Principal Principles

Jazz isn’t dead. It just smells funny. –Frank Zappa

I’m feeling kind of smelly right about now. For the first time since I started teaching public school, I’m not beginning the school year in a classroom. It smells funny. I liked being a teacher. I liked thinking of myself as a teacher. I still think of myself that way, although it seems weird to do that when I’m not doing it. And I don’t know when or if I’ll be teaching again.

Good teachers are always trying to reflect on their practice. Trying. Most good teachers don’t have a lot of time actually to do that reflecting. It takes time and a certain frame of mind that’s both relaxed and focused at the same time. All of the pedagogy books out there — and there are more and more every day — are super well-intentioned and full of great stuff aimed at helping teachers improve their craft and thus their effectiveness for students and to increase their enjoyment of their profession (if not their pay). I’ve read a lot of them. Most have really thoughtful ideas for developing a reflective practice. The problem is time and mind-frame: not many teachers have much of either to spare once the bell rings.

When I was teaching I was lucky, in a way, to have time to reflect on my practice, thanks mostly to insomnia. I rarely slept more than 4 or 5 hours a night during the school year. I’d sleep better during much of the summer, but as the beginning of school crept closer, sleeplessness joined the parade. Now that I’m not teaching, I’m a little surprised that I’m not sleeping much, either. I think it’s because I’m “free” to assess what happened in the past year or two, and to compare it to the blessings of my experience in the preceding years.

I learned many things during last school year. One of the most important lessons for me was how critical it is for teachers to have support from their principals. I know that lots of teachers out there don’t feel supported by their principals, and that’s one of the biggest tragedies of education. Until last year, when I signed on as a new teacher at Neah Bay High School, I’d only heard about this quite common situation: the first 9 years of my public school teaching career I experienced really genuine, helpful support from the three principals I had during that time.

The first three years my principal was Angie Lakey-Campbell, who’d been in the job for a long time but was still much younger than I. She’d grown up in the remote, miniscule, rural Idaho town of Cambridge, and taught and coached there for a long time before becoming the junior/senior high school principal. She’d been a star athlete as a student there, and was interested in bird hunting. I remember her calling to invite me for the job interview: she’d read my chukar hunting blog and — as if I didn’t already know — was hoping to lure me there by pointing out that Cambridge was basically Ground Zero for chukar hunting. So she hired me, a brand new teacher fresh out of an online, alternative teaching program who had no idea what he was signing up for. I don’t believe Angie was fully supported by the others on the hiring committee, but her decision changed my life in ways I can’t even begin to enumerate here. I’d describe her support of me as stoic: I made more mistakes in my first couple of years than you’d expect the most idiotic novice teacher to make, and her approach was to let me learn from them, to say as little as possible, and never judge. I’m still not sure how she conveyed her faith in me without saying very much, ever, to me; she mostly listened to me talk through situations. It was as though she believed I could figure things out if someone would just listen to me rant and rave and — occasionally — cry, and I came to cherish our required weekly meetings. I think I felt her support more from hearing students say she’d defended my strictness and high expectations, which she did. One student, Carly, who became an all-time favorite of mine (she endured me from 7th through 12th), when she was in 7th grade moaned to Angie about this new jerk of a teacher, and Angie told her that “Mr. McMichael is cool!” That made a difference in my relationship with Carly. Angie made me feel believed-in. That’s a rare thing, I think, for anyone in any endeavor. For me, it made the difference between quitting in the first month and staying in the best job there is. Because of her support, I made it through some very trying times in my first and second years, including a fraudulent child molestation claim by a career-criminal parent who’d suckered the local sheriff into believing every word of her story, causing him to charge into our house, gun drawn, after we went to bed one night and accuse me of assaulting a child. Angie helped me weather that by never doubting me and spending even more time listening. At the beginning of my third year teaching, I so loved going to school and working with kids that my wife joked that I must be having an affair; she’d never seen me so happy! For the first time in my life I felt I was doing what I was supposed to be doing, and Angie was centered in my mind as a crucial part of that. So when she told me during the summer after my third year that she’d taken a superintendent position in another state, I was devastated. We’d become friends by this time, had hunted birds together, and I felt she was my number one fan — she had spent a lot of time in my classroom observing and giving me lots of causal praise in writing, and asking me probing questions that made me a better teacher. To lose this kind of daily support was something I hadn’t expected and, honestly, I wasn’t sure I could go on. I wasn’t even sure the school or district could survive her departure.

