Confessions of an Urban Principal/ Dandelions and Bramble Bushes
by Frank Murphy
Installment (1 of 9)
Returning to school on a Monday after the winter break is a dreary way to start a new year. Despite this bleak turn of the calendar page my mood was surprisingly upbeat. I am a happy man by nature. The weather was unusually warm. So we did an outside line. All of the children went straight to their assigned locations and fell silent a full minute before Mr. Ong blew the whistle. I wondered, if this was the calm before the storm?
Several members of my team immediately picked up on my good mood. Ellen Lube said, “You are looking pretty happy.”
“I am.” I replied with a broad smile on my face.
It seemingly took only a few minutes for everyone to get back into the groove of the school routine. I was pleased that the New Year had started well. The rest of day passed smoothly. After school, Pat Costello, Ellen Lube and I met in order to begin to work on developing a new observation tool for the Instructional Leadership team. We planned to use it when we did future classroom walkthroughs.
It would act as a guiding instrument, as we gathered useful information concerning the effectiveness of our instructional program. Working on a project of this sort can be interesting and satisfying work. As I focused on this task I was reminded of why I had become a teacher in the first place. The joy of this profession comes from the knowledge that you are assisting people to develop and sharpen their skills as critical thinkers and productive problem solvers. Helping teachers to be effective instructors is a top priority for me as a principal. By supporting the efforts of my teachers’ as they plan and implement a challenging and rigorous instructional program I am able to affect positive changes in my school community. I got into this business because I wanted to change the world. This is how I am able to do so.
This is not an easy mission. There are many obstacles that impede my progress as I pursue my goals. Often the story I want to tell as educator is not the one I in fact live. Although I want to write a narrative that is as pleasant to the mind as the sight of tulips and roses, and all of the beautiful flowers of nature, I do not. Too often the events that unfold around me are not the prettiest of sights to behold. The garden that I daily labor to scratch out from the rough ground on which Meade stands is over run with dandelion and bramble brush stories. Daily I witness tangled scenes that my mind tries to untangle. Twisted characters, painful problems and ugly scenes are too often the nature of life at Meade. It is a struggle to be a happy man here. I am not always successful in doing so but I try.
Dealing with student discipline problems has become much more of a burden in the last year. I used to have a Dean of Discipline and an aide who assisted me with this chore. But shrinking budgets in recent years has resulted in the elimination of these positions.
As a classroom teacher, I carefully attended to monitoring my students’ behavior. Teachers make many decisions during the course of a day that will influence the manner in which their students will react to and attend to the activities of the classroom. Important decisions concerning; lesson plans, student seat assignments, parent contacts, material choices, and the use of instructional time are constantly being be made by teachers.
Every choice that a teacher makes has an influence on how children will behave during the day. The teacher who understands the developmental needs of her children and who can challenge them intellectually and socially seldom has to deal with serious behavior problems in her classroom. Experienced and effective teachers know how to engage their students in productive activities. They keep children on the right track. When a student does act out in the classroom of masterful teacher, the child is quickly corrected and redirected. Helping children to learn from their mistakes is what good teachers do. My veteran teachers seldom refer student discipline problems to me.
Generally it is the new teachers who pass along their disciplinary problems to the principal’s office.
It’s my job to help them to get a handle on student management. There are many things that a beginning teacher must learn to master. It takes much time and energy to get it all right. I want my new teachers to be successful. In order to do so they need to get their feet firmly on the ground. I give them the space they need to take chances, to make mistakes, and most importantly to grow as an instructor. Often times this means I have to help them to get through the trials and tribulations all beginning teachers experience. I do so by acting as their coach and helping them to solve the problems that they encounter. The initiation process into the teaching profession is hardly a gentle one. Children can make life difficult for a novice teacher.
In the beginning of the school year, I direct much of my attention to the needs of my rookie staff members. As the year progresses, I expect that they will handle most situations on their own. Eventually as they become more skillful mangers of student behavior, they will refer only the most severe disciplinary problems to my attention. Often the misbehavior I do deal with stems from the hurts and frustrations of children for whom life is a mess.
Even though my teachers do handle most of the incidents of student misbehavior that occur in their classrooms there are still many cases that come to me. Extreme misbehavior, such as fighting, is always my business. There are many fights that occur before and after school during the week. I am kept busy as I deal with a constant stream of problems.
It is a challenge for me to keep my attention on the big picture issues of the school when I find myself so frequently bogged down in the mire of student discipline problems. Fortunately, I have a great leadership team who regularly assist me with the search for the answers that will make Meade a better school.
I have been looking carefully at the work that our students do in their classrooms. What I have seen has encouraged me. Our school team is solid; in most every room I see dedicated energetic teachers. The Meade teachers are talented professionals. They are eager to do their best and they expect the best from me.
This means that I need to act as a good coach who provides them with an effective game plan. They value receiving thoughtful suggestions and good ideas that will assist them in improving their instructional practices.
How to provide continuous high quality professional development and feedback to the staff was the topic of discussion today, when I met with John DiPaolo. He wants to develop a plan that will detail to the Central Office how the Meade staff is working to achieve Adequate Yearly Progress. After much discussion we decided that I would pull together a small group of teachers and members of the leadership team who would than work on developing an action plan that we could present to the Central Office staff. This committee would meet on the Saturday of the Martin Luther King holiday weekend. Jeff, a consultant hired by the Temple Partnership School Office, would help facilitate the work of this group. This is a deadly serious pursuit that will determine my future as well as that of Meade School. If we don’t meet the expected AYP targets for this year, I will most likely be axed as the school leader.
My team has told me many times in the past that if I go they will leave. This is not a prospect that any of us wish to consider. There is still much to do and we want to be the ones who get the job done at Meade. Our plan must appease the central administration. I can see that ignoring them isn’t an option.
After meeting with John the rest of my day was taken up with resolving student feuds and fights. The plan had to wait for a quieter time. I was glad to see the end of the day. Around five O’clock, when everything was quiet, I pulled out my newspapers. Another teenager had been shot outside of a neighborhood high school. He had taken a bullet in the head. The boy didn’t attend the high school and there wasn’t any evidence that students from this school were involved. According to the article the police suspected that this crime was a result of a feud over a girl. Paul Vallas was quick to respond to the press’ need for a quote.
“When will the violence end?” he asked.
The tragedy of teenagers murdering other teenagers has long been a horrible shock to the sensibilities of our society; it’s the violence Shakespeare described in Romeo and Juliet. Sadly every year in our society impulsive teen behavior leads to death.
Vallas is further quoted as saying; “There are too many guns on the street. There is too much poverty.”
In his statement he acknowledges that the world our kids live in can be a tough place. I wish that he would talk more about this problem to the press. Stronger actions need to be taken by our society in order to deal with the ill effects of poverty. Additional resources must be allocated to under resourced schools. Yet I expect that the leadership of my district will not deal in a realistic manner with the twisted characters, painful problems, and the ugly scenes that characterize many of our schools. It will take a high degree of resolve and much more money than we currently have for any meaningful change to occur.
Tending to dandelions and bramble bushes is a constant and thorny business. It is not a cause that our elected officials are eager to champion. At the end of day they are only interested in smelling like a rose. Getting stuck by the thorns created by the inequalities of our society is the fate of those of us who actually do work with the children that the politicians say won’t be left behind.