A Principal – Life in a Shark Tank

I haven’t written about my bucket list lately.

One series of goals that I set at 30 was to earn a teaching credential, a master’s degree and a doctorate.  So, at 33, I went back to school to begin work on my teaching credential.  I then reentered the workforce as a novice – again (this was my third career).

As a classroom teacher, one of my goals every day was to be the bright spot in each student’s day.  I thought if I could help 30 kids enjoy school, maybe they would enjoy learning.  The problem was that when I was busy earning my teaching credential, I thought I would be a fourth grade teacher.  Instead I spent my entire teaching career at middle schools.  So, my influence on 30 students extended to 180.

After several years of teaching, I began to think that maybe I could extend a positive influence to an entire school of students (or from 180 to 1,000).  So, I earned my administrative credential and M.A. and was promptly asked to begin working as a principal at an elementary school.  As I spent the summer preparing to take the helm of a school of about 500 students, I decided that I was going to learn each student’s name by October (I did) – it really wasn’t that hard.  We had a great time together and I believe we made great strides – in fact I just ran into one of those students and his parents this past week who still remembered me (he was a kindergartner my last year at the elementary school and is now in eighth grade) and they made some positive comments about my knowing all the kids at the school.

I had a wonderful time with elementary students, but eventually moved back to working with middle school students and again learned every student’s name (about 1,500 this time).

Middle school is a nice euphemism for shark tank.  Kids are going through so much as middle schoolers and we (adults) tend to marginalize the emotional, physical, social, intellectual, and moral changes they are experiencing (and ages 11-14 tend to be at their lowest point of self-esteem).  As a result, many (most) kids tend to pick on others in order to feel better about themselves (I’m generalizing due to time constraints).  I tried to make each day bearable for them and did whatever I could to make them feel that they had at least one advocate.  However, if they needed to be disciplined, they were (we expelled about 20 kids each year).

My favorite story to hate about middle school happened one year on the first day of school.  I watched a new sixth grader walk onto campus with his father.  The kid was wearing a sweater vest, tie, dress slacks, and dress shoes (he looked pretty sharp) and was holding hands with his father as he entered campus.  My first thought was “well, you don’t see that anymore, how nice.”  My second thought was, “he’s dead” (socially).  Sure enough, he only lasted two more days before checking out and going to a private school.

There were many great stories as well.  Like the students who earned a place in space camp in Huntsville, Alabama, or the students who created a welcome program to help assimilate new students into the school, or the students who went on to earn scholarships to universities or military institutions, or just the great kids who would come back to volunteer on their days off after moving on to high school. 

But the one student who couldn’t be himself – couldn’t just be a kid – still haunts me.

Anyway, I eventually moved on to become a principal of a high school (with some of my middle school kids) and now a university (educating teachers, counselors, and principals), always with the goal of making school more enjoyable for students, with the hope that they will enjoy learning.  Only now, instead of a goal to be the bright spot in the lives of 100 or 1,000 students, my goal is to create many bright spots who will enter classrooms and school all across Southern California, becoming a positive influence on (literally) millions.

Welcome to middle school!

Welcome to middle school!


5 responses to “A Principal – Life in a Shark Tank

  1. Sounds like your bucket kept getting bigger and bigger.

    I personally think the most devestating thing that a student faces during their years in school is the lack of involvement and appreciation of their parent(s).

    My kids range in age from four to twenty-eight.

    If you spend more than two decades in a single school district you tend to know how the system works.

    The only thing more disfunctional than the school district is the Department of Social Services.

    God help all the children involved with both of those agencies!

    No kidding. One morning we had a parent bring their child into our office while they were hitting them – then challenged us to call CPS on them. We did. CPS told us they were really busy and could we call back another time. We called the Sheriff.

  2. Middle school was a nightmare. I can remember the one or two teachers that made me feel special, and they definitely were a bright spot in my life. I was encouraged to do better and be better because of their attention. I didn’t want to let them down.


    I bet there are still kids from “back then”, that think fondly of you.

    I see them around town now and again. So far, so good.

  3. What a great post. We need more teachers/principals that care and I’m glad to know that you are leading the way. Thanks for what you do (that’s for all of the parents who should have said it, but didn’t).

    I get to spend parts of each day in different school around LA and I see way more good/caring teachers and principals out there than bad/uncaring. The bad ones fit a stereotype and the great ones we remember, but I think we just tend to overlook the hard working, competent, unassuming ones who might not be quite as articulate, funny, or witty as the memorable ones.
    Thanks for your thanks. I’ll pass it on tomorrow to some more teachers.

  4. it was a jungle when i was there, and when my two college aged kids were there as well… but i remember the “bright spots”. have had an opportunity to thank one of mine as an adult – because he started every class with the same speech: “You all come in here with a clean slate with me. You have no history. No siblings – for better or worse. I judge you only on what you do, how you behave, in this class. There are no ‘jocks, eggheads, losers’ in my class – only students with clean slates”.

    i know he saved a few kids that had been given up on by others… a good man. went on to be principal years later.

    seems the two of you took a page from the same book! nice…

    Good speech. Thanks for sharing it (I’ll work it into a presentation to my students).
    I used to sit with each kid during the first week of school and we would set a goal for the grade they wanted to earn, then we would put together a plan to make it happen. We then had regular checks through the year to ensure they were on track. The kids I worked with typically made great gains in academic achievement – and (this is the part that still mystifies me) all just because someone cared enough to encourage and believe in a few kids that had been marginalized (I say I’m mystified because this part takes almost no extra time, effort, or money – just the right attitude – weird, huh?).

  5. Great post. My daughter (step, that we raise) just started middle school. What you wrote reminded me of what I went through, and what I pray she doesn’t.

    You have had an admirable bucket list.

    Hey, thanks.
    My son just started seventh grade and I have worried about “The Wonder Years” since his birth. So far, so good though.

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