Angie writes on the “Before I Die” wall in downtown Cambridge. She supported my middle-school students’ wish to create Idaho’s first version of this national project, erected in November 2013.
Angie, back left, and my 7th & 8th Grade students in front of their “Before I Die” wall

Angie’s replacement was the district’s superintendent and elementary school principal, Ed Schumacher, who was nearing the end of a long career in education. I didn’t know Ed well, but did know that he and Angie had very different personalities. Where Angie was stoic and terse and made her points tacitly, Ed was the opposite: exceedingly warm, animated, highly verbal, and incredibly, positively effusive. Many students and I weren’t sure we could trust this kind of leader, especially after Angie’s tenure. The word at school had been that few really liked Angie but everybody trusted her because she was absolutely fair, absolutely consistent, and never unpredictable: if you screwed up, you’d face the consequences, regardless of who you or your parents were. I think this cost Angie, though, because I know she privately faced a lot of criticism from parents and grandparents, and even school board members, who found her cold and standoffish. Ed seemed almost to be an emotional about-face from Angie’s demeanor, or a kind of salve, as if everyone needed a hug, and we got it, either real or figurative. The mood at school changed with Ed. It was lighter, and — for a while — was tough for some of us who missed the severity and focus of Angie’s expectations for the learning environment. Significant change isn’t easy for anyone, but for those of us who kind of relied on discipline to keep things controlled (and this included many students), it was a turbulent transition at first. Over time, though, I began to see Ed’s approach as at least as consistent as Angie’s. Yes, it looked much different, but the foundation of it was the same as Angie’s: belief in each person’s potential for goodness. Once I saw this, I started “listening” more carefully to Ed, and watching him operate. I learned a lot from this, especially as it departed drastically from my own outlook on humanity. I saw (still see) the glass as either cracked, half-empty, or filled with something I wouldn’t drink. And Ed was just as consistent in his optimistic support of everyone in the building as Angie was with her “education-is-serious-business” vibe. I’m a slow learner, and I’m embarrassed by how long it took me to understand Ed, but once I did, I really feel I came into my own as a teacher. He saw me as the expert he wanted me to be, and this made me try even harder to live up to that (all good teachers think they’re frauds and spend their whole careers trying to prove to themselves that they aren’t, and never succeed in the effort). So it was equally as scary when, after four years with Ed as my principal, he decided to retire.

Ed Schumacher, from the Cambridge High School Yearbook 2017

We began the following school year with a brand new principal, a young guy who was very nice if a bit unprepared for the task. In the Spring, Covid hit. See the next post for more on that. The short story is that, after limping through the rest of the 2019-2020 year in “remote learning,” everyone spent the summer wondering what would happen when school started up again in the fall. I was disappointed to learn in mid-August that the Cambridge School Board had voted to open school in person without a mask requirement, and that I wasn’t allowed to require masks in my classroom, so — after a very stressful first few days of the new school year — I felt I had to quit in order to keep my family safe. It was the toughest, most heartbreaking decision of my life.

