Principal for a Day: Not in Charge of the School

It was never easy to get teachers to serve as substitute principal, or “teacher-in- charge” as the job was called. In fact the best choice for my school would have been the school secretary who combined great management knowledge with deep understanding for every person in our school community. But the law requires the person in charge of a school to be certified with a state teaching credential, so no secretary need apply.

It became even more difficult one fateful yet bright and sunny day in March when I was away for the day. A great teacher, Joe, with 10 years of experience in Special Education volunteered to take on the role of teacher in charge, and even enrolled in a university program to earn an Administrative credential. A substitute teacher was hired for his classroom that day so he would be free to handle any issues that might pop up.

The ambulances arrived at school before anyone knew exactly what had happened. A paramedic rushed into the office and asked in a loud voice, “Where is the child who got hit on I-5?”

Everyone was stunned. “What? We don’t know anything about it yet? What happened?” said the school secretary. Joe looked on in horror.

At about that time one of Joe’s 3rd graders, Jimmy, ambled onto the school grounds with three of his buddies. Jimmy was bleeding from a wound on his head. The paramedics rushed to him, made him lie down on a backboard, strapped him on and began to clean and bandage the head wound. It turned out the head wound was actually just a minor scratch that only bled well. Jimmy and later, his friends, were so impressed with all the action and attention that they told the truth to the paramedics immediately. They had indeed been the kids on the freeway. Joe and Betty the secretary knelt by the backboard as Jimmy told his story.

One of Jimmy’s older friends, Marcus, had dared him to run across I-5, four lanes of rush hour traffic, at 7:45am on the way to school. Students walked across a bridge over the freeway with a wide sidewalk about 3 blocks away, on the way to school every day. But on this day, Marcus stood on the opposite side of the bridge, looking at the freeway to determine when to give Jimmy the “all clear” so he could run across. When Marcus said, “Go Jimmy, Run!” Jimmy put his head down and ran. He had gone about 4 steps when he ran smack into the front right fender of a VW bug. The driver miraculously saw Jimmy coming and slammed on the brakes and turned sharply almost flipping the car. Jimmy bounced off onto the side of the freeway and decided he wouldn’t try to run I-5 again that day. After scrambling up the hillside, he crossed the bridge over the freeway and walked to school with his friends.

The driver of the bug became hysterical and sobbed at the side of the road. A call was made to the police and fire departments that a child was hit on the freeway. As traffic slowed and stopped and the ambulances were dispatched. But they couldn’t find him on the freeway with the driver of the car who showed them the dented right fender and cried uncontrollably. A tow truck was called and the highway patrol arrived to investigate. The children arrived at school. Jimmy was driven to the hospital ER, scanned, examined and released. No harm done. School had started for the day, but no kid was found along the freeway.

At about 8:15am one of the more volatile parents, Mr. Thomas, called in shouting over the phone, as he normally did. The secretary transferred the call to Joe, who listened carefully as the caller unloaded a raft of threats against him and the school unless he took care of some random problem his step-daughter was experiencing. Among the threats was a promise to “Blow your goddamn head off,” unless something was done. Joe just hung up and reacted reasonably given today’s climate and called the police, who were already on their way to the school to see about the child who was hit on the freeway.

When the police arrived, Joe let them know a Mr. Thomas had threatened to “…blow his head off “ (he edited out Mr. Thomas profanity) over the phone. Mr. Thomas was well known to the police for his carousing and drunken fights in a couple of local bars. So when Mr. Thomas arrived at school he was cuffed and placed unwillingly in a squad car.

Just as the police cars left the school at around 8:45am, a group of students arrived late. The entered the school grounds from the opposite side that Jimmy came from, as if the mayhem were coordinated. There were three of them, all 5th grade girls, laughing and shouting as they pushed, ran and alternately rode on the back of a shopping cart that contained a big white dog with a black circle around his eye, just like the one in the old Our Gang comedies. As they rode and ran after the cart across the parking lot and entered the school hallway (hallways are open, next to the classrooms) they were spotted first by the Janitor, Sam, who said, “Hey, how did you kids get that dog to sit up like that?”

Joe turned the corner of the hallway and practically ran into the little recalcitrant crew and the cart with the dog. It was obvious at this point, due to the smell and sight of the dog, that it was quite dead and had been so for some time. Joe glared at the kids and they knew they had been caught and were in trouble. Joe demanded they leave the cart and get to the office. They walked glumly into the tiny office where 2 of them sat in the available chairs and the third stood up waiting for Joe to follow in. The secretary, Betty, asked them why they were late and they confided that they were in trouble. Joe came in and the kids started to talk. Not at junior high age, they usually just told the story as they saw it and without any exotic lies. They found the shopping cart on the way to school and also happened to find the dead dog in a dumpster. The dog looked just like a dog on a popular and successful Budweiser ad on tv, Spuds Mackenzie, so they decided to see if they could get it into the cart. The dog was stiff (rigor mortis) so it sat up nicely. This made it easy to play out a scene from one of the beer ads with the dog as a member of the cast. The kids sang the jingle from the ad and laughed. Joe and Betty did not laugh. Joe called the janitor, Sam, who collected the dog and put it into the school dumpster. Joe became distraught at this final idiocy and yelled at Sam to call the animal control to get the dead dog. When he called the parents to tell them he had suspended their children from school for the day, each one protested. After all, the kids were only tardy and who could blame them for picking up a stray dog? It took a bit of time for each parent to understand the dog was actually dead. They still protested and only one actually came to pick up their kid. The other two stayed in class, and triumphantly became playground heroes by noon recess.

I called in to see how things were going around noon and Betty, the school secretary let me know everything was going fine. She was a marvel. But things were not so fine. Joe decided to quit his administrative program at the university by noon and sat in the office with the door closed the rest of the day. Nothing much happened so he was done at 2: 45pm when school let out. When I returned the next day, I tried to coach him a bit.

“You know there are alternate ways of dealing with angry parents besides calling the police.”

“Like what?”

“Well, you could say, ‘Hey, Mr. Thomas, we can resolve this peacefully I’m sure. How about if we calm down and talk a bit. Or more effective would be an approach that built on the relationship of mano a mano, like the one I already constructed with and for this man. Personally, I would have said, ‘Oh cut the bullshit man, what is the real problem here? You know I’m in charge here and you can trust me to handle it.’”

None of this expert advice had much effect on Joe. He had seen enough of Educational Leadership and Management to keep him in his classroom for the rest of his career. I thought of this day often when I began teaching as a new Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership 16 years ago.