(Dude, would it hurt you to smile?)
It happens every year at the beginning of school. A parent will bring his child over to meet me or say hi to me, and he will make the inevitable comment, “Now Billy, I don’t ever want you to go to Mr. Sherman’s office.” Like it’s the place where a child will catch leprosy (or worse, swine flu).
The principal’s office has traditionally been the one place in the school where children were afraid to go. I remember the threat of “getting sent to the principal’s office” when I was a youngster as if this room, set way back in the deepest part of the office, was some black hole where naughty children disappeared, never to be seen again.
The media certainly has not helped to make principals your “pal.” Think of some of the movies and television shows where the principal (or school administrator) was portrayed as a complete nincompoop or a total jerk. There is Edward R. Rooney (played by Jeffrey Jones) in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. And Richard Vernon (Paul Gleason) in The Breakfast Club. How about Mr. Strickland (James Tolkan) in Back to the Future?
On Television shows set in schools, which character is the antagonist in almost every school? The principal, of course. Remember Principal Lazarus and Mr. Woodman from Welcome Back, Kotter? Principal Belding in Saved By the Bell? Or Principal Seymour Skinner in The Simpsons? They all were nut jobs.
So how do we break these stereotypes? We re-humanize ourselves, that’s how. The time has come for school leaders to redefine the perception of principals in parents’ and kids’ minds. We have to redouble our efforts to show that we are caring, humane people who really do like kids and want them to succeed.
I am on a crusade in my school to be the principal that kids come to when they want to talk, instead of the guy they fear and avoid. To do this, I start the year reading picture books to classes. I choose fun, silly books that also have a message or teach a lesson, and I read the books with vigor. When I visit classes, I try not to sit in the back pretending to be invisible. Instead, I will get into groups with kids, or assist them with their work. Additionally, I spend a lot of time in the lunchroom and on the playground talking to kids, learning what their interests are, and tossing the ball around with them.
Activities like giving kids birthday cards and birthday books, having first graders come to the office to read to me, playing checkers or chess with kids who are struggling behaviorally, teaching human growth and development to the boys, and bringing my own family to school events are making a difference.
I want the students to see me as a “real person” and not just a mean disciplinarian. I am there to help them learn, adjust, cope, and grow. I am not there only to dole out punishments.
When the time comes to discipline, I focus on making better choices and using the moment to teach. I listen to all sides of the story, and I no longer raise my voice. Treating kids with respect, even when they are in trouble or have made bad decisions, is very important. That does not mean there are no consequences for inappropriate behavior. There must be consequences, but “the punishment must fit the crime.” This is especially true when dealing with troubled, at-risk children who often come to school with a learned distrust of adults or authority figures (John Bender from The Breakfast Club comes to mind). Many years ago, I student taught in a school where the one and only punishment, regardless of the misbehavior, was for students to write sentences. The more serious the rule infraction, the more sentences the students were assigned to write. Yikes!
This belief that school principals need to become more human should not be based on some personal need for approval or ego-stroking. Conversely, it should be based on the need to create a positive climate in the school. The school leader sets the tone in the building, and a school where kids are happy, feel safe, and want to come every morning is a school where kids are learning.
So, what do you do to fight the negative perception of principals? How do you re-humanize yourself?