Note to students after my last day at the beginning of my 9th year in this classroom, August 30, 2020

My wife and I felt very alienated in Cambridge after that. I tried finding remote teaching jobs, but was unsuccessful. I began applying for teaching jobs in other places, and got two interviews and one job offer, at Neah Bay High School on the Makah Indian Reservation in the northwesternmost corner of the lower 48. The principal who hired me, a Makah woman who’d spent much of her career working as a teacher and administrator in some tough schools in the Seattle area before coming back to the “Rez,” told me after my interview that her team had “picked me” and that she was proud to have me as an important part of her “dream team” to make the school a better place. (I didn’t learn until later that there was at least one member of her “team” who didn’t want me hired.) Without warning, she quit a week before school was to begin in the fall. This was not the first sign of chaos there, but it set the tone. The day before students were to arrive for school a new principal arrived, also Native but from another tribe. This woman had begun her career as a music teacher at Neah Bay High School twenty years earlier. I was encouraged by the fact that she’d been a music teacher and tried engaging with her over our shared interest and experience, but she wasn’t very talkative with me and didn’t appear interested in my music background. Over time, it became clear she wasn’t interested in much about me. I’m unsure whether I was a unique case or if she related to all teachers there that way. Granted, she got off to a rocky start with little prep time, and the school itself was very rough behaviorally, compounded by the fact that students hadn’t been in the building for nearly two years due to Covid. Also, social media had colonized kids’ minds during that extended “remote learning” period, and the app Tik Tok wasn’t helping things in the US by allowing “Tik Tok Challenges” to run amok in schools: September’s Tik Tok Challenge was for students to post a video of themselves destroying school bathrooms; our middle school kids were experts at this. October’s Tik Tok Challenge was “assault a teacher,” and apparently they were good at this as well.

I knew Neah Bay would be tough, but I had no idea. I thought I’d dealt with some rough kids in Cambridge, and I had. But they were comparative pansies. Without detailing the context too much, very little teaching or learning happened in any classroom at Neah Bay High School, whether you’re talking about direct instruction or inquiry. All teachers, even the veterans — both Makah and not — were always on their heels and often on the ropes. The kids ran the school, and “behaviors” were off the charts. Even the new principal admitted to me once that she’d never seen anything like it, and she’d been in some very rough places. So I’m not sure it’s fair to assess her leadership skills given the peculiarities of this school, but I will anyway. And it’s not good. Also, keep in mind that Washington pays its teachers much better than most states do, and it pays its administrators even better, so there’s that. So here’s my line on this one: she visited my classroom twice during the year, each time for about 15 or 20 minutes, and supposedly wrote an evaluation of me as a teacher. I never saw the evaluation (still haven’t, despite numerous requests), which is a problem according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. It should be a problem to any organism with cerebral ganglia that someone can “evaluate” someone else based on 35 minutes of work out of 1400 hours; evaluations become a permanent part of teachers’ record and can seriously impact their careers. Anyway, she was supposed to have met with me (and all teachers) to discuss the evaluation and offer a chance to respond to the evaluation. None of this happened. During the year, she never once asked me a question about myself or my interests, or about what I had taught, or about anything. She did offer unconstructive criticism on a variety of things I did as a teacher, most always involving a decision I’d made to remove a student from my classroom for telling me to “fuck off” or something similar. On many occasions, she’d send me a Google Chat questioning the propriety of my decision to discipline a student. To say she did not make me feel she supported me as a teacher is a gross understatement. Ultimately, her lack of interest in me as a person who had committed to make a positive difference in the community and put it on the line every day while getting grief from her (instead of support) is a large part of what made me decide not to return for a second year. There were many other reasons, but that was the main one. I realized that without some sense of backing, some sense of faith in who I was and what I was trying to do, without some belief in me and my skills and abilities, without feeling like my boss was at least aware of who I was and what I could do, I couldn’t be successful or even partly effective there. Being a public school teacher is difficult. Trying to do that job without an administrator who knows what they’re doing and who believes in the teachers doing the vast majority of work for kids is impossible. And, sadly, I think it’s the norm in this country.

