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Married With (Many, Many) Children:
Principal Partners Speak Out


When principals Pam and Roger Burton met during college, they could not have anticipated that both would end up working not only as educators, but as principals. More than 36 years and four children later, their adventure continues -- and the students of schools in Benton, Arkansas, benefit from their experience. They told Education World about the pluses and problems of being partners at work and home.

Husband-and-wife principals
Pam and Roger Burton.
Years ago, at the prompting of his "buddies" at Arkansas State Teachers College (now the University of Central Arkansas), then graduate student Roger Burton mustered the courage to ask a campus coed out to a dance.

"I am not the smartest rock on the planet, but I am able to recognize quality when I see it," he explained. "I began my pursuit, and Pam and I eventually married in the spring of 1967. Thirty-six years and four children later, the adventure is ongoing."

The Burton's is more than a personal adventure; it is an adventure in education, in stress management, and balance. Roger and Pam are both principals in the Benton School District in Benton, Arkansas. Roger is the administrator at Benton Junior High School while Pam supervises Howard Perrin Elementary School. When they got together, the two never could have predicted that they would both become administrators, with similar demanding responsibilities at work.

Pam became an elementary education major during her second semester of college and met Roger just a few weeks later. Her course was set, and in 2003 she was in her 12th year as principal of Howard Perrin.

"I had not planned on a career move at age 25, but because I was in the right place at the right time, I became principal of a K-5 school in Stuttgart, Arkansas," Pam recalled. "Teaching was satisfying and enjoyable, but I found the role of principal to be the one that really fit."

Roger found the role of principal -- and in fact the role of teacher -- almost by accident when he realized that the course work he was taking was general and lacked direction.

"I always enjoyed sports and liked working with kids," he said. "While I was in college, I spent two summers working and coaching little league baseball teams. That and the college's emphasis on teacher preparation influenced my decision."

Education World asked these veteran educators to share their thoughts about being principals and partners -- how do they find time for each other, and what advice do they have for other administrators who are married? They kindly replied, without comparing notes!

Have you always wanted to become principals?

Pam: After earning a master's in elementary education, I attended school on a graduate fellowship. It gave me the luxury of taking any course that appealed to me. With no plan other than to enjoy school, I ended up getting all but six hours required for certification as an elementary principal. I suppose that my superintendent in Stuttgart, Arkansas, recognized that I had some potential for school administration because he came to my classroom one day and asked me to take a job as principal. After the first day in this role, I have not wanted another position.

"Shohen" Tells

Now retired from the School District of the City of Philadelphia, Barbara Shohen, and her husband, Richard, served as principals at the same time for 17 years.

Read about the Shohens in the endbar to this article.
Roger: I do not think I ever really pursued becoming a principal. I spent a brief time at the Arkansas Department of Education. While there, I began taking graduate courses in school administration. I continued taking courses after we moved to Benton, Arkansas, but never completed the course work. At the beginning of the 1979 school year, there was a shift in administration, and I was asked to move to the junior high school as an assistant principal. The following year I became assistant principal full-time and stayed for the next 18 years. Along the way I finished up the course work for certification as a secondary principal. In 1998, I became principal at Benton Junior High School. Want to be principal? It just happened.

How do you find time for each other and family? Are appointments needed?

Pam: We had one daughter when I first worked as a principal, and I had a full-time housekeeper and babysitter. We were young and seemed to find it easy to keep family as our number one priority. I could not have devoted the time and energy that is required of a principal while my next three children -- three under five years of age -- were young, and so we made the decision for me to take a break from employment before our second child was born.

We are both at school by 7 a.m., so there is not much time together in the morning. We usually have a cup of coffee together and talk for a little while before beginning our school days.

I have occasional nights at school but, as a secondary principal, Roger has always had a full schedule of evening activities to attend and supervise. When the children were at home, I tried to adjust our dinner hour so that he could eat with us as much as possible, and we were very intentional about scheduling weekends for family outings and events. Our youngest child graduated from college last year, so we have had several years to adjust to the "empty nest." I enjoy cooking, but it requires a lot of time, so we often go out and enjoy the uninterrupted time for talking, usually about school.

Roger: The good thing about husband and wife being in education is the common workday, breaks, and holidays. Similar timeframes help to have time together. I am on a 12-month contract and only have a short vacation, but we can arrange it together. Making and having time with the children is challenging. Like all families, you have to work at finding time to be together -- whatever it takes.

What makes a "great day" at work for each of you?

Pam: Managing the facilities, budget, and staff are important responsibilities of the principal, but on a good day those jobs take only a small amount of my time. For several years our school has been focused on school improvement and changing the culture of the school in order to truly become a "professional learning community." On a "great day" at school, I provide support, resources, and time to teachers, enabling them to collaborate, change, and grow as professionals. When a substantial part of my day has been spent in helping Howard Perrin Elementary accomplish its mission of enabling all learners to become proficient in literacy and mathematics, I leave school feeling like it has been a "great day."

