.

But some assistant principals believe their focus on discipline helps alleviate stress on teachers or the principal, allowing more time for those people to focus on student achievement. And others say they don't have a tremendous burden because clear rules and punishments, or discipline systems that work by committee, keep problems at bay.

For Donnell, the process absorbs several hours most days. He and secretary Jane Skinner keep daily lists of students he needs to see and why, and says he always gives the student a chance to give his or her side of the story before he visits the teacher who made a written complaint.

A boy wearing a Detroit Red Wings jersey, khaki trousers, a baseball cap, and an earring drags into Donnell's office, saying a teacher asked him to take off the headphones to his portable CD player. The 11th grader, according to the teacher, responded to her request by swearing at her.

Donnell, as always, lets the student talk. Then it's his turn.

"You got upset and lost it," he says sternly.

"I've been trying," the boy pleads.

Not good enough, Donnell says: "I can't accept that language."

"I'm sorry," the student says humbly.

Donnell gives his sentence: all-day, in- school suspension.

The boy, seated, blows air out of his mouth, hangs his head, and begins to cry.

"I'm sorry, but it's your choice," the assistant principal says. "You can stay up here, OK?"

The boy sniffles and walks next door into the nurse's office to compose himself, wiping tears.

"He's a sensitive kid," Donnell explains. But he adds that the boy has threatened other students, something Hingham High won't tolerate.

Not every student is truly angry, he believes. Some are hurting, for whatever reason—a lesson Donnell says has turned his formerly hot head toward new ways to care for students, rather than simply sitting behind a desk handing out detentions.

For example, he helped start a support group for several students at Hingham who had relatives suffering from cancer, and he and other administrators allowed a Gay-Straight Alliance to give gay and lesbian students a chance to vent their hurts and frustrations and find straight students who are willing to be on their side.

Donnell's wife, Marsha, a dental hygienist, said her husband searches the local weekly newspaper for track-and-field scores, or for reason to compliment a student.

Experience, Donnell says, has taught him to be interested in whatever his students care about. "You may not like horseback riding, ballet, or archery," he says. "But if you've got kids in your school who are good at archery, good at ballet, then you better damn well know something about it."

Assistant principals face a never-ending stream of crises, conflicts, and complaints.

The job of assistant principal reaches far beyond the school office, into the community, and into the lives of their own families.

Many assistant principals work lengthy hours, arriving at 7 or 8 in the morning, leaving at 4 in the afternoon if they're lucky, and often returning for ball games, theatrical performances, science fairs, PTA gatherings, school board meetings, and so on.

Mr. Donnell attends many athletic events, and boasts that Hingham High's drama club won a recent regional competition with a stirring play about school violence. The demands can make it hard for administrators to keep their personal lives in balance.

Jana Frieler, the associate principal of 1,100-student Greeley West High School in Greeley, Colo., says her husband and two sons, ages 8 and 12, tag along with her to many school events, allowing them extra time together even while she works. "I'm lucky because all three of them really enjoy sports activities and all of that," she says.

And despite their busy jobs, many find relaxation in some hobby or pastime that keeps their mind fresh. For Donnell, whose three daughters are in their 20s, it's weekly card games and woodworking.

For Peter Lincoln, the other assistant principal at Hingham High, it's summertime surfing and fishing at his Cape Cod beach house with his wife, Suzanne, a teacher, and two teenage sons. "School vacations are an integral part of the battery-recharging process," he says.

The need for time away from school is a main reason both Donnell and Lincoln say they aren't applying for the principal's job open next fall at Hingham High. Their longtime friend and boss, Richard J. McLeod, is retiring, and the rumors have swirled about which assistant will replace him.

Neither man says he is interested. For all the difficulties of the assistant principal's job, it sometimes offers summertime breaks and closeness to students that the principal's job doesn't, they say.

"My oldest son said, 'So I suppose I won't see you as much, Dad.' That sunk in," Lincoln says.

A re-examination of how assistant principals spend their time is a legitimate issue, many in the position say. It's a whirlwind that may need more organization than ever as pressures increase on schools and school leaders to show results.

"I was an assistant principal back in the 1960s, and it's pretty much the same job today," says Gerald N. Tirozzi, the executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, based in Reston, Va. Donnell sits on the group's board.

Tirozzi says the assistant's job, as a gateway to the principalship, should include all the duties of the principal, organized in ways that can use a person's strengths, depending on each school's need. "We often forget the importance of the assistant principal."

At Hingham High, Anna Rehnquist is learning that importance firsthand. She's an English teacher who was worked with Donnell for years, and this year is an administrative intern—sort of a principal-in-training.

"There are so many more problems than classroom teachers understand," the 47-year-old educator says. "I can't tell you the times I go home to my husband and tell him how shocked I am at what these guys take care of. I used to give [Donnell] grief about drinking coffee and telling jokes all the time, but that is definitely not what they do."

What they do and how they do it are two questions assistant principals ask themselves every day, especially on bad days.

A re-examination of how assistant principals spend their time is a legitimate issue, many in the position say.

For some assistant principals, possible changes to the role range from wishes for fewer disciplinary meetings to more innovative ways of taking advantage of their skills.

"If I had the time, I'd love to teach a biology class," says Hingham High's Lincoln, who originally taught science with Donnell and co-founded an oceanography program at the school. "I wish there was a way for assistant principals to teach."

Glaze in Alaska says he plans to retire in two years and return to his native Idaho, possibly to teach. "It's more fun," he says.

Other assistant principals, however, say they wouldn't change much about their jobs, adding even that discipline is reasonably under control at their schools.

"I don't know if I'm a really sick person, or if I just like this kind of pace," says Karol Erdmann, the associate principal of 1,500-student Jefferson High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "Even on my most stressful days, I do not not look forward to coming to work."

Jason appears in Donnell's office the next day to receive his sentence for skipping class. He'll spend a whole day in detention.

Wearing the same "Die! Die!" sweatshirt as the day before, he rocks in a wooden swivel chair as Donnell explains the punishment without ever raising his voice. He speaks with the firmness of a father, yet with kindness.

"Don't have a bad day with her today," Donnell says, speaking of the teacher with whom Jason first had the trouble. "Do I need to call Mom and let her know?" he asks the boy.

Jason rises to leave the office, and responds in the same measured tones. "No, not really," Jason says softly, somewhat appreciatively. "I'll let her know."

Vol. 19, Issue 31, Pages 44-48

Published in Print: April 12, 2000, as Toughest Job in Education?
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