Marriage, Family, and the Principalship: Making It All Work: Part 1
The demands of the principal's job can't help but take a toll on marriages and families. According to our "Principal Files" principal team, keeping families intact requires plenty of effort, teamwork, a well-used calendar, and a cell phone with lots of minutes. Included: Principals offer their advice.
When they entered the profession, most principals and assistant principals knew their lives were about to change. But many entered their new positions with a pretty "fuzzy" understanding of all that is really involved. They didn't realize that if they were not careful or organized or able to say "no," the work hours might consume them.
If the guilt of missing family events to tend to school business didn't eat them alive first, that is.
The demands of the job -- internal and external -- can affect marriages, too. In the blink of an eye, the school family's needs can take precedence over the immediate family's. And that can lead to Divorce Court. It happens more often than many people care to admit.
In spite of the stress and the demands of the job, many families manage to hold it all together. But none of them says that happens easily. It doesn't happen without effort and planning.
"My husband was one of those who thought people in education had it easy," principal KathiSue Summers told Education World. "Not until we were married did he actually see how much time I put into teaching and being a coach. Now that I am an administrator, he has grown accustomed to my hours."
"My husband learned the hard way how to live with an educator," added assistant principal Bonita Henderson. But he adjusted. Forty years later, Henderson is about to retire, and another big adjustment lies in the couple's future.
Principal Les Potter has missed his share of family functions over the years. "That is expected. It is part of the job," said Potter.
As a secondary principal since 1984, Potter knows that parents can be very demanding. "They expect to see you at their child's event," he said. "They don't want to see the assistant principal there.
"Job obligations interfere with dinners, weekends and holidays but I don't know if the principal's job is worse in that regard than being in a sales job or the military."
Principal Marguerite McNeely gives her job many hours after the bell rings. "I like my students, so I've never felt I was short-changing my life. I knew what the job required before I applied, so I have no complaints."
With creative scheduling and a true team effort by all parties at home, the job can be accomplished with a minimum of interference with family responsibilities, she added.
Evening meetings are probably the trickiest thing to work around, said principal Brian Hazeltine. There is no way to avoid letting those meetings cut into family time. "I remember one time when I was leaving for yet another evening meeting that my son commented 'Dad, you're the most meetingful person I know,'" Hazeltine told Education World.
Over the years, Hazeltine says he has learned to delegate more tasks to others. From time to time, he will take a day to work at home, undisturbed. And he has even taken an occasional personal day to squeeze in a little more family or spouse time.
Most of the principals with whom we talked agreed that it is best if the spouse of a principal has a voice in the decision to take the job. But some spouses married into the job.
Tony Pallija was an assistant principal when he got married 20 years ago. His wife knew what she was getting into. But, Pallija added, many spouses are shocked at the additional time requirements when the educator in the family goes from being a teacher to being a principal. "Especially at the secondary level where principals cover sports, arts, and many meetings at night," said Pallija.
When it came time for Roy Sprinkle and his wife to consider his possible promotion from assistant principal to principal, Sprinkle knew what was at stake. He had a clear picture of the job responsibilities because he had been an AP for 10 years. Since he and his wife were trying to start a family of their own, they had concerns about taking on a high-school principalship.
"We decided that the evening part of being a high school principal would not allow me to be the kind of father I wanted to be, so I interviewed for an elementary principal position and got it," said Sprinkle. "It's the best decision I ever made."
"I miss the high school at times, but now I get hugs every day from the little ones at my school," he added.
Sprinkle is also fortunate because his wife is employed in a leadership role with the same school district. While it might be difficult for some spouses who are not educators, "she understands about parent drop-in meetings, and that sometimes you just have to stay late at school," he said.
Bridget Morisseau considers herself fortunate to have a husband who understands, too. "My husband is the son of two educators, one a former administrator, and I am the daughter of two school administrators," said Morisseau. "For the two of us, the long days and nightly meetings were a way of life as we grew up. Now that I am a principal, my husband doesn't find the long hours and nighttime meetings an imposition. It's normal to him."
