One Teacher’s View on Principals

Between the late-1950s and early 1970s, I taught social studies for 13 years in three different high schools in Cleveland (OH) and Washington, D.C. That’s a long time ago and what I recall of those years about the principals under whom I served is spotty. Yet as I dredge up these memories, I want to focus on my experience as a teacher in relation to the four principals who headed the mostly Black schools in which I taught.

Since I never served as a principal, this blog post offers one teacher’s view of a very small sample of principals under whom I worked more than a half-century ago. Although I believe my experiences with principals may fit many high school teachers today, I have no direct evidence that it does. Readers who are teachers can tell me whether what I recount corresponds to their experiences.

My job was to teach five classes daily and interact with 150 or more students during the six hour school day. The principal’s main job, as I saw it then, was to organize schedules of 30-50 teachers who taught alongside me and insure that students were safe and well behaved between 8:30AM and 3PM. I saw the principal’s work through the narrow lens of a busy teacher consumed with teaching social studies lessons five times a day and managing large classes.

In the 13 years I taught in Cleveland (OH) and Washington, D.C., I remember well the four principals who headed the schools in which I worked. For the most part, they concentrated on keeping the school safe and orderly. They helped students and teachers to the best of their capacities and resources.

Two of those four principals, however, went out of their way to help me and a few colleagues who worked with college-bound students. These high schools had high dropout rates and only a small fraction of students took courses preparing them for college admission.

While all of the social studies classes I taught in these high schools had some students who were eager for college or on the path to dropping out, most of the students were in the middle. In these classes I created lessons that drew on both the textbook and instructional materials I had written myself (e.g., one-pagers on John D. Rockefeller as both a “robber baron” and generous philanthropist). These handouts required students to take a stand and support their position with evidence drawn from the textbook and sources I had set aside in the school library. Although developing these curriculum materials was very demanding in time and energy, generating these lessons excited me.

There was a problem, however. At the time in these high schools, each social studies department member was given a few reams of paper for classroom use. I quickly used up my allocation. I needed more paper and access to a “ditto machine” to crank out the readings and assignments I gave students (please note these were the years before copy machines became fixtures in high schools)

And here is where two of the four principals I worked under helped me. I explained the situation about access to ditto masters, the machine, and paper; these principals gave me money to buy an extra “ditto machine,” masters, and more reams to produce my readings for students. I did not have to go through the rigamarole of submitting purchase orders through the district bureaucracy; I went to stores and got the materials and submitted the invoices to the principals. The other principals said that I would have to stay within the allocation that every teacher in the school lived with. In these two high schools, I bought the paper out of pocket.

I offer this reminiscence to make the obvious point that more than a half-century ago when I was teaching, two principals I worked under did go the extra step to help out a teacher ( I suspect that in each school I was not alone in getting such help). Then and now, I believe, there are other entrepreneurial teachers who seek to do the best for their students but need principals who support their classroom efforts with not only words but deeds.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “One Teacher’s View on Principals

  1. I enjoyed this post, Larry, but am surprised by the missed opportunity. Reading it, I was channeling The Managerial Imperative (which I am currently using as a source for leadership development). The two “good” principals were using their managerial roles to support instruction, right? The budget is a fabulous tool to make positive change and to focus schools on teaching and learning (not only safety and schedules). I wish that more principals would use it creatively, as two in your past seemed to have done.

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