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Second Time Around

In the midst of an epidemic of principal burnout, Robert Yeager has come out of retirement to lead a school that has had four administrators in only seven years. What keeps this seasoned educator going? And what lessons does he have for others? Included: Yeager shares the "guiding principles" that help him keep his focus!

"I am not sure there is a secret to my longevity of service," said principal Robert Yeager. "However, I do know that no matter how long one has been in education, one needs to continue to learn and adapt. I guess I would say adaptability and a willingness to trust those to whom I delegate are major ingredients [to my longevity]."

Principal Robert Yeager

While some educators with almost 40 years of experience might be making time for travel and pastimes, Robert Yeager is addressing the problems of a middle school that has had four different administrators in seven years. Simply put, the students and their successes keep him going. The critical situation of the school is in fact what brought this former principal out of retirement after just one year.

TROUBLE WITH A CAPITAL "T" -- "TRANSITIONS"

Yeager started his career as a history teacher at George Washington Middle School in 1965, a time when the building housed high schoolers. He went on to other positions within the district of Alexandria City Public Schools in Alexandria, Virginia. In 1987, he returned to George Washington Middle School as principal.

"During the two years I served in the position, George Washington Middle School was recognized as an outstanding school and parents felt comfortable that, wherever their child fell on the instructional continuum, their academic needs would be addressed appropriately," Yeager recalled. "After I left, principals rotated in and out of George Washington Middle School every two to three years with devastating results. The reputation went from an outstanding school to a troubled one."

Parents were becoming reluctant to send their children to the school, and one of its outgoing administrators suggested to the school board that it would likely never be accredited.

"Because I started my career at the school and knew the community, I believed that the student population was essentially the same as when I had been principal in 1987 and 1988, and the school had suffered because of lack of leadership with vision and commitment, not poor students and teachers," explained Yeager. "I also felt a special attachment to the school and felt the students, staff, and community were being unjustly beleaguered. I accepted the offer [to return] basically because I truly felt the students and staff desired better leadership than they had been receiving."

LEARN FROM THE PAST, APPRECIATE THE PRESENT, PLAN FOR THE FUTURE

Yeager claims no magic to maintaining his drive and avoiding burnout. He preserves his focus by working out a few times each week and strives to remember how truly precious each day is. His philosophy as an administrator includes several principles:

  • Have a vision and a plan for what it is you want to accomplish.
  • Make sure this plan is communicated clearly to all stakeholders and implemented effectively.
  • Hire competent personnel and allow them to do their job without micro-managing them.
  • Listen to parent concerns and respond to them honestly.
  • Support staff and have high expectations for students.

Yeager's background as a history teacher helps him to recognize that there are many lessons to be learned from the past. "Oftentimes we ignore those lessons and repeat the same mistakes and incur the same problems," he told Education World. "I keep in mind that it is okay to make mistakes -- for that is how we learn -- but it is not okay to repeat them."

He added, "I also try to keep in mind as a principal that I am still a teacher, and it is important to listen to teachers as it is important for teachers to listen to students."

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