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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

8 Reasons Why School Secretaries Deserve More Credit

By Peter DeWitt — December 18, 2016 5 min read
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In many small school communities, and even in a few larger ones, school secretaries take on roles and have influence that can be impactful to students, parents and teachers, and I think it’s important to recognize that.

No, today is not Administrative Assistant’s Day. You didn’t forget to buy a card or flowers at the grocery store on your way into school. It’s a random Tuesday in September still at the beginning of the school year for many of you. I didn’t want to wait until a special day on one day during the year to write about secretaries.

A few months ago I had lunch with my former secretary who is also a friend. She’s newly retired and I’m out of the building role, so we can get together during the school day. When we get together the good stories and the bad ones flow through our conversations. Once, those stressful situations that almost broke us are now distant memories we can chalk up to experience.

As I left our lunch date, I began thinking about the secretaries I was fortunate enough to work with as a teacher and principal. There was Joan Cox, Marsha Winslow and Dani Jones. They were lifesavers many times when I forgot to hand things in as a teacher. And then there was Sue Curtis who was our school secretary when I began as a principal.

I was hired as principal three months before my official starting date, which was a good thing because I happened to be teaching full-time in another school. My predecessor Sharon Lawrence, who was going to be the assistant superintendent, set up a schedule with Sue where I could come over after school about once a week and get to know staff and students. I took my last two personal days so I could visit the school during the school day, and Sharon and Sue set up a schedule for that as well. All of which helped me start off my new career as a principal on a positive note that helped me more than they ever knew. This all helped set me up to be more collaborative with staff.

Sue Curtis went the extra mile. She handed me a yearbook so I could study the faces of the students and get to know their names before I met them. She even put the first names of the teachers and their spouses in the yearbook as well so I could memorize those. It sounds simple but it was a huge deal.

The last three years I was a principal I won the lottery again when it came to secretaries because I got to work with Donna Nikles. We were fortunate enough to get Mrs. Nikles in a school consolidation that you can read more about here. Maybe it was due to the stressful circumstances, but Donna and I hit it off quickly, and she was one of the main reasons why the consolidation worked out...albeit after some very hard times.

Donna has a love for the Yankees, and would fake kick students out of the office if they wore Red Sox jerseys...which they did proudly as they walked into the office. She was the face of the school, and she made the main office a fun place to visit, which is something every school should have. Our students should want to feel welcome in every part of the school. It’s called a positive school climate.

8 Reasons School Secretaries Deserve More Credit

As I walked away from lunch yesterday, I thought about all of the reasons why good school secretaries, or those we can call iconic like Donna Nikles, deserve more credit that they receive. If you were, or are, fortunate enough to work with an iconic school secretary, you will recognize some of the following reasons.

Those reasons are:

Working the front line - Unlike anyone else in school, the main office is the first place visitors go to, which means that secretaries see parents at their best and their worst. Whether it’s in person or on the phone, a school secretary has to listen to a parent or visitor when they may be most irate, and can help deescalate a situation. No, we don’t always want them to do that because it might not be their job, but sometimes they take the opportunity to help when they can.

Students confide in them - A great secretary, much like Mrs. Nikles, was a person who students loved to come and talk to when they were having a problem. Sometimes when students are sent down to the office and principals are otherwise engaged, secretaries are able to get the background story which help us make our best decisions.

They know the parents - Many secretaries don’t just know the students but they know the parents as well. Sometimes that’s because they live in the same neighborhood and other times it’s because the parents were students once. Secretaries can help bridge the gap when principals and teachers are working through issues with parents.

History of the district - For new principals, talking with a veteran school secretary is worth it’s weight in gold because the secretary knows the ins and out of the district, all of which can help explain decision making from the central office or the culture of the district.

School climate - Walking into the main office, and seeing how we are treated as guests, is the first aspect of whether a school climate is positive or negative. If the secretary merely is sitting and saying “can I help you?” as if they work at Motor Vehicle, we probably won’t feel warm and fuzzy. However, when we walk in and the secretary is smiling, we see student work...and even better...smiling students with the secretary, we get a feeling that we have entered into a positive and inclusive school climate.

Provide the other side of the issue -

Calm us down - There are many times when secretaries calm tough situations and tell us not to e-mail or call someone back so quickly.

The Real Assistant Principal - I was a principal in a small school district without an assistant. Donna was the assistant principal for all intents and purposes. She knew as much about the students, school and parents as I did, and knew what to do at times when I didn’t. We worked as a team.

They don’t get paid enough - Many secretaries work longer hours than they get paid for, can’t escape school even when they’re home, and don’t get paid equivalent to the stress of their job. If you don’t believe so, go visit a school on the first week of school at bus dismissal. That should open your eyes.

In the End

I hope you don’t mind a blog post that is a bit different than the others. It’s just that I don’t believe that secretaries get the credit they deserve as often as they deserve it. In the end, a good school secretary helps build relationships, and is an integral part of the school climate.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (September, 2016. Corwin Press). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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