Members of Education World's "Principal Files" team have turned mistakes they've made into valuable lessons they are willing to share with you. Included: Lessons learned about student discipline, involving parents, school "poli-tricks," and more.
You might have heard of the book Oops: What We Learn When Our Teaching Fails. The book is a collection of essays by teachers who describe their worst teaching experiences and what they learned from them. Seeing that book got me thinking back to some pretty excruciating failures in the classroom -- and to the fact that most of those failures were great learning experiences
Seeing that book also got me wondering what valuable lessons principals have learned from the less-than-shining moments in their careers. I did a quick Internet search and failed to come up with a book titled Oops: What We Learn When Our Principaling Fails. Perhaps, I thought, Ed World's "Principal Files" principals might like to write the opening chapter!
So I approached the P-Files team with an offer few could refuse: If you were to write an essay for a book (or -- fancy this! -- an Education World article) to be titled Oops: What We Learn When Our Principaling Fails, what experiences would you write about? What was that big "Oops!" that taught you a valuable lesson?
"When I agreed to take on a very difficult, low-scoring, high-poverty, inner-city school, I didn't quite fathom how poor the discipline was there," principal Betty Peltier told Education World. "There were lots of fights and disruptions -- often requiring intervention from law enforcement agencies."
Early that school year, after quite a few sleepless nights, Peltier and her assistant principal, Art Joffrion, sat down to discuss their goals. "We agreed that we would concentrate on getting the discipline under control," recalled Peltier, principal at Southdown Elementary School in Houma, Louisiana. "My big mistake, however, would have been the approach I would have taken. I figured if we focused on eliminating fighting and achieving some semblance of order we would be on the road to success."
But Southdown's assistant principal had another suggestion. He agreed that the emphasis should be on discipline, but he had an almost opposite idea. "He suggested that we work on every little thing," said Peltier. All the little rules that were loosely enforced -- for example, rules that called for shirts being tucked in and belts worn, or walking quietly in line in the halls -- would be strictly enforced, no matter how insignificant they seemed.
Amazingly, when the teachers helped us address the "smaller" rules, the fighting and constant disruptions declined. "Drastically!" Peltier added.
"Coupled with that idea, we vowed to shower the students with positive comments," explained Peltier. "If we had to correct a student, we tried to add a comment that instilled pride in the student and the school. We would say, 'Please tuck in your shirt, you're a Southdown man!'"
The lesson Peltier learned from her assistant is one she never would have considered: sometimes, big problems can be solved by tackling small problems. "Try it for yourself, it works!" Peltier added.
It seems students aren't the only ones who learn valuable lessons from their parents. Many of the lessons principals have learned the hard way are lessons taught by the parents of their students. One principal, who asked not to be identified in this article, recently recalled a valuable lesson he learned about parent involvement.
School policy called for students to line up outdoors, by class, at the start of the school day. As time went on, the area outside the school doors was becoming more and more congested and difficult to manage. Parents would stand in line with kids. Strollers would clog movement in the area. Parents would engage in discussion with the teacher on duty, which made it difficult for teachers to watch students
The teachers saw a growing problem, so they approached the principal about setting aside an area away from the class lines where parents and chaperones could gather when it was time to line up. "I thought 'No problem,'" the principal told Education World. "That Friday afternoon I had the custodians paint a huge rectangular box, like a baseball coaches' box, off to the side. It was a place where parents could congregate and chat without disrupting the line-up routines and entry to the building. I was satisfied that we had a quick and easy fix to a problem that concerned the staff."
Little did he know!
"Come Monday morning, when the parents arrived and were asked to wait in the box area, there was almost a revolution!" he recalled. "Some parents felt a basic civil liberty was being denied. Others looked at the box as a penalty box." Soon an ad hoc parent delegation was at the principal's door. He listened to their concerns. They felt they could police themselves; they could move to one side or the other so they were not in the way. "I quickly agreed and went into damage control mode," he said.
"I learned a valuable lesson about the need to 'socialize' a new concept prior to implementation," he added. "Had I first brought this concern to the site-based team or my PTA executive board, I probably could have sold the plan; but I didn't, so I paid the price."
Since then, the principal told Education World, he has put an end to the morning line-up. Instead, kids enter the building as soon as they arrive at school and proceed directly to class. But before initiating that plan, "I conferred with everyone," he added.
Lucie Boyadjian is principal of a school with a diverse population. Twenty-six percent of the students at Glen Oaks School in Hickory Hills, Illinois, are Arabic. Most of the Arab students live near the local mosque and, therefore, come to school on the same bus. "One day, the students on the bus were extremely mischievous -- to the point that the bus driver requested my assistance," Boyadjian recalled. Wanting to handle the situation before it got out of control, Boyadjian gathered all the students in the gym before class. "I thought a dynamic, purposeful, and guilt-ridden lecture from the principal would improve their behavior."
Boyadjian emphasized the importance of students' actions. Many people will judge you by your actions, she said. "I do not want people to trash your family name or your ethnicity because of poor bus behavior," she told them. A few minutes later the students were back in their classes and Boyadjian went back to her office, satisfied that she had made her point and hopeful that the situation was under control.
But, as things turned out, Boyadjian's early morning lesson was just the start. "One boy went home and told his father that I called all Arabs trash," said Boyadjian. And it went on from there. "Word got around the neighborhood. I had a multitude of phone calls and irate parents wanting to see me. They even sent a representative from the mosque to talk to me." It took some fancy footwork and careful explanation, but the issue soon was resolved.
Even though her spur-of-the-moment lesson came back to haunt her, Boyadjian said she would not handle the situation any differently if it happened again. "I, too, come from an ethnic background," she explained. "I know what it is like to grow up ethnic in America. It's not an easy thing. I did not cower from the bus situation. Instead, I tried to use it as a teachable moment."
A Canadian principal with whom we spoke, who chose not to be named in this article, considered his biggest mistake to be going into parent meetings with his guard down. "That's when things can go from bad to worse to horrible in a matter of minutes," he said.
"Today, if I think a meeting is going to be difficult, I am usually extra well prepared. I have all my notes together. I have my vice principal there as well. We are both emotionally prepared and very cautious."
"I have had a lot of positive feedback from some of meetings that filled me with fear and trepidation," he added. Those meetings went so well because of all the advance preparation. "So I guess my lesson is simple. Don't let you guard down and always be well prepared."