Marguerite McNeely has been a principal since 1998. When the time came to decide whether to follow the principal path, McNeely included her daughters in the discussion. "They knew there would be long hours for me, but they also knew they came first and had the right to my attention whenever they needed it," said McNeely. "That has never been a real issue for us. The girls know I am a mother first, an educator second."
Brenda Hedden kind of "grew into" the principalship, and her husband grew right along with her. When she was teaching full time and getting her graduate degree in administration, her husband took on responsibility for getting the children ready for school. That remains part of the couple's routine now that she is a principal.
Hedden's husband continues to ease the burden of her 60-70 hour work weeks. "Just last evening I arrived home at 8:45 to dinner in the oven," she said.
Hedden also considers herself fortunate that her husband runs a large construction company. "He is home and pitches in more in the winter, and I am home more in the summer when he works his long hours," she said. "We appreciate our time together. We are each others' rock. There is never any judgment, just unconditional support, active listening, and many cell phone calls."
Beyond teaming up to accomplish the day-to-day logistics, Hedden and her husband make sure to make time for themselves and their relationship. "Our relationship is our priority. We have always protected our relationship because it is the root of the family."
Bridget Morisseau has been a principal since she was 33 years old. Now she is mother to two teenage children who are very involved in extracurricular activities. "My husband definitely takes an active role in coordinating the kids' schedules, taking them to doctor's appointments, and being home for them every day after school," said Morisseau.
Making nightly meals is part of her husband's daily routine, too. "As often as possible, I will pitch in and serve as his assistant in the kitchen, but the reality is that most evenings I sit at the island going through my paperwork from the day as I chat with him intermittently," she explained. "I realize that I am very fortunate to have a husband who is a team player. He rarely complains when my mind is elsewhere and he has to pick up the slack.
"I admire those administrators who do it all, but I am so grateful to have a spouse who respects the demands of this position and is always there to support me and give more than 50 percent to make it work."
For principal Jim Pastore, balance is the key. "I try to minimize the impact of work on my home life, but there are school board meetings that start at 8:30 p.m., recruitment trips, school overnight trips," he told Education World. "Those things all take time from home, and that is something my wife and I evaluate as we decide if this is the life for us.
"All in all, though, we seem to have found a balance that on the surface might seem rare -- but I am willing to bet that many other principals' families will also say they have found that balance."
The entire family pays a price when one of the parents is a principal, said one principal who asked not to be named in this article. "As I look back at the years when my own children were young and in school themselves, I have guilt and regret for time I spent away from home helping other people's kids and parents," she said.
"The job can eat you up in terms of both time and emotional reserves," she added.
"I am blessed with a supportive family; however, they have definitely felt the impact of my job," added principal Patrice DeMartino. "Everyone in the family sacrifices, but it is important to make time for everyone, too. The family must always be a priority, and it is the quality of the time spent that is most important."
Now that her kids are older -- ages 15 and 20 -- planning family time is more important than ever. DeMartino and her husband set aside Saturday morning breakfasts as their "date" time, and the family eats most other weekend meals together.
Shari Farris and her husband build in time for themselves, too. "Like many busy couples, we commit to date nights," said Farris. "We do that once a week, and the only thing that stops us is if one of us has to call in sick for date night. During those dates, we agree not to talk shop. We use the time to talk about movies or the news, or to plan vacations or home improvements."
"I know, personally, that I am much more productive, think more clearly, and build stronger relationships at school when I have taken care of my most valuable relationships at home.
"Date night is the shot in the arm both of us need to get through the week."
The demands of the job were one of the reasons KathiSue Summers put off becoming a principal until her son was grown. She remembers the time when she was still teaching and coaching that her young son told her, "You love your students more than you love me." That was when she knew it was time to back off her coaching responsibilities.
Since that day, "I've tried not to let my job interfere with major family affairs," said Summers. "We schedule family times, and we don't cancel them."
Finding a balance between family time and school time is important, agreed high school principal Tony Pallija. "Last week at night I had two games and a band concert, plus a game on Saturday afternoon," Pallija said. "Do I miss family activities? Yes, I do, but family emergencies always come first and I try to find balance. Three nights at school, four at home this week, and next week it'll be four and three. And I try not to miss anything that my children are performing in at their schools."
