Confessions of an Urban Principal
by Frank Murphy
Installment (4 of 8)
At Meade we believe that having an effective teacher is the most important influence on a child’s academic success. Effective teachers are critical thinkers who model this skill to their students. Effective teachers understand how children develop and learn. They know what is important to teach and how to teach it. At Meade we believe that developing and retaining effective teachers is the most important strategy we most pursue in our school reform agenda.
Recruiting and hiring staff for this year has not gone according to plan. When the teaching staff returned this September, two new teachers reported to Meade. They had been assigned to Meade by the district’s personnel department. These two individuals are apprentice teachers. They are college graduates whom the state has granted emergency certification. When they complete their graduate education masters’ program they will receive their regular teaching certificate. In our district, apprentice teachers are often used to staff vacant positions.
I will assign both of them to our seventh grade vacancies. This is the one grade at Meade where we haven’t been able to reduce class size this year. Our two seventh grades are each at maximum enrollment (thirty-three students). This is a tough assignment for even the most experienced and able teacher.
In the current teacher contract, which is about to expire there, is a provision that an individual school can choose to set aside the traditional seniority based method by which a teacher is placed at a school. If two thirds of a school staff votes to do so they, along with the principal and a parent representative, can select who is hired at the school. Schools that have this authority to make personnel decisions for their school are called Site Selection Schools. Meade was one of the forty-four schools in our system this past year that was a Site Selection school. Making all of the schools in our district Site Selection sites is one of the most problematic issues of the current unresolved contract negotiations. The School Reform Commission has identified site selection as a must have contract provision. The teacher’s union, The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) is opposed to giving up their traditional transfer by seniority approach to school staffing. The chairperson of the SRC, James Nevels, believes that a principal should be able to select his/her own staff. According to Nevels if the principal is the one who is held responsible for the success or failure of the school, the principal should be the one to choose the staff. The union sees site selection as an opportunity for a principal to show favoritism and to punish teachers she or he doesn’t like. It is the position of the union leadership that the district should spend more energy and money on recruiting qualified teachers and reducing class size. I agree with the union’s argument. What good is the power to choose my own staff when the choices are so limited?
Attracting experienced teachers and retaining good emerging teachers is nearly impossible when the suburbs are luring them away with better facilities, decent supplies, and smaller classes. At Meade, we would love to have the option of selecting the best-qualified teacher for a position in our school. In reality, as a Site Selection School we choose individuals for positions from a pool of candidates who are not highly qualified.
The people who apply to Meade are all recent college graduates, apprentices, or alternative career seekers. We can only site select up till July 31. The Human Resources Department fills any vacancies that occur after that date. Most of the time, teachers who resign or retire don’t do so until August. The two positions, which these apprentices will fill, became available in late August. Our two vacancies occurred because one of our teachers retired; another took a job in the suburbs.
Teaching is a very complex activity. A teacher makes hundreds of decisions every day. Planning instructional activities, managing student behavior, communicating with parents, and interacting with other teachers are but a few of the areas that new teachers must master. Our leadership team will spend a lot of our time this year supporting these two new teachers. They will need help in learning the curriculum and pacing their lessons. The children will test them. There will be a steady stream of discipline referrals. Eventually I will end up meeting with many of the parents of the seventh graders. I will find plenty of support from the parents. Much time will be spent on managing the behavior of these two classes, time which could be better spent on improving the instructional program of our school.
When I was a classroom teacher, I always loved my work. I spent almost every minute of my professional day working with children. Now there are days when I barely see one child. Always I have to remind myself to find my way back to the classroom. Whenever I get into the classroom, this work I do makes sense to me. When I am in a good teachers classroom I see clearly the work we need to do in all of our classrooms. Good teachers make sure that children have regular opportunities to construct meaning from all that they see and do. They help children to develop essential skills such as reading, writing and problem-solving. This is what I want all of my teachers to be able to do. Supporting teachers in their own growth and development towards this goal is one of the most important aspects of my job as a principal. When I observe good instruction I purge myself of the toxins, which are generated by the crazy demands of unreasonable superiors.
Today, I resolved that as soon as the lines were in the building I would start visiting classrooms. At 8:45 a.m. I tried to get free of the main office. I wasn’t very successful at achieving this goal. There were a few eighth grade students who had been giving a substitute teacher a problem for the last couple of days. I needed to deal with them. When I finished with these students another half dozen issues demanded my attention.
At 10:05 a.m., I managed to slip away at last. I was happily immersed in the world of the third and fourth grades until about 11:15 a.m., when the office called with a problem needing my immediate attention. In a little over an hour, I had managed to visit with five different groups of students. I wasn’t able to spend as large a chunk of time with my children and teachers as I had hoped. I was however able to see that our third and fourth grades were off to a good start.
In the afternoon I visited our three first grade classes. It always gives me such a kick to observe the happy faces of young children as they enthusiastically attack the challenge of gaining more control over their gross and fine motor skills.
Spending some time with teachers and students everyday is what I need to maintain a healthy mentality. I can best see through the work of our teachers the strengths of our instructional program and the needs of students. What I observe during classroom visits provides powerful data that truly informs schools improvement. On a personal level, being present in the school community helps me to maintain my own individual strengths. One of my greatest skills as a teacher is my ability to relate to and understand the personalities of my students. When you understand the needs of the people you live with, you build trust with those people. I have to continue to utilize the interpersonal skills I developed as a teacher and a principal. I have to remain connected to the classroom.