Researching standards for secondary principals is a disheartening activity for a teacher. The National Policy Board for Educational Leaders (NPBEL) updated its Professional Standards for Educational Leaders in 2015, and the word “teacher” appears only a handful of times in 36 pages; the bulk of the standards focus on principals’ responsibilities to the students, and there is no single standard that addresses educational leaders’ responsibilities to teachers. Of the 51 individual contributors to these updated standards, 44 are college- or university-affiliated, six were principals, one was a superintendent, and none were teachers.

Despite most of the “research” and “knowledge” and “policies” on secondary schools being created by anyone but actual teachers, it’s not hard to argue that teachers are a school’s most important resource. They perform the essential work of any school and have the most direct, sustained, impactful contact with students, as well as the responsibility for delivering highly specialized services on a daily basis to the largest group of “customers” (I’m reluctant to call students this, but many unfamiliar with education seem to think educational institutions are just another business and should be simple to run; both are wrong). This is not to say that other roles and jobs at a school are unimportant. The point here is that, given the importance of teachers to a school, the resources for preparation and for support, as well as the cultural perception of teachers as professionals, has been lacking at increasing rates over the past 50 years, while in the same time-frame expectations of teachers (by everyone) have increased exponentially. Covid seems to have hyped up the dissing of teachers on all levels, and the country is seeing the results. They’re not good.

Teachers are leaving the profession in unprecedented numbers. A recent article in Chalkbeat discusses the reasons of 80 teachers who left after last school year. Many teachers’ main reason was lack of support from administration. Before starting at NBHS I’d heard about the high turnover rate there and laments from veterans about how tough it was to retain teachers. One of the main reasons was obvious from our personal experience: nowhere for teachers to live. More on that in the next post. The off-rez teachers, most of whom are non-Native, though, often don’t last more than one school year there, and some leave before the year’s over. I’m just another one of those. During the year, students had started coming around. I made some great connections with kids, which is the main reward of being a teacher. But as the end of the year approached, and planning for the following year commenced, my schedule for the next year sent a clear message: the principal and the other English teacher who created the schedule didn’t want me to return. If I chose to return, I’d have 90% of the students and the other English teacher would have 10% at most. Why they even offered me a contract is still a mystery; maybe the district doesn’t get dinged on unemployment if someone quits. In any case, the choice they gave me wasn’t really a choice. Without the support of the school, the district, or the principal, returning for a second year was unthinkable.

Being a principal is hard. I wouldn’t want that job. Among many challenges principals face, perhaps the most fraught one is that many teachers view principals — rightly or not — as teachers who couldn’t hack the classroom, and were lured out of it by the vast increase in salary. Double-whammy, and not entirely without evidence. Principals also have to deal with all the extra-curricular aspects of education: angry parents, behavioral issues of students and teachers, reporting, standardized testing, school board politics, identity politics, and leadership. I couldn’t do it. Few do it well, but they are out there. That I had two of the best, consecutively, in a remote Idaho town, is nothing short of miraculous. But really, what Angie and Ed did was not rocket science, and it seems to me should be emphasized over everything else in whatever training or standards are required for school principals: show your support for your primary resource at school — teachers. Believe in them, be interested in who they are as both people and educators, and everything will follow that. It’s not an option if you want to be good at that job.

So now, enveloped in the funny smell of myself, I’m appreciating the great fortune I had to get Angie and Ed at the beginning of my teaching career. I hope it’s not over. I’ve got more. We’ll see.


3 Replies to “Principal Principles”

  1. I taught for 30 years in Oregon at what grew to be the biggest school in the state. So I worked under many principals, and often had at least 4 assistant principals as well each year. At the end of my last year I put together a newsletter which was, in my humble opinion, poignant, snarky, and humorous. One item was titled ” My Ten Best Principals”. I listed four, and then left the rest blank. A great principal is a rare bird.

  2. I too, was blessed to have Angie as my principal and you as my colleague. I always knew Angie had my back. I loved that you had high expectations.

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