For principal Lolli Haws, home time is family time. "One thing I never do is bring paperwork home," she said. "I might go into school on Saturday for a couple hours, but the work stays at work in a physical sense."
Haws also takes an occasional vacation day on a Friday in order to make a long family weekend, instead of holding all the time until summer. In addition, "my husband and I often go out to eat together before a night meeting, or I make time to just head over to the local mall to walk around and get away. And I'm more conscientious about going to the gym in the evening and on weekends so I feel better. The exercise helps relax the tension and stress of the work week."
For principal LaKeldra N. Pride, prayer is a key ingredient that helps keep family members working together. "We have prayer together each morning before we leave home," Pride told Education World.
The family commits to time together in many other ways too. "Every Friday my husband and I go out to eat. Our daughter joins us when she does not have to work. We eat dinner together almost every night. We attend church together each Sunday. We also love to joke and play around with each other. Those may seem like small things, but they really help keep us together."
When things get difficult, Pride tries to keep her priorities -- "God, family, then everything else" -- straight. That is an "order of operation" she shares with her staff, too. It isn't always easy, or possible, to stick to those priorities, but "while it continues to pose challenges, I make every effort to hold to that."
Pride also protects family time by empowering her staff to be the best they can be at what they do and by setting clear, precise directives that help the school days flow smoothly. "And when I have to be away," she added, "I have learned not to call the school. I have left someone in charge, and the school will call me if they need me."
For many principals, a family calendar is a key ingredient in keeping things on an even keel. That calendar often becomes a family project. Some families even hold Sunday night meetings to review the calendar for the week ahead.
For Bonita Henderson, the calendar is a tool for planning appointments, knowing which "parent" will be responsible for picking up their grandson from football practice, and other got-to-dos. "We all work together to make our family work for all three of us," said Henderson. "With our calendar, we all know ahead of time what each of our responsibilities will be."
In Tony Pallija's household, Sunday is a day to rest and reflect. And Sunday night is calendar night. "We try to make sure we will all be home for dinner one night during the week," said Pallija, "and we post the calendar for the week on the fridge."
A calendar can help you see when you might be "shorting" your family on time, added Marguerite McNeely.
While marking up a calendar, many families look for ways to include family members in school events such as proms, graduations, games, and concerts. "Making school activities a family venture" is another way to ensure that there is plenty of family time on the calendar, said principal Les Potter.
Tony Pallija often involves his wife in school events, too. "We are a team," he told Education World. "She helps out all the time. She even types reports, works on my budget, and helps chaperone events."
Brenda Hedden considers herself fortunate that her husband runs a construction company. His skills and his company's equipment have been called on many times in her teaching and administrative careers. "Like the time he brought in work crews to create a rain forest in my classroom, the time he spray-painted lockers, and the times he has hauled stuff in his trucks," she recalled.
Lolli Haw's husband and sons have helped stuff envelopes, campaigned for levy elections, attended school functions, and "they have done it all with grace," she said.
Has Brian Hazeltine's wife chipped in? "You bet!" he said. "She has helped with bulletin boards, typing, phoning, everything."
"I thought the whole family pitching in was part of all educators' lives, not just administrators," added Marguerite McNeely. "I don't have a staff member whose spouse or children have not helped out in some way or another."
"I thought helping out when a spouse is in need was what all couples do for each other," added Jim Pastore. "My wife has chipped in often, because she saw I was in need."
Ask KathiSue Summers about times when family has chipped in to help her out on the job, and she smiles. Her husband is frequently called on to deliver supplies, chaperone dances or other events, and support students and coaches at sporting events.
But Summers' fondest memories are of the days "when I was a teacher, and my husband and son would help me get my classroom in order for the start of the school year. We would make the day extra special by going out to breakfast, lunch, and then dinner."
"That was a very special event for all of us," added Summers, who said her son thought it was the greatest day of the year.
"Believe it or not, our son is now a teacher," added Summers, "and on that day he does exactly what we did when he was younger. We talk several times on that day, still giving one another advice."
Read more in part 2 of this article.