Confessions of an Urban Principal
by Frank Murphy
Installment (2 of 4)
One day in February, Samuel and another boy engaged in a pushing match in the hallway during the change of classes. Reflexively, I stepped between them because I always intervened when my students acted inappropriately. I did so even though I had taken quite a beating a few weeks earlier when I’d attempted to separate two other fighting students. Fortunately, this time the boys stopped.
I led Samuel down the hallway while another teacher took the second boy to his room. I talked to Samuel.
“What are you doing? This isn’t like you. I know you can do better.”
These were words that I was used to saying to students. I was, in my own mind, a wise teacher. Samuel stared at me fearlessly. I continued to talk until he finally said, “You don’t know me.”
And that was all he said. Then he made a little whistling sound and gave me a coy smile. He walked back into the classroom. His words stopped me in my tracks. I didn’t know him. He was a young African American man who had had little success in school. I was a thirty-something white man and teacher who had never taught in a school where the students saw me as an outsider. To them I was suspect, someone to be mistrusted. Maybe because of this realization, I was finally able to hear him. It was clear that Samuel hadn’t received many breaks in school. I suspect he hadn’t received many breaks in life.
For the fourteen years before I had come to this new school, I had listened to my students from the perspective of someone who was powerful and in charge. Now that the education world I have known is spinning out of control, I need to put my assumptions aside. I need to see my new world as it is.
I have always been comfortable telling kids how I think they should act. But I hadn’t listened closely to them when they tried to tell me what their world was actually like. Suddenly and unpleasantly, I was learning what it felt like to be disempowered.
Slowly, life turned around after this encounter with Samuel. I started to listen more than I talked. I grew to understand Samuel and his classmates better.
By the end of the term I had established a solid relationship with my students. I read carefully what they wrote in class and listened to what they said. I was determined to understand them. In the process, I discovered that I had many unexamined preconceptions about race and class, notions that hindered my ability to comprehend the full humanity of others and of my own.
My students became my teachers. They made it clear to me that I had much to learn about the problems of an urban public school. They lived an American experience that didn’t share the riches our nation provides to so many of its citizens. I stopped thinking of them as poor, “at-risk” children who needed to be saved. At the end of that year, I knew that I had finally found where I needed to be as an educator.
Twenty years have passed since I met Samuel G. Washington. The rawness of that tumultuous year has been replaced by a tougher skin. But the lessons learned from that young man and his many friends have not faded. He shaped my development as a teacher and, eventually, as a principal.
For the last eleven years I have been the principal of General George G. Meade Elementary School. Meade is located in a poor, urban community in North Philadelphia. For the four and half years before I came to Meade, I was the assistant principal at the middle school Meade students fed into after fourth grade. For these fifteen years I have lived my school life in the same North Philadelphia community. It is community greatly challenged by drugs, poverty and urban decay.
The children served by Meade School are among those most in need effective and committed teachers and principals. As the leader guiding them through their school experience, I am personally accountable to these children.
Providing my children with a quality of service so they can excel academically is a monumental challenge. Our school (and entire school district) is under-funded. We struggle to provide the same level and quality of services that more affluent districts routinely offer. Recruiting and retaining effective teachers is difficult. Our average district class sizes are large. There are more than 30 children in each of our classrooms. Our building facilities are old and often need repair.
In 1998, Meade had the highest percentage of poor families of any school in the district. At that time, student achievement was low. Only eighteen percent of first graders could read at grade level expectation. The environment was chaotic. The student transience rate was, and continues to be, high. Many teachers took the first available opportunity to transfer to other schools. Administrative turnover was also high. Before my arrival, Meade had had three principals in two years.