Monday, April 30, 2007
The Principal in Pink Converse Shoes (and Other Tone-Setters)
A school's principal has an amazing influence over the vibe of a school. Teachers have their own classrooms, work independently, succeed in meeting the curricular demands without their "boss" breathing down their necks...some go for days without seeing their principal, and yet the principal's attitude influences the entire campus. This past week I spoke with a teacher who told me she'd like to participate in the Exercise the Right to Read campaign but then whispered into the phone that her principal "would never go for it." I felt sorry for her because the tone of her voice said it all. "My book club will do it, though," she added. "We'll do it on our own." I've met principals like that--and I haven't met them, too. I've done some school visits where the principal's been "too busy" to come to the assembly, let alone meet the visiting author. The teachers and librarians are always apologetic, but it's not their fault. I know the deal. Lip service to literacy is just a stepping stone on their quest to becoming superintendent. But for every principal like that there are dozens who set the tone right; principals who are involved and truly care about the kids and the teachers, not just career advancements. Like another principal I spoke with last week who is so enthused about the fundraising program that she's meeting with the other principals in the district, challenging them all to participate. And then there are the principals you can't help but marvel at. Two in particular spring to mind: I met the first one after I'd traveled long and far to reach a school in rural California. I was beat and still had a full day of presentations to give, so I decided at the last minute not to switch out of my travel shoes -- black and white Converse "low-tops". (I was still in that phase where I thought it wasn't appropriate author attire, but at that point I was more interested in being comfortable.) I was feeling a little self conscious, but when the principal stepped from behind her desk to greet me, my jaw dropped at the sight of her feet. She was wearing pink Converse high-tops! This was the principal? I loved her already! I should explain that my Sammy Keyes mysteries feature a spunky seventh grade girl who swears by high-tops, so this wasn't the principal's normal attire. She had declared it Converse Day at the school in honor of my visit, and I soon discovered that the entire student body and a lot of the teachers were decked out in high-tops. The tone of that school was amazing. They didn't have much in the way of "resources", but their principal was a source of inspiration beyond any educational gadget. The other principal that I will never forget headed up a middle school in Oklahoma. He was an intimidating sight -- you wouldn't want to mess with this guy! But he was soft spoken, patient, and when some kid got himself into trouble he'd sit them in his office (which was wall to wall books) and after discussing the infraction and necessary consequences, he'd ask, "What book are you reading, son?" And after discussing that for a while, he'd select one from his collection and give it to the kid to read. It would be a book relevant to what the kid was going through, and part of the "detention" would be a future discussion of the book: What did it teach? Did he relate? How could its lessons help him to become a better person? This principal did more than talk the talk about literacy and the value of books. He took action. He lived it.