Do you remember how your teachers taught you to spell “principal” and “principle”? The principal is your "pal."
Through this slightly corny mnemonic device, kids can remember that the principal is a human they can turn to for help. And yet many of us can remember the feeling of trepidation when we're told to go to the principal's office, a feeling that can follow us into adulthood if we're not careful. As a parent, any feelings of nervousness around your child's principal may stem from the mystery around what the principal actually does.
Okay, demystify them for me. What do principals do all day?
Vincent Myers, principal of West End Elementary School in Woodbury, New Jersey, begins and ends his day with children. In his seventh year as a principal, he's got a routine down. He arrives at the school at 6 a.m. to prepare for the day. He wants to get everything set and ready to go for any meetings that day, so that when students arrive at school around 8:30, he can direct his focus completely to them. He meets his students at the school's entrances and greets them as they start their school day. "It's important for me to be out there and visible to get them off to a good start," he says.
He does the daily morning announcements so that every student hears his voice and knows that he's in the building. Then, for the rest of the morning, he's usually tied up in meetings. He's responsible for managing the major administrative tasks and supervising all students and teachers. But in his school district, he also has to help with new initiatives and projects that affect multiple schools.
During lunch and recess, Principal Myers is back out among the children. He strives to make himself as visible as possible, which includes making impromptu visits in classrooms and helping students with their academics when possible. "Just because I oversee the whole building does not mean, in my mind, that I have to take a step back," he says. He works to be very hands-on and involved in the lives of his students.
Planning is a huge part of the job. He has to plan for the rest of the current year and simultaneously envision the future. He makes an honest effort to be home for dinner and to put his own kids to bed. "My whole day is about kids," he says proudly.
Busy day! How do my child's needs fit into that kind of schedule?
Myers has an open-door policy for parents. "If I shut my door on my parents, then I shut my door on my students," he says. He sees parents as part of the school's team and community.
If you find that your child's principal isn't as available as you would like, communicate that with him. You may be able to negotiate a compromise and a set of expectations that you're both comfortable with. Remember that he may not always be aware of the details of your child's academic and behavioral record. Your child's teacher should be able to fill in the blanks and act as a liaison between you and the principal.
When should I contact my principal?
When it comes to issues that are specific to your child's education, your teacher is probably the first person you should turn to for assistance. Even if the teacher doesn't exactly have the authority to make a decision, he may be able to provide some insight into how you and your child can achieve your goals. After a chat with the teacher, it may be time to schedule a meeting with the principal.
Myers pondered situations in which a parent should go over a teacher’s head. "If it involves the teacher directly, inappropriate actions about a teacher or a student making a report about a teacher, they should go through me first," he says after careful thought. In any situation involving a teacher-child relationship, he can insert himself as the "impartial player" to help resolve any conflicts.
Are there times when I should contact someone else?
Get to know the dynamics of your school's structure. Every school has a hierarchy, and as a parent, it's good for you to know it. At West End Elementary School, Myers doesn't have vice principals or assistant principals to help him. But he does have a social worker and counselor who step in to handle issues that arise with students when he isn't available to handle them himself.
Your school may have a vice principal to handle disciplinary matters or an academic dean to go to for academic questions. Some schools have headmasters, who have a different set of responsibilities entirely. Your principal can explain who you should talk to about what. Figure out this information early in the school year, so that if issues arise, you're not scrambling to figure out which administrator you need to call or visit.
Your principal is usually the central leader in your school. He holds the vision that pushes the school, and your child, forward. "For me, every child can succeed with the right support players around them … and that takes planning," Myers says. When you converse with your principal, keep in mind that he's not only thinking about how to make your child successful today, but also how to set him up for academic and social success in the years to come.