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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
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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.

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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.

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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


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