How the principal learned about what was important in a rural school secretary, Part 1

Part 1

Once I had proven myself in the paddling exercise, (see Last Tango in the Superintendent’s Career) the superintendent let me know I would be able to keep the job as teaching-principal and actually have a school secretary. I didn’t know it was a test but apparently it was crucial. The most crucial part might have been keeping my mouth shut about the way an elementary school kid flung the boss through the air a couple of times. But nevertheless, I passed.

For a teaching principal in his first months in a seven-teacher school of about 180 kids, a secretary sounded really good. It had been pretty difficult to teach my own class and answer the phone and deal with any problem children the other teachers sent to me, not to mention parents who dropped in for one reason or another. So a secretary, at last, was a going to be a great step up.

The item the superintendent didn’t mention was the fact that the position was going to be funded by CETA, (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) a special federal program designed to help aspiring workers get off welfare and into the workforce. Qualifications such as skills were not the main criteria for landing the jobs. Need was the main criteria and minor items such as criminal background of which program participants had to have none to work in a school.

My secretary arrived the next day brought right to my classroom by the superintendent. He introduced her to me and said, “This is Joleen Cross, your new secretary.”

“Well, Hi Joleen,” I said excitedly. “I’m so very glad you are here. We need a real secretary!”

Joleen was a parent of two of my students when I taught at the Junior High and I knew her as a quiet and concerned parent who came to every meeting and school event. There was also something in the back of my mind I couldn’t quite remember.

“Thanks,” said Joleen. “I always wanted to be a seketary.”

I thought I might have misheard Joleen but then I instantly remembered what was in the back of my mind. She had a real problem speaking standard English. Her family had come from Oklahoma a few generations in the past to work on the big dam just up the road from the school. When the dam was finished many left for other jobs and some stayed for poorer non-upwardly mobile jobs in the region.

In spite of the local cultural language issue, I thought this deal might not be so bad. I can get Joleen to answer the phone and type up letters and so on. And Joleen was great at answering the phone and talking with parents who could understand her accent. She had a warm heart and was patient with the children who were in trouble or lost or anything else. When she answered the phone, she always said, “Joleen Speakin’ “ and this caused some of the snootier parents and the next Superintendent to simply re-name her from Joleen Cross to Joleen Speakin’.

Joleen would not have made it as a secretary at the episcopal school. You had to speak Standard English and be able to converse with people who were professionals and graduates of all kind of colleges and universities. And you had to be able to write a bit. And this was where my first hopes were dashed. I believed and still do in keeping a strong paper trail following any important communication. And this meant sending clearly written letters typed on school letterhead. For instance, I would write,

“Dear Mrs. Jones,

Thank you for responding so quickly yesterday when I called to let you know Johnny was in a fight at school. As I shared, I looked into the matter, listened to both boys tell their stories and determined an appropriate response. Both boys will pick up trash on the playground during recess for the remainder of the week.

I also want to you to know that I appreciate your agreement with my decision that future fighting will result in a one-day suspension from school per the California Education Code.

Please feel free to contact me at any time here at school.

Yours Sincerely,

Bill Rich


I tried to dictate such a letter to Joleen but she let me know right away that she couldn’t to that. Then I typed out this sample letter above so she could use it as a model for school discipline letters. She liked this idea but when it came time for her to type a similar letter, she couldn’t get through a paragraph with out unrecognized misspellings or simply the omission of various words. This was very frustrating to me. A new superintendent was hired that year and he advised me to provide an evaluation that required Joleen to take classes at the Community College in English and typing. I did that and she was willing and eager to learn and improve.