I hope my words can save the job of some good and sincere principal…

“A principal resigns after an investigation into the allegation that she slapped a student who cursed at her… the district will be notifying the state, a step that must be taken in cases in which there is a possibility an educator’s license could be in jeopardy…”

For some, their difficult and painful moments can often become teachable moments for them and others. But I always said to my students that they need not learn every life-lesson through direct personal experience; in fact, as a school administrator, there are many leadership lessons that you want to learn from an observation-only distance. Still, the key to maximizing the power of any lesson and minimizing the possibility of experiencing personal pain due to a “bad situational outcome” is to learn the lesson without becoming the lesson!

As an educator committed to standards and having been charged with supervising principals, I believe in the supervision and administration licensing and certification process. Much practical, necessary, and important operational and managerial information, knowledge, and wisdom are learned from graduate programs structured to prepare educators for licensing and certification as school-building administrators. But like most professional leadership journeys, your career-education learning process will continue up to and after your retirement.

My own awareness and understanding of the principalship deepened and expanded after becoming a superintendent, for it was only then that I was able to step back (from my “siloed” school-building experience) and engage a large number of schools with different “organizational cultural personalities,” led by a dramatically diverse group of principal personalities. As a result, a great deal of the superintendent’s coaching-leadership work challenge is informing principals of the unstipulated “soft-truths” of school leadership work that, when ignored or absent, can lead to some very not-so-good outcomes. This is the reason why when supervising multiple principals with very different “leadership and personality styles,” it will at times feel like one is leading a group of “mini-superintendents” with their own set of “district regulations” (It’s the payback you earned for all of the ‘grey hairs’ you either added or removed from your superintendent’s head when you were a principal!)

One of those critical “truths” I learned about the principalship is that many “professional behavioral” requirements are not stated in the “official” job description or employment contract. The so many “basic” things that I thought, before becoming a superintendent, that every principal knew, I found out that some didn’t know (and some, frighteningly, didn’t know that they didn’t know). Some of those “unwritten (but very much expected) responsibilities” are: identifying a “crisis” in its early developmental stages, staying above the day-to-day schoolhouse “mundane-mess” fray, avoiding having a “pettiness” or “payback” personality, the art of smartly and strategically “picking your battles,” and, critical, have that calming, assuring and “lighthouse-like” attitude during any school environmental storm. (alas, everybody is watching your reaction to/in a crisis for clues as to how they should act).

The principal must be a model and the model of “appropriate responses” whenever any inappropriate situations or negative behaviors express themselves. This “tension-reducing-nullifying” approach is particularly true in those many school-based human-to-human confrontational moments when the team/cooperative school mission seeking effort is in danger. Like a professional fireperson, you must always bring water and not gasoline to any fiery person-to-person situation, especially when you are one of the individuals “in the fire!” On several occasions as a principal, I was forced to have a “you’ve got to be the ‘bigger-person,’ the professional, and let this thing go” conversation with a teacher when they were demonstrably holding on too long to some negative feelings concerning them receiving a real or imagined slight from a student, colleague or a parent. Which meant (and I won’t lie, it was hard at times) I had to walk the “let-it-go” and “lets-move-on” talk I gave to others.

How do you see this situation ending?” I would further ask a student, parent, or staff person, knowing the answer to my question was to be found in three subsequent values clarifying questions: “Will this end that you are ‘designing’ make our school a better or worse institution?”— “Will this situation end with lesser or greater student academic achievement?”— “Will the end you envision decidedly place you closer or further away from your personal dreams and aspiration?” And then, I listen to their answers.

The “How do you see this conflict ending” question (and the three follow-up questions) was something at times I also had to ask myself as a principal. The answers faithfully (and fortunately) never led me to a place of slapping anyone (even in those times when I was angrily called some names, none of which existed on my birth certificate).

Perhaps there should be a series of “gate-keeper” questions before educators pursue a career in school building administration!

Imagine principalship candidates before pursuing a graduate program in school supervision and administration, and before sitting down to take their state school administration and supervision exam; would first need to answer a few upfront qualifying or disqualifying questions that could save them and ourselves a lot of grief, time, and money. 

Sample Question: “If you are ever cursed at (or out) by a student, staff person, or parent, would you ever avail yourself of the “slapping option” as a response?” Ans: Yes or No. If an applicant answers “Yes,” then that person should immediately stop taking the exam, for there is no need to answer any other questions, and further, that individual should be allowed to leave the exam room and receive a full refund for all exam costs; but they should never become a principal!

But on a serious and practical note, the principal (or AP) should be the last person in a school building to use violence in response to any act of verbal abuse on the part of any school family member. After all, you always have the “official” power option to punish or penalize any bad behavior. That parent who called me a bunch of not-so-nice names threatened and did call and complained to the superintendent that I banned them for a year from all varsity sporting events because of their offensive and possibly violence-provoking language-behaviors. Well, guess what, “you are still banned until you learn to attend games and present yourself as a positive parent role model!” Executive power, when exercised, is an expression of strength and confidence; hyper-emotional, personal-hurt responses are a sign of leadership fear and weakness.

School building administrators must always “be cool and courageous under fire”  and ask themselves that critical question: “If I do X, the following Y or Z events will likely occur!” You know that pre-action thinking “counseling stuff” we teach to young people when they are in danger of making a “bad” life-altering decision. That “counseling stuff” isn’t an abstract philosophical exercise; it’s ultimately a concretely real and necessary good human relations life practice. And in any event, why would you undermine your own legal authoritative power by engaging in some extra-legal act?

Finally, losing a job is one thing, but when a district formally requests that the state revokes your license, well, that’s another whole level of pain. This action is the profession saying that under no conditions should you ever be anywhere near working with a school or children. This license revocation action is a very serious process (so serious that school districts must meet a very high “justification” bar for seeking it). And further, there is very little “compassionate grey area” wherein the superintendent can work. In a few cases where an educator had a “moment-of-bad-judgment” in what was otherwise a stellar career, I felt very sad (yes, believe it or not, superintendents are human) for being on the requesting revocation side of this process, even though it was necessary, and I could not avoid my professional and ethical responsibilities to follow through to the (that person’s professional career) bitter end.

When they go loud and angry, you always go low-volume and calm…

In every highly-emotional negative school building person-to-person situation (especially when it involves you personally), stop, take your time, take multiple deep breaths (and as I learned in my Yoga practice: pay attention to your breathing). Try doing a visualization; for me, it was always ‘seeing’ my mother’s face, and thinking of all of the sacrifices she made for me to be where I am now; and also, me asking myself, “would she approve of the response I selected?”  Remember that there are hundreds or thousands of other students, parents, and staff-persons depending on your leadership presence. Put aside your ego and perhaps let another staff person calm the situation. The first move is not guaranteed to be the best move. A few “curse words” didn’t create your leadership, and a few “curse words” won’t make it disappear. Always know that you are never without alternative choices; and so, push-pause, step back or step away if you must; because the post-incident review clarifying “charging” statement from your superintendent is going to be something like: “I understand that the other person might have been wrong, but, you are the principal!”