Confessions of an Urban Principal
by Frank Murphy
Installment (1 of 4)
When someone asks me what I do, I always hesitate for at least a half second. I want to say I am a teacher, the role that best describes me. However, the few times I’ve termed myself teacher in recent years, people become confused when they realize I am an elementary school principal. People think of a principal as different from a teacher: more important, in charge of the school. People wonder why I would present myself as just a teacher. So I have taken to introducing myself as an educator. But this title doesn’t work well for me either.
Who is an educator? It could mean a range of careers from college professor to daycare aide. I would prefer a term that communicates clearly who I am. I have lived my entire adult professional life in elementary or middle schools; I have grown to be a man by teaching school children. If it didn’t sound so corny, I would tell people that I’m a “schoolman”
When I decided to become a principal, my graduate studies advisor suggested that I start by applying to be a teacher in the School District of Philadelphia. While anyone who met the requirements could apply for an administrative position, if you didn’t already work for the District your chances of being hired as a principal were slim.
So in 1988, I became a public school teacher. I was already a fourteen year veteran of the classroom: eleven years teaching in white working class Catholic schools and three years in an affluent suburban district. I was an experienced and knowledgeable teacher, but quickly found out I still had much to learn.
The hiring process I endured in Philadelphia was protracted and confusing. I didn’t know I had a definite position until the day before school started. The school to which I reported was disorganized and poorly managed. At first I was given a sixth grade class, which was a good match for my many years of experience at that grade level. After two months, the principal abruptly reassigned me to an eighth grade math class, thinking I was the best choice to handle this newly vacant position.
The eighth grade teacher that I replaced had been popular with his students. They resented losing him. I became the main focus of their resentment. I worked hard to learn new content, as well as to adjust to the differences between my bubbly curious sixth graders and the volatile emotional cocktail of these eighth graders. During the months of November and December, I shrunk from a size forty waist to a size thirty-six. I also went back to smoking, a habit that I had broken nearly three years before. The shifting my teaching assignments had sent me into a tailspin.
It was a harrowing experience. I was on the phone every night for at least an hour with parents. Every day in each of my sections, unruly students attempted to disrupt the lesson. I experienced classroom management problems I had never seen before. I went from loving going to work every day to doubting my career choice. I thought of quitting daily.
One student in particular made those first days in Philadelphia especially difficult: Samuel G. Washington. Samuel was an eighth grader who was going to turn seventeen before the end of the school year. In 1988, there was no limit to the number of times a student could be retained in a grade. Even though Samuel had repeated several grades in elementary school, I discovered that his academic failures didn’t correlate with a lack of intelligence. Samuel was bright young man with a strong and dominant personality. He was popular with his peers. He exercised a great influence over them. It soon became apparent that Samuel G. Washington was the leader of the eighth grade nation. It was Samuel with whom I struggled to gain control of my classroom.