Greetings to the New High School Principal – Here’s Your First Big Headache

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When you read any article or book published for school administrators, you usually can tell after the first paragraph whether the person doing the writing is a writer about Educational Leadership or one who has actually been in the role of principal. The writers usually are writing wonderful things about how the principal is “The Educational Leader of the Building” and other platitudes that are almost impossible to put on the calendar and actually accomplish in a concentrated manner during any normal school day. This writer presents you with what will be your first headache of every year that you are boss- and you can put it on the calendar, and a lot of concentrated time will be spent dealing with it. The folks in the “Ivory Tower” did not mention this one in Grad School, we assure you. Problems like the one spoken of in this article might be the reason they chose the Ivory Tower in the first place and thus have plenty of time to write!

So, are you ready? Here’s your first big headache, and it will show itself in the first day or two of the new school year. You have just returned to your office after being “all over the place” greeting kids, checking buses, and talking with teachers and staff. It’s about 10AM and you sit down to catch your breath and finish the cold coffee you bought at the convenience store this morning at 6AM when it was hot.

The secretary walks in and asks you if you want the person who makes announcements in the morning- You should make some, by the way, about positive things and not just sports)- to announce that registration applications are on the counter in the office for students who would like a parking pass allowing them to drive to school and park in the lot.

This seems pretty innocuous right? Buckle up, its going to be a bumpy ride! The announcement is made, and by the Friday deadline for applications, you have 203 applications. By the way, there are 35 student parking spots. Some of the applications are incomplete because they ask for a copy of one’s license, registration, and insurance. The secretary sifts through all of these and gives you the 186 completed applications.

OK, so far so good. Here’s the question- Who gets to park in the 35 spots? Have you even thought of criteria? Is it going to be just for seniors? You wisely ask the secretary how things were done in the past with the previous Principal. She replies that she has no idea since old Mr. Brown took care of that himself- she just typed up the final list. Ok, you are a fairly bright individual, so you start out with the logical thought that, seniors get first choice, and this narrows the pile to 117 applications. You then feel that, since academics are of paramount importance, the cut-off for consideration for a permit will be that each student must have a GPA of 3.2 or better. You are down to about 77 applications. Now what? Well, perhaps you should look at the level of contribution each student makes to the school as a whole. For example, their service to the school as part of the band, a team, or some other student leadership activity might be considered. All good ideas so far and logically defensible. You now have about 53 applications. So far, this Captain Queeg-like analysis has cost you a great deal of time and visibility. You realize that you have a school to run, so you simply pick names out of the hat to finish the process( also a defensible approach- a LOTTERY!) and present the final list to the secretary for typing and posting on the wall outside of the main office. Well. That wasn’t so bad, you think, what’s the next thing I have to make some decisions about? You go home that night feeling as though you have accomplished something.

The next morning there are about 15 extremely angry parents waiting for you in the reception area of the office. Several angry parents have called, two school board members have called, and the superintendent has also called- the topic? Student parking concerns.

You day is taken up completely dealing with angry parents whose child did not get a parking permit. All of them leave with the promise that “You have not heard the last of me”…and, “I’m calling the Superintendent and/or Board Members, etc.” The Superintendent asks you what’s all the fuss about? You ask, “What fuss?” “I merely made some logical decisions about who will get a permit to park in the lot taking into consideration the fact that we only have 35 available spots.” You proceed to outline your iron-clad logic for arriving at this decision, and the superintendent thanks you and says that he will support you but that you have to make an exception because Board Member Mrs. Cavendish’s son who goes to the tech school and has a job every day as a veterinary assistant needs to drive quite a distance, etc. Funny Guy/Gal that Superintendent- he/she finishes with the comment, “Are we having fun yet?”Other parents argue that their children have jobs, many that are crucial to the family’s financial issues- and those children could not go out for a team if they wanted to due to financial woes. Respectful parents of some of your Indian and Pakistani students come in next and tell you that their children- all of whom are excellent students and never miss a day of school have to work at the family business each day, and they would like to respectfully request a parking space for their child. Two parents are in tears as they relate the sad story of illness in the family requiring their child to drive each day for a legitimate purpose. The other school board members call asking for a favor, one of whom is painfully frank at all times and reminds you that they can sway votes and they will remember this in the Spring when the question of your raise comes up.

Now what? You can’t retract the published list. Your heart goes out to some of these people, and you even think pragmatically about future raises for a moment or two. Two more days are taken up just plowing through all of the parent concerns, the students who want to see you, the calls from your boss and board members, and unsolicited suggestions from various individuals on the staff. Another idea that comes into your mind and quickly passes is that maybe students who are in their sports season could keep their space until their season is over and then someone else could get the space- but then you notice that very few students are involved in just one thing. You try calling other experienced principals in the area- all of whom have a suggestion or two, but all of whom come from diverse facilities, with varying levels of political capital based on how long they have been in the job. You take good notes, but most things they say won’t help you today. In the evening, your loving wife or husband says, “Honey, you wanted this job…”

You decide that the list stands, and the anger continues unabated for a week or two. You will see many of these people again. Despite threats of lawsuits, the school solicitor assures you that anybody can sue anybody else for anything, but the plaintiff in these actions would have no actual cause of action and their case would be dismissed- it would take up a lot of your time, that’s all. Being a student of “shared governance”- something Machiavelli would have laughed at- you assemble a committee made up of several teachers, two students, a coach, and a parent or two and task them with coming up with some thought about selection criteria for next year.

Now, its about two weeks into the school year and you have not had a chance to “come up for air.” Things seem to be well on their way to being resolved when the secretary reminds you about an irrefutable law of nature- people get older each day. That means as the school year passes, each day students celebrate birthdays and get older. Therefore, at the end of the year there will be a significantly higher number of licensed drivers than there was at the start of the year. She also reminds you that you were young once too and as an upperclassman in high school you also probably did not want to be seen by your friends actually taking a bus to and from school. It would be as embarrassing as having to bring a brown bag lunch to school. What do you plan to say to parents who want to know why their child is not allowed to drive to school now that they have a license in November?

By now, you might be thinking about that vacation commercial where they ask the question…Want to get away? You might also be looking in the mirror and asking yourself why you gave up your teaching job and that long summer vacation. Relax, things will get better, and its only about September 20th. There’s a lot more school left. This has been your first headache. You will learn from this. We’ll stop now and allow you some time to process. Many of your headaches this year will arrive unscheduled. At least you know this one is coming- every year at the same time. Are we having fun yet?

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