School Climate & Safety

Putting Out Fires

By Jeff Archer — September 27, 2004 7 min read
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Fredi Buffmire, the principal at Mendoza Elementary School here, faces an epidemic of “pantsing.” A growing number of her students, it seems, are unable to resist the temptation to sneak up behind their classmates and pull down their trousers. Most of the offenders, and victims, are boys.

For one typical elementary school principal, routine duties consume most of the day.

For each incident, she fills out a carbon-copy form. She keys it into a computer log. Because it involves what could be seen as sexual misconduct, she notifies a police officer assigned to the building. She also metes out punishment: typically the loss of playtime.

“How would you feel if a grown-up walked up and jerked your pants down?” she lectures one of the many pint-sized perpetrators who pass through her office.

So goes a normal morning for a school leader. While the best thinking on educational leadership says principals should devote the bulk of their energies to improving instruction, Buffmire, 56, has her hands full with student discipline and paperwork.

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Her situation here in the 70,000-student Mesa, Ariz., school district is hardly unusual. When a federal survey in 2000 asked principals which activities they engaged in daily, more than 80 percent cited issues related to security and facilities. By contrast, 53 percent said “facilitate student learning,” and 40 percent said “build a professional community.”

True, Buffmire has left her mark on teaching and learning at Mendoza Elementary. A native of Alaska who projects a pioneer’s sense of assuredness, she’s launched programs to give extra attention to her most struggling students. In her five years here, she’s hired half the school’s 50 teachers. Staff members praise her for creating an atmosphere of trust in which they can try new methods.

But as is evident in a typical workday, instructional leadership for Buffmire often must take a back seat to getting boxes for a teacher who’s transferring or helping parents arrange a fund- raiser. As the lone administrator in charge of 824 pupils in grades pre-K-6 and a staff of 125, she spends much of her time putting out fires and navigating red tape.

“There are times when you feel like a pingpong ball,” Buffmire says.

Paper Trails

Nestled in a warren of new housing developments outside Phoenix, Mendoza Elementary School sprawls across three permanent buildings and nine portable units, all in desert hues. Its courtyards are home to cactuses, cages of tropical birds, and pens of baby goats and turtles.

The campus is quiet when Buffmire arrives at 6:30 a.m., two hours before the start of class. With the lights off in her office, she works through a multicolored pile of forms. Some are for correcting time sheets. Others ensure that employees get paid at the correct rate. She signs several student award certificates, each bearing the school’s mascot: a dog with black and white spots.

“I feel like I’m paid a lot of money to push a lot of paper,” says Buffmire, whose 12-month contract earns her roughly $80,000.

Along with such documents, she keeps plenty of her own records. Throughout the day, she logs all of her phone calls on a steno pad. A separate file contains notes from her contacts with parents. After 23 years as a principal in Arizona and Alaska, she’s learned the importance of leaving a paper trail.

The “pantsing” problem is a case in point. In another era, such misbehavior might have merited little more than a call home. But recently, two administrators at a Mesa high school faced criminal charges for failing to alert police about what investigators said was sexual abuse by one student against another. Now, principals here aren’t taking any chances when physical contact takes place.

“I tell teachers: ‘When they touch, you send them to me,’” Buffmire says.

In three hours this morning, she handles half a dozen disciplinary actions, reflecting a range of severity. There’s the student who kicked his friend for throwing a football into a tree, popping it. There’s the boy who grabbed a younger child by the throat so hard that it left red marks.

Buffmire’s most difficult case of the day involves a boy whose acting-up in class got progressively worse. The problem is that he stopped taking medicine to treat a behavioral disorder, the principal says. It doesn’t help that his parents are feuding.

“It’s not that you didn’t have kid-parent problems before, but the magnitude of the problem is greater,” says Buffmire, who meets with the school’s nurse, its police officer, and the child’s teacher before calling his mother. “There’s more to teach; there’s more to know. But when you run into a problem, it’s worse than it was 20 years ago.”

Making the Rounds

Amid the morning rush of disciplinary cases, Buffmire manages to focus on student learning for a few minutes when she meets with a retired principal who stops by. He’s been helping her compile a set of user-friendly data books on student achievement for her teachers. They’ll show the test scores of each class, compared with scores for similar local schools and the district as a whole.

At 11:40 a.m., Buffmire heads to the cafeteria with a small plastic tub that holds keys, a walkie-talkie, a clipboard of class schedules, and her lunch. As part of her daily ritual, she spends about an hour helping with the midday meal, handing out milk and wiping down tables while eating from a plastic bag full of chopped vegetables.

“It gives me an opportunity to be around the kids,” she says. “And I see most of the teachers.”

‘I feel like I’m paid a lot of money to push a lot of paper.’

Interacting with students and staff members takes such conscious efforts. Along with lunch duty today, Buffmire holds three 10-minute assemblies to issue reminders about the school’s code of conduct. She visits a rehearsal for “Rats,” a student musical based on the Pied Piper story. As she moves across the campus in short, quick strides, students often run up to give her hugs.

Other days, she spends more time with teachers. Every other Thursday, she hand-delivers paychecks to all the educators in the building, partly as an excuse to observe them. In mid to late fall, she visits classrooms daily to conduct personnel evaluations, spending the most time with her novice teachers. Ideally, she’d like to do so throughout the year.

“If I had more time to spend in individual classes—kind of teasing out what individuals do—I could use the teachers more effectively to help each other,” she says.

Back in her office, she makes several phone calls. A few are to teachers she hopes to recruit for two programs that she’s trying to start at Mendoza: one offering a Montessori curriculum, and another for students with severe emotional problems. Knowing she faces stiff competition for such specialists, she worries that some haven’t called back.

Another set of calls relates to plans by her school’s parents’ group to hold an auction to raise money. The group wants to use student council money to rent entertainment from a local company that leases inflatable equipment for children’s parties. But to make that happen requires a series of approvals.

“It’s never simple,” says the principal.

Delegating

At 3 p.m., a half-hour after student dismissal, 11 teachers squeeze into Buffmire’s office. These are her “team leaders,” and they include educators chosen by their peers at each grade level. The principal meets with the group at least monthly. On this day, they focus mostly on housekeeping issues, including the process for teachers to sign up for nonclassroom duties, like supervising the lunchroom.

Throughout the year, however, Buffmire relies on the group to help plan ways to improve academics. It was with input from staff members, for instance, that she created intervention classes at Mendoza—smaller classes for lagging students who need extra attention. The principal is a strong believer in delegating, which lets her accomplish more than she otherwise could.

“What Fredi does is she kind of has sounding boards of different people,” says 1st grade teacher Ruth Umlauf. “It’s hard for her to have time for us all, but what she does do is have an open-door policy.”

Buffmire wishes she had more chances to nurture the skills of her staff members. Her teachers’ schedules allow one full day of training at the start of each year, she says. She can also usually get their classrooms covered twice during the year so they can work together for a couple of hours in school. Beyond that, professional development is largely a game of catch as catch can. “I believe I’ve got a vision of where I want to go,” the principal says. “You watch for a window to open that will help you get there.”

She uses the last minutes of the day to go through e-mail. At 5 p.m., she heads home to her husband, Bruce, who teaches 5th grade at another school in Mesa. On her way out of the office, she passes a small handwritten note held by a clip next to her office door.

It reads: “Put your troubles here when you leave.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 15, 2004 edition of Education Week as Putting Out Fires

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