Confessions of an Urban Principal
by Frank Murphy
Installment (1 of 8)
Outside my window the sounds of a block party fill the air. The final barbeque of summer is cooking and the air is starting to cool. Tomorrow we will get dressed in our new school clothes and start another year. In the world of school, Labor Day is the real New Year’s Eve. It is a day when regrets and longing are perfectly compressed together. Summer is in its last few hours. Whether child or adult, we all relate to the feelings that the night before school stirs in us. Shortly a new grade will be started. It will be a new beginning for everyone in the school community. Teachers, children, parents and principals all make resolutions to do better and to have a good school year.
For me, Labor Day has been my New Year’s Eve for the last forty-nine years. So here I’m sitting, waiting for midnight to come. I don’t have a pot to bang or a whistle to blow. All I have is a funny feeling I never felt before. My mind is clouded by a sense of dread. I fear the year that lies ahead of me. It’s not a good feeling. School has always been my life, my way of living. I loved being a teacher from the first day in my first sixth grade class. I loved being a principal from my first day in every class. I have always looked forward to the challenge of each new school day. Helping children to learn how to read and write, to solve problems and to think critically has always invigorated me. Creating and maintaining a learning environment which helps all children to accomplish these objectives has always been my professional goal. While this has never been an easy task, it has become almost an impossible task in the face of the misguided accountability systems that are now entangling our public schools. No Child left Behind (NCLB) states that all children will be academically proficient by the year 2014. In other words they will pass the test that their state has created for them. If they don’t make adequate yearly progress (AYP) towards this goal of 100% proficiency in 2014 their school will be punished. The response from our school systems is to teach the children in their care how to take the test and to score well on it. The accountability system of NCLB creates a race to the finish line. It is a race were only the fittest will survive. The concept of accountability is overly simplified by this legislation. .
Holding true to my professional and moral beliefs has become more of a fight than a challenge is these days of No Child Left Behind. The push by our school district leaders to increase the test scores of our students is intense. The battle is wearing on me. I am feeling the pressure. The feelings of school reform are wearing me down; making me start this year with my head not in the game. I have to get it there.
Throughout the years, school reforms imitative have been fueled by the personal feelings we all have about our schools. Crafty leaders understand how much our feelings play into the judgments we make. Educational legislation, policy, and practice have been greatly influenced by the manipulation of these feelings. Going into another year I can see how much the feelings of reform are shaping me.
Earlier today, I went up to visit my school. The second floor hallway wasn’t ready for opening day and I wanted to get it finished. The fish mobiles had to be hung and some of the banners were down. Well-decorated hallways have been my responsibility since my first full year as principal of Meade. The school I found here when I took charge of it was a barren place. The only decorations in the public spaces were in a corner of the third floor hallway. Some first grade artwork was on display there. It was hung so high up on the wall that it was almost touching the ceiling. I couldn’t make out the writing below the drawings at that height. I asked the teacher who had hung the work why she had put it so far out of reach. She said, “So that no one would pull it down.” The school was bleak. Every surface needed a paint job. The lighting was dim. I was depressed walking the hallway.
Over the last few years with the help of many volunteers and dozens of gallons of paint, the dingy world I took charge of has been transformed. These days, it is a cozy home for children. Their work is on display throughout the public spaces of the school as well as in their classrooms.
Each of the three floors has a number of flagpoles down the length of the hallway, poles used to fly banners that mark the seasons of school. Rituals and customs are comforts and anchors to children, and to us all, I believe. They are touchstones that make a place feel familiar and safe. I believe that it is my responsibility to take the lead in working to make our school a special place for our children who spend so much time living here.
I had meant to have the hallways done last Friday, but I ran out of steam. The staff had returned the Wednesday before and it had been a busy three days. Preparing the school for the arrival of the children takes much effort.