Camelot in the classroom

I was very lucky to get a job right out of college in 1976. I was even luckier to get a job at a school with an amazing principal.

Jack was a product of the Dale Carnegie program. He set out to remake himself when he got a new job as a high school principal in a different district. He lost weight. He got a hairpiece. Most importantly, he thoughtfully examined his own educational philosophy, and he applied it to his own life, his school, and the way he treated his staff and his students.

Before he arrived, our school was fairly typical of what you would expect in the 1970’s. In response to the radical ideas of the Sixties, there was little school spirit and even less reason to display any love for a boring school. Jack understood that the community wanted “Rah Rah,” and he was going to find a way to supply it. He started calling our school “The Big C.” He brought back pep rallies and school dances. He made the school the center of the community with more activities on campus. Pretty soon, we believed we were better than any other school in our county, and quickly we had the sports results and test scores to back up our belief.

Instead of settling in and becoming just one more gray principal, a man the students couldn’t pick out of a line up, Jack spent time in the halls, learning the names of all the students, not just the athletes, brainiacs, and trouble-makers. He believed that it was harder to misbehave when there was someone who cared enough to call you by name. He encouraged his faculty to learn their students’ names quickly, too. Jack made it a point to attend as many school events as possible, not just football, basketball, and baseball games. He went to concerts, plays, art shows, and track meets. Since he was there, more teachers were as well, at first just to suck up to the new principal, but when they saw how their presence made a difference to their students, they continued to show up and cheer on their kids.

Jack believed in his staff, even the staff he hadn’t hired. When a parent called, and parents called even back then, he stood up for his teachers immediately. After he had calmed the parents’ worries, he spoke to his teacher. Privately. In confidence. With no threat of putting a report in the teacher’s file. He asked what had happened. He inspired us to tell him the truth, no matter what. He believed us ahead of a fifteen-year-old who went home after a bad day and blamed his teachers for a failing test grade or a missed homework assignment. We knew Jack had our backs, and if we were at fault, his disappointment was enough punishment. We never let him down a second time. He was loyal to us, so we were loyal to him.

Perhaps the most important change was a shift in the attitude toward students themselves. Jack believed that 95% of students behaved correctly 95% of the time, and even the remaining five percent only acted out five percent of the time. He believed that students deserved our trust, and he extended freedom to his students. He initiated an open campus where seniors could go out to lunch. This plan alleviated much of the crowding in the cafeteria, a financial win for the district since it avoided expensive expansion and renovation, but it also encouraged seniors to respect the rules because they had something to lose if they disobeyed. He understood that the standard punishment of suspension didn’t make sense. Think about it—a student hates being in school, so she doesn’t report to class. What is her punishment? Kicking her out of school for a few days. How is that a punishment? But if the punishment is keeping her in the building during lunch when all her friends are having a good time at the local pizza joint, she is going to make sure she goes to class where she might even learn something.

Jack believed in catching students in the act of doing something good, and he encouraged us to recognize them for their good deeds. He set the example with his teachers. We often found envelopes in our mailboxes with Jack’s distinctive script. He wrote personal notes to teachers when he saw or heard about something we were doing well in our classrooms or outside. He thanked us for taking on extra-curricular activities, he complimented us on a snippet of a lesson he listened to outside our doors, he commented on news clippings where we were mentioned. We knew how much those notes meant to us, so when he suggested that we contact a parent a week with positive news, we were willing to give it a try. At first, parents were suspicious when we called, mainly because the only calls they ever received from teachers were negative, so no calls meant good news. With this initiative, parents could actually hear that we noticed their chldren, and if a time came when we had to report a problem, the parents listened to us and were cooperative, knowing that we weren’t just out to “get” their child.

Jack only called faculty meetings when they were needed, and they lasted only as long as necessary. He understood that we had better things to do with our time than meet weekly for hours on end. He shared his agenda before the meeting, and he allowed for faculty input, but he didn’t let blowhards take over. The meetings always ended with his standard slogan, “Have a large day.” And we did have large days back then, in large part because he was a larger-than-life principal who knew how and when to wield his power.

The only time I saw a crack in his armor was the day our son was born. My husband and I both taught at the same school, met there, and now it was the first day of school for teachers. My husband decided he should go to school to get his room set up, even though I was in the early stages of labor. After all, he would have less time when the baby was born. He made arrangements with the principal’s secretary that she would find him if I called. When I could tell that the baby was not going to wait for his daddy’s day to end, I called the direct line, the line that only the secretary would pick up. I was surprised to hear Jack answer the phone. Between contractions, I explained that I was ready to deliver. Jack was frantic. I expected him to show up at the house in scrubs to boil water. When the baby was born, he was so proud of his role in getting the father home in time, anyone might have thought he delivered the baby himself.

One Sunday afternoon a few years later, we got a phone call from school. Jack had been in a fatal car crash the night before. No one else was in the car. No other car was involved.

Our school was not the same after that day. We are the top school in the state academically, and we have more state athletic championships than ever, but the spirit is different. Parents call the shots, and teachers have no opportunity to defend themselves against claims made by dissatisfied students. Faculty meetings occur whether they are needed or not, and they usually involve berating the faculty for the infractions of a small number of teachers, teachers who often aren’t even in attendance. Worst of all, students are numbers who can’t recognize their principal unless they have been caught in some offense and have been called into the office for punishment. Rules are made just in case one of the five percent acts out.

Yes, I was lucky to get a job in 1976. But I was even luckier to work for one of the finest principals ever, one who led by example, one who believed in his school, his students, and his teachers. It was a close as a teacher could get to Camelot, and I was there.