Confessions of an Urban Principal / Well, We Sure Have a Lot of Feelings…”
by Frank Murphy
Installment 1 of 9
Paul Vallas has endured his own storm of stressful events in the last week. A fourth grade child in one of our city’s schools attempted to hang himself on a hook in the coat closet. In a different neighborhood, some children were pricked by a syringe they found on the way to school. In yet another part of the city, a child was shot outside of his school.
It has been almost two weeks since the Saturday parent meeting took place with Vallas and his top aide. I wait for news from him or his staff regarding the status of our school.
The rumors are flying. Nearly every person who comes into the school claims to know for sure what is going to happen. They all start their stories in the same way. “I heard from a very reliable source at 21st Street that…”. In some of these tales, the Deputy Slide wants me out. In other accounts, I’m being promoted to Regional Superintendent. Some of the rumormongers are certain that we are in the CAR region. Other storytellers say that Temple will continue as our manager. I wonder, how many reliable sources can there be?
I talked to John DiPaolo on Wednesday. He said that the talks between Temple’s president and Mr. Vallas are going well. “There isn’t anything official yet but I’m confident that all four schools are going to stay in the Partnership.”
Yesterday I was notified that I must attend a meeting on Friday for the principals of the CAR schools. The waiting gets more nerve-racking with each passing day.
In the school, life has been calm. The Terra Nova testing has been proceeding well. There have been very few disciplinary referrals and only one bizarre incident has occurred this week. The fourth grade brother of Saundra Thompson had been involved in a verbal confrontation with several boys on Wednesday in art class. Afterwards he worked himself into an angry state. When he returned to his classroom, he attempted to hang himself by his shirt collar on a hook in the coat closet. The teacher took him off the hook immediately and called for the counselor.
The counselor tried to contact Mrs. Thompson. The person who answered said she was sleeping and didn’t want to be disturbed. An aunt came up to school in her place. The counselor recommended that the boy be taken to the emergency psychiatric clinic for an evaluation. The boy said he was only joking. He claimed that he was imitating the boy he heard about in the news who hung himself on the coat hook last week.
Today I saw Mrs. Thompson at Saundra’s disciplinary hearing. She didn’t mention the incident concerning her son. The meeting was held at the district’s law office. Pat had come along with me. She had witnessed Saundra and her aunts’ attack on me. The girl who had pulled the knife was seated next to Mrs. Thompson. Her presences made me feel uncomfortable.
I presented my testimony. Mrs. Thompson and her daughter each made short statements. The aunt was the last person to speak. She stated that she was the one who had attacked me, not Saundra. It was true that she had assaulted me. But this didn’t mean her niece was innocent. Saundra had participated in the assault. After the aunt completed her confession, she offered me an apology. “Mr. Murphy, I am sorry for causing you harm.”
It was a bizarre scene.
I arrived at 8:15 a. m. for the meeting of the CAR principals. When the Regional Superintendent saw me, she invited me into her office. There she informed me that I was welcome to attend the CAR meetings but my presence wasn’t mandatory. “Temple will continue to manage your school as well as Ferguson. You will also be part of the CAR region.”
“Well what exactly does that mean?” I asked.
“I’m not quite sure what the whole answer to your question is, Frank. John DiPaolo will continue as your supervisor. Temple will still manage Meade and I will oversee how Temple manages your school. There are still things to be worked out regarding how this will operate.”
I could see that Meade’s new status as a Temple School and as a member of the CAR region is going to be complicated. We are going to be caught in the middle of a tug of war between two managers.
The principals’ meeting started at nine o’clock. We went without break until 1:30 p.m. For most of that time we sat in a circle and engaged in activities intended to help us to get in touch with our emotional selves. We were instructed to make nametags. On them, we were asked to draw symbols that represented our hopes and fears concerning the CAR region. When we were finished, the superintendent asked each of us to explain why we had chosen our respective symbols.
A large chunk of time was spent on this sharing of our emotional responses to learning that our schools had been included in the CAR region. The superintendent initiated this dialogue by saying, “I want you to share with everyone how you felt when you learned your school was selected for CAR. I’m going to list your responses on the board. We are all going to process our feelings together”. Several times during the course of the morning she reiterated to us, “Effective leaders are in touch with their emotions.”
I found the responses of the principals to be amazingly candid. Shock, depression, and fear were the top three feelings identified. The board was quickly filled with comments. The superintendent concluded by stating, “Well, we sure have a lot of feelings. I’m glad we are able to get them in the open.”
When someone asked how the region would operate, the given answer was brief. “ We will be having many more meetings where your questions will be answered. The people from Johns Hopkins University will soon start to study your schools. Except for you, Frank. Temple will have to decide what they want to do about the Johns Hopkins study.”
The other principals looked puzzled. The superintendent explained to them how Meade and Ferguson would continue to be managed by Temple, but still be a part of the CAR region. They looked as confused by this pronouncement as I felt.