Roger: A great day for me is when there is a minimum of the "immediate" and the "urgent" situations to deal with -- when I can focus on being the educational leader of the school and get out of the office and visit classes to see what changes are taking place.

How does having a link between the elementary and junior high benefit both schools?

Pam: We talk a lot about curriculum and instruction, so hearing the secondary perspective on things probably has an impact on the way I think and respond to these issues at the elementary level. Our governor and the state department of education provided resources and training for elementary teachers through a school improvement initiative called Smart Start. After the program was established in kindergarten through fourth grade, it was expanded to fifth through eighth grades in a program called Smart Step. Through these initiatives, Roger and I have participated in the same or similar training, so we are building a common vocabulary that wasn't necessarily present before.

Roger: Knowing some of the pedagogical things going on in the elementary schools can be helpful. Pam and her faculty are so progressive that by comparison I sometimes feel way behind. I have to avoid making comparisons and focus on the good things going on at Benton Junior High School and what is best for the junior high child.

It must be helpful to have someone who truly understands the pressures and responsibilities of your position, but are there drawbacks to having two principals in the house?

Pam: Our children would probably tell you that our conversations tend to be very one-sided -- that we spend entirely too much time discussing school and school related topics. But isn't that typical? My parents were employed in the farming industry, and most of our table conversations were about the price of feed, production levels of layer hens, the best way to market fryers, and so on. It probably wasn't too terrible growing up in a home with two principals -- two of our daughters became schoolteachers!

Roger: The conversation between spouses that are both administrators can become limited to only current issues at their respective schools. You guard against "my-problem-is-bigger-than-your-problem" dialogue. I sometimes feel because Pam is such an outstanding educational leader that my priorities are out of sync and that the purpose and goal of the junior high is not being addressed by comparison. Another drawback is the draining responsibilities of the job. It is easy for each person to retreat to a separate "corner" and not engage the other, thinking only about his peculiar problem.

The hectic schedule and my night activities at times afford us only time on the way to the next event. So, you just sit down and visit or go out and purposefully talk about anything other than school, school kids, teachers, staff members, test scores.

What keeps you going despite the stress and difficulties brought on by your jobs?

Pam: The rewards far outweigh the difficulties. I love a challenge, and every day is filled with challenging situations from how to safely and efficiently dismiss 600 students to their cars and daycare vans in a very crowded parking lot to how to meet the emotional and intellectual needs of a very diverse group of students. According to Roland Barth in Improving Schools From Within, the principal is the single most important individual in the process of school improvement. Obviously, it is teachers who make things happen in the classroom, and without them no improvement will be realized, but I agree that the principal's role in the change process is vital. I relish the opportunities to help increase capacity for leadership and improvement in our school's staff.

Roger: With experience comes the understanding that you have been through this or that stress or difficulty and have survived. You begin to understand that decisions about students, while very important, if made with the interest of the child in mind, will work out.

What advice or thoughts do you have to share with other administrator couples?

Pam: Every administrator couple probably has a unique set of school and family dynamics; I'll simply make an observation. Having two administrators in the same family has been a very positive experience from my perspective. We share common interests -- especially those that revolve around children and students.

Roger: Share and learn from each other. Seek the other's opinion, but apply only that which fits your personality and your school's personality. And at some point leave it at school.

"Shohen" Tells

Now retired from the School District of the City of Philadelphia, Barbara Shohen, and her husband, Richard, served as principals at the same time for 17 years. They ate dinner out during the week because she was too tired to cook; dinnertime was spent unwinding and discussing the day's events -- good therapy for diffusing stress.

"It was wonderful to be able to share problems and successes with someone who truly understood what your job entailed," she said. "In fact, for six of the 17 years we were principals together, my elementary students attended my husband's middle school when they reached sixth grade. Not only did we work in the same district, but also we served the same families and community."

While there were many times when the Shohens appreciated that they were able to understand each other's work responsibilities, one moment stands out. Richard received a call from school district security at 2:30 a.m. Students had informed each other via email that one was reportedly going to bring a gun to school the next day -- and use it.

"I was happy to be able to support my husband by joining him in his school the next morning," Barbara recalled. "We took all of the steps needed to resolve the problem. Of course, I had developed a relationship and credibility with many of the parents and students in elementary school, and together we were able to reassure them that the situation was under control."

Barbara reports that because they shared a similar occupation, she and her husband have never been at a loss for something to talk about over dinner. Her advice for others is simple: "I would like to say not to take the problems home, but we always discussed our daily difficulties and concerns with each other. That's what made it work for us. We valued and respected each other's input and problem-solved together. We were sounding boards for each other and truly relied upon the other's expertise and advice."

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
Copyright © 2010 Education World

Originally published 10/14/2003
Last updated 06/02/2010