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School & District Management Opinion

A Principal Takes Charge of School Morale

By Tamara McWilliams — November 10, 2015 3 min read
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The building is still dark as I work my way to my office, turning on lights as I go. In less than an hour, these halls will come alive with students and teachers. I can hear thunder rumbling outside on the rainy October morning; it is dark and gloomy out there. Of course, there are the usual leaks to check for, and the janitors are soon here to help me with trash cans to catch the water from the worst ones. No recess today!

This morning is an example of a challenge that faces principals every day—not the leaky building (although that’s a fun example), but the weather. I can’t control the weather outside the building, but I’ve learned that I can control the weather inside it. The forecast today in Ozona, Texas, is for scattered thunderstorms. But here, inside Ozona Middle School, the weather will be sunny and fair, today and every day.

Principal Tamara McWilliams stands in the hallway at Ozona Middle School in Ozona, Texas. She is the principal of the only elementary and middle schools in the rural town, with a population of just over 3,200.

Whether it concerns leaks, parents, or local politics, principals are asked to face a tangled web of challenges each day, and often the problems come in nonstop barrages. I’m as human as the next girl, and sometimes I would just as soon hide under my desk as talk to the irate parent at the reception desk, but if my staff or students thought for one moment that an irate parent could change the forecast of our day, then the weather in our school would be at the mercy of whatever challenge walked in the front door on a random Tuesday morning.

The principal isn’t just responsible for leading the climate and culture of the learning community, he or she controls the atmospheric conditions inside the school building.

When I became the principal of Ozona Middle School in 2011, I was able to enjoy the new-principal glow for maybe 4 1/2 days—until we learned that the school had not met state standards for accountability, receiving instead an “academically unacceptable” rating. The rating affected staff members strongly: They were embarrassed, discouraged, and afraid of the ramifications of the turnaround process. I learned very quickly in our first August faculty meeting that they were looking to me to know whether things were going to be all right.

McWilliams watches prekindergartners play, including Xandar Almaguer, 4, during recess at Ozona Elementary School.

That first meeting could have been pretty stormy; it was anything but. I couldn’t take away the rating or the work that would be involved in turning it around, but I could bring some sunshine into a gloomy August afternoon. Before we went over the obligatory data points, needs assessment, and school-improvement plan, we let a little cool breeze of laughter into the room with some team-building, inspirational videos, and funny teacher stories. Then we broke into groups to work on instructional-focus calendars and lesson plans.

BRIC ARCHIVE

Education Week Commentary invited school leaders from across the country to write about their biggest professional challenges and how they manage them. The package also includes audio slideshows, in which each of the four principals discusses what he or she would most like policymakers to know about the job.

This special section is supported by a grant from The Wallace Foundation. Education Week retained sole editorial control over the content of this package; the opinions expressed are the authors’ own, however.

Read more from the package.

Here’s where a principal can make a real difference in the weather: I snuck out the back door, bought as much ice cream as our local store offered (we are 80 miles from the nearest Wal-Mart, if you can believe it) and snuck back in with ice cream in hand, grabbed a cart, and quickly downloaded an ice-cream-truck ringtone to my phone. Exactly as I suspected, grown-ups came pouring out of classrooms when they heard the ice cream truck in the hallway! And as is appropriate for any summer afternoon, the hallways of the school felt pleasant and cool; principals truly can control the weather.

In a single morning, the principal must be prepared to discuss a teacher’s concerns over a student’s performance, a parent’s complaint about his child’s in-school suspension, or ISS, assignment, a 6th grader’s genuine fear of being teased by an 8th grader in the bathroom, and the secretary’s frustration at not knowing why the copy-machine repairman hasn’t shown up for the third day in a row. Being in charge of the sunshine helps a lot on this day. These people need to be heard, and then they need to hear a positive word.

The secretary knows that I can’t make the repairman appear, and she knows that she needs to call the company again, but she wants me to hear her frustration. The parent needs to express his concern and fear over his daughter’s ISS placement. We agree to not give up on her, and he realizes that his daughter is not headed for the penitentiary, just the ISS building.

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 11, 2015 edition of Education Week as I Control What I Can

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