Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

What It Takes to Be a Human First and a Principal Second

By Paul Kelly — November 27, 2018 4 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

I remember these words early in my career from a colleague, “Everybody else gets to make mistakes; when you’re a principal, you have to get it right 100 percent of the time.” Sound like your day in a nutshell?

If you are a principal, you know there is no way to get it right all the time, but to inspire the confidence and trust of those around you, you’ve got to get pretty darn close. In many respects, we think we know what we’re in for when we sign that contract: closing achievement gaps, managing facilities, developing staff, answering student needs and parent requests, following policy developments, even cheerleading from the sidelines. However, what makes the principalship so uniquely challenging is the unimaginable range of skills one must possess or develop really quickly in order to succeed.

The principalship will test your sanity. It will test your belief in yourself. There will be many moments when you are convinced that you are failing. Without these moments, however, we can never be grounded in the actual work we’ve been asked to do. And that’s what this job is: actual work. I thought I was ready to be principal on day one, but that was before I discovered what the job actually entailed. Once I understood the challenges my school community faced, the real work began.

BRIC ARCHIVE

You have to knock on that door. You have to try for that business partnership. You have to empower your strongest staff members. You have to stay until that last grandmother leaves the concert. Simply put, the breadth and depth of the principalship’s demands can sweep you off your feet—unless you anchor yourself, identify a priority, and go after it.

When I assumed my current (and first) principalship six years ago, my anchor became the Oasis—the largest of four densely populated mobile-home communities in our district. Living outside the municipal boundary in the nation’s second largest county—Cook, which encompasses our neighboring city of Chicago—nearly 25 percent of our students live in mobile-home parks, lacking many of the services most families take for granted. Overwhelmingly, these children live in homes in which English is not the primary language and where internet access may be inconsistent or nonexistent, potentially rendering their school-issued iPads academically worthless. Their parents have lofty dreams for their children. Many lack a high school diploma and most have not completed a post-secondary degree.

About This Package

In this special Commentary package, current and former school leaders share insights from how they managed and recovered from some of the most difficult—and often unexpected—circumstances of their careers.

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.

Do not confuse my characterization with pity. Our families are proud and strong. But when I became principal of Elk Grove High School, I understood quickly that many of our students learn as they go through high school that the economic deck is stacked against them from birth. Many of these students struggle with school attendance and academic performance. Their families are often disconnected from their children’s school. They lack library cards, parks, summer camps, and reliable WiFi. They also face massive economic inequality. The challenges our students and their families encounter reach far beyond the classroom, far beyond the school. It is our charge as public school leaders to address these inequities. And it became my mission to figure out how I could help these students in face of such daunting obstacles.

My administrative team and I conducted door-to-door home visits alongside bilingual staff members who could help us “monolinguals” overcome our Spanish-language limitations. Our student services staff created an annual Cinco de Mayo celebration that welcomed hundreds from the community to our school on a Sunday afternoon. We allocated Title I funds and gave one of our amazing Spanish teachers—Ricardo Castro, who later became the 2017 Illinois Teacher of the Year—carte blanche to create a mobile library and a student-led summer camp for K-5 kids. We partnered with a mobile carrier to provide reliable WiFi access to dozens of our students living in poverty, allowing them to complete online work at home for the first time. We diversified curricular offerings, creating career-pathway courses and workplace experiences in areas such as health care, law and equity, and manufacturing to provide every student with a clear road to post-secondary success.

Some of our efforts have been huge hits, others not so much. And still, we push every single day to find another possible avenue to confront the enormous range of challenges faced by our students. Ultimately, their challenges are our challenges. Their dreams are our dreams. Their future is our future.

This is truly a great job, but carrying the emotional weight of thousands of futures is an exhausting challenge. Even as I worked with the best intentions to prioritize the massive range of challenges during my first year, my superintendent issued the most direct order he has given me before or since: Choose a Friday to take a personal day, report back with the date I selected, and go do something fun with my family. He could see that I was on the path to burnout. He was right.

As a principal, you have to remember your own fallibility. If you don’t care for yourself, you will not be able to care for your school community. There is so much more to this role than one can possibly know at any given time, and every time I have thought I have it all figured out, the principalship humbled me quickly. The silver lining is that every single challenge is an opportunity to develop a new relationship or skill. That’s extremely fortunate, because the next unpredictable situation is always just around the corner.

Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool 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 28, 2018 edition of Education Week as When Leadership Is a Juggling Act

Events

Special Education Webinar Reading, Dyslexia, and Equity: Best Practices for Addressing a Threefold Challenge
Learn about proven strategies for instruction and intervention that support students with dyslexia.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Personalized Learning Webinar
No Time to Waste: Individualized Instruction Will Drive Change
Targeted support and intervention can boost student achievement. Join us to explore tutoring’s role in accelerating the turnaround. 
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools
Student Well-Being K-12 Essentials Forum Social-Emotional Learning: Making It Meaningful
Join us for this event with educators and experts on the damage the pandemic did to academic and social and emotional well-being.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Quick Hacks: How Schools Can Cut Costs and Help the Environment
Schools can take advantage of tax credits and grants offered in the climate change spending package Congress passed this year.
3 min read
Newly installed solar panels stretch out along the north side of Madison-Grant High School near Fairmount, Ind., on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017.
Newly installed solar panels stretch out along the north side of Madison-Grant High School near Fairmount, Ind., on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017.
Jeff Morehead/The Chronicle-Tribune via AP
School & District Management How This Principal Uses TikTok and YouTube to Build School Culture
A Louisiana principal has found that short videos reinforce what’s happening in the classrooms.
8 min read
Tight crop of hands typing on a laptop overlaid with a window that includes a video play button and red progress bar.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
School & District Management Opinion To Have a Bigger Impact, Here's What You Should Stop Doing in Your Classroom or School
Teachers and leaders often want to lighten their load, but don't know where to start.
6 min read
shutterstock 1051475696
Shutterstock
School & District Management Opinion The Pandemic May Have Eased, But There's No Going Back for Districts
Now's the time to rethink how to address—and solve—problems in education, explain several education leaders.
20 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty