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Re-Humanize Yourself

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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?

Dave Sherman - The Principal and Interest

8 Comments

Mr. Sherman,

If you do what you say you do in your article, you are a one in a million principal that do those things.

WOW! Actually getting involved with the kids and getting to know them on a personal basis is exactly what the kids need and want.

May I encourage you to continue holding in high esteem the kids under your tutelage. You will be highly esteemed by the kids as a result.

Great post, Dave! It's a nice reminder that we need to build relationships with kids to hook them into wanting to come to school and to learn from us - all of us, not just the teachers.

Re-humanized or just being human from the start, either way, I agree that the "head learner" should be seen by the school community (teachers, parents, students etc.) as an engaged person. A person that visits classrooms often, helps teachers plan, models instruction, coaches etc. etc. etc. Dealing with the discipline comes with the job, but it's "tough love" grounded in relationships built on presence in classrooms, not desk time in the office.

Being human is not really all that difficult. Didn't we all (hopefully) get into education to help kids? Why does that change when you are a principal? There are lots of opportunities to be human as a principal, but it has to be truly you as well. Faking it won't work. Part of what keeps me coming back to the principalship is the connection with the kids. That is also what makes the most impact when they make a mistake - our relationship. If you haven't built this with your student body, you are doing them a dis-service and doing a dis-service to yourself as well. By the way, that doesn't mean that every student is enthralled with all you do. After all, you are the principal.

Dear Mr. Sherman,
I am a teacher in an elementary building in Western New York. I have had the pleasure to have had not one but two principals who have followed this philosophy. I believe it is one of the big reasons our school was selected as a national Blue Ribbon School. Everybody wins when you use your office to inspire children and TEACH them what is right and wrong rather than the place where students are punished. The students learn respect for you rather than fear you. They want to do the right thing not because they fear the consequences but because they want you to be proud of their correct choices. They pass on your example to each other. Please keep up the good work and be an inspiration to your teachers and your students! Good luck this year!

Jon Herzog (5th grade teacher)

Good post. I had a principal in elementary school that would often bring us kids into his office during lunch to use his ham radio (remember those?!). Good memories.
You mention the students, but what about the staff? Could you comment on that, Dave? Do you, or did you when you first started out, ask yourself about how you want your staff to think of you? Have you made any changes in your years as an administrator to address this?
Also, (and I say this partly with tounge firmly planted in cheek) Mr. Belding, was a pretty cool principal in Saved by the Bell. He gave is all for the students at his school, and in turn Zach, Screetch, Slater, and the rest loved him dearly. Even while serving a detention he gave.

Jim,
You bring up an interesting topic for another post - working successfully with staff. It's can be rewarding, tricky, and time consuming, but this also plays an important role in school climate. So does a principal's relationship with parents. These are good ideas for future posts.
Thanks,
Dave

Hi... hope this finds everyone well and thanks for a very good post.

Building Environments of Respect...for all the human beings in the schools is what great principals do!
What are the ingredients::::
BELONGINGS
MASTERY
INDEPENDENCE
GENEROSITY

You speak to the power of creating Belongings with both staff and our kids... great place to start!

Actualizing the other pieces of the Cirlce come next!!!

As Barth has said:
" The question for educators is not whether all human's can learn but what conditions we can devise so they will learn."

Integrated well... these pieces will lead to a "healthy community" for all of us....

be well..mike


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