October is Principal Appreciation Month. This post is dedicated to all the amazing principals I have had the privilege to work with as a teacher and colleague.
The best metaphor I know to explain what it is like to be a principal comes from the show Battlestar Galactica.
In the pantheon of sci-fi television series, Battlestar Galactica must surely deserve consideration as one of the greats. In case you have forgotten, the series depicts the odyssey of the last remnants of the human race as they are pursued through the universe by a race of humanoid “cylons” they had created. The ragtag fleet of ships is lead by Laura Roslin – who is promoted from Secretary of Education to President (of the human race) when the 42 government officials ahead of her in succession to that position are killed in the initial attack by the cylons, and by Commander William Adama – captain of the only surviving vessel of war: the battlestar Galactica.
Commander Adama’s ship has a squadron of “Vipers” – flying machines that function in space the way fighter planes function in terrestrial conflicts. The command of military maneuvers is coordinated between the Galactica and the Vipers by radio transmission. As with naval ships and fighter planes on Earth, each has a call sign. For example, Commander Adama’s son Lee Adama flies under the call sign “Apollo”. Pilots attempting to communicate with the battlestar address their communication to “Galactica”. As in “Galactica, this is Apollo. I have made visual contact with the enemy.” In a practice that mirrors that of battleships in the United States Navy, a junior officer on the Galactica is the one who operates the radio and speaks to the pilots most of the time. When they hear from Galactica, it is his voice that comes over the airwaves.
But he is only the voice of the ship. When pilots need to discuss something very important, unorthodox or otherwise unusual, they ask for permission to speak to the Commander himself. They say “Give me Galactical Actual”. They are saying, in effect, ‘I have been speaking to the voice of the ship but now I need to speak to the ship itself’. When Commander Adama says “This is Galactica Actual”, he is is saying ‘Go ahead, you are speaking to the ship’.
When I saw the show for the first time, I was a principal and I made an instant connection to that concept. You see, psychologically, it is is the same for a principal. You are the school. If you are (or have been) a principal, you know what I am talking about. On the other hand, if you have never been a principal, you can only understand what I am saying theoretically. To be the principal of a school is to be the school. Of course, you are legally and professionally responsible for every detail in the school. But beyond that, your personal identity becomes entwined with the school. When your school is mentioned in the paper because a frozen pipe flooded the school or because there was a fight at the football game or because test scores were released last week, you were in the paper – whether your name is mentioned or not. There are plenty of factors that make the principalship a difficult job – an ever evolving set of expectations, pressure to create change quickly, a steady barrage of deadlines and due dates, and an endless stream of decisions big and small that must be made. The one that is most difficult to understand until you have experienced it yourself though is the psychological weight the job carries. It is as if you must become the school. Whether the individual in the office is a great leader or not, the school begins to take on the personality of the principal; and the principal assumes the identity of the school. Whether it is more accurate to describe it as being the school or carrying the school, it is a heavy task either way.
Metaphors aren’t useful unless they lead to greater understanding. Here are just a few hints and suggestions to help make this one worthwhile.
- You are your school but you are not alone. Wear the mantle of leadership loosely. Build a team that works together. You do have to be a heat shield to protect the folks around you but they can keep you sane by strengthening your hands for the work you do together.
- Do everything you can to keep your work out of your home. If you do not take a single task home, you are still carrying hundreds of people and their problems and needs home on your back. Don’t make it worse by stealing time from your family or personal time to catch up on paperwork or any other tasks.
- Keep perspective. Either your school got along fine for a long time before you came along or it will for a long time after you leave. Or both. Education certainly did and will. You are valuable and important but a healthy perspective (from the lens of history especially) will help you stay grounded.
- When you get frustrated with your principal, keep in mind that they are people too and that this phenomenon I am describing has an impact on how they do the job. This is not an excuse for poor practice but it might help you understand how to relate to your principal.
- Being a principal is not synonymous with having a huge ego. Admittedly some school leaders appear to be engaged simply in the pursuit of power. For most though, it is a monumental task to fulfill all the requirements and expectations they face every day. What looks like ego is often just an attempt to make enough good decisions every day.
- On more than one occasion I sat in my office and cried because someone took a few minutes to write me a personal thank you note. Have you thanked your principal lately? If not, think about taking five minutes to write a quick note for just one thing he/she does well. You will make their day (or maybe their week)!