It was in the larger district where I served as principal that I made the leap to a district level administrative position in Human Resources. The first hurdle involved breaking the informal code of junior administrators by jumping ahead of senior principals who might want the job. This wasn’t such a big deal to me because I had already broken one of the chief codes by taking action against teachers I considered to be bad for students, and bad for the school since parents didn’t want their kids in the classes these teachers ran. My decisions in these situations were not strategic but visceral. With one particularly mean and unhappy teacher, I simply could not place another new student into her class. I resolved at that point to produce the kind of write up that would drive her or me out. Coached by the brilliant attorney retained by the district I honed a devastating weapon, a memo that told the truth about her teaching. After a few months of petitions from fellow teachers and threats from the union, she retired and moved off to be unhappy elsewhere.
Of course this action made enemies among union leadership but that fact seemed to work well for an up and coming administrator in the eyes of the superintendent and school board. More experienced principals did everything possible to not take this kind of action since making enemies was not a path to longevity and high status as a senior administrator. But rising fast was my goal, not longevity and status as a wise old principal.
I also took the superintendent up on an offer to attend a “personnel academy” sponsored by the state administrator association so I would be as prepared as possible for the job. When the board selected me, life changed, especially with all the principals, my former buddies. I was suddenly a “district” person and not a “school” person. I knew something like this might happen but it was still a real surprise when friends suddenly began treating me like someone they bargained with or even lied to on behalf of their schools. Of course I understood since I had also lied to central office types on behalf of any school where I had served as principal. For instance, in one the policy was that the district would fix any air conditioning or heating problem that cost over $1000.00. But all other less expensive air conditioning problems came from the school’s budget. I learned pretty quickly that my school would never have an air conditioning problem that cost less than $1000.00. When the HVAC repair guy would tell me he could fix the 20 year old classroom HVAC unit for $600.00, it was easy to ask the custodian to ‘repair’ it so it would break completely in a few months. In this way we could get a brand new unit for $1500.00 bought by the district.
Other inside manipulations of the system for the benefit of my school(s) included maneuvering around transfer policies to get the best teachers. I saw a superintendent allow a transfer of a very ineffective teacher to a school that was searching for a new principal after the current one had retired. Without the protection of a strong principal, a school was left to the devices (and needs) of the central office. The superintendent was tired of the ongoing problem of the ineffective teacher at school A. So when School B had no principal yet, the superintendent solved his problem by sticking the as yet not hired principal and school with the problem teacher.
There were other tricks of the trade I also had learned from senior principals. For instance, if a senior teacher was going to retire, I would be certain he or she held off submitting the letter of retirement until I could arrange for the right teacher from another school to apply for the coming opening. And furthermore, I would make certain the job posting would be narrow enough and specific enough to insure the right applicant was the only one who was qualified for the role.
But now I was going to be on the other end of the stick. Luckily I had experienced many of the games played between district and school administrators so I hoped I was not going to be too surprised.
I knew I was going to be separated and different from my principal friends since I had more power, at least they thought I had more power. And I knew I was prepared. I understood the politics, the curriculum, school management, budget management, how to develop good parent relationships and much more. However, I really didn’t understand the true perception of my new role from the perspective of school people.
I learned the true nature of my promotion during one of my school tours. My boss had suggested that I visit every school in the district several times in order to learn about them and also to help school staffs become more comfortable with me in this new role. I stopped by the teacher break rooms and assumed a mild mannered, and friendly identity that had nothing to do with power or representing the central office of any organization. I was just friendly old Bill, the harmless guy who was there to help out.
It was on just such a school visit at a junior high school that the truth of promotion up the ladder and out of schools hit me. I stopped by a science classroom and enjoyed both the direct teaching and the students working on lab style assignments. I approached one of the lab groups and asked what they were doing? The kids explained the question they were trying to find an answer to. They also described the experiment they were trying to conduct. Any question I asked, they looked up from their serious work, gazed at me through their safety goggles and spoke with confidence and expertise. Finally one kid asked me, “Who are you anyway?” Obviously I was not the teacher and not their principal or vice principal, and too dressed up (blue blazer, regimental tie, gunboat brogues) to be another teacher.
“Well,” I responded. “Who do you think I am?” The kid took off his safety goggles and turned towards me. He looked me up and down with a quizzical look on his face. Finally he ventured, “Yearbook salesman?”
I was a bit dumbfounded. Me, an experienced teacher and principal, now a district administrator, inquiring about both instruction and learning of this group of students, dressed in professional garb. And it turned out I looked like a yearbook salesman? What a distressing moment that was. Upon reflection, it was a very accurate observation. The kid had probably never heard of a Personnel Director, or an Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources. But he well knew who important school people were. They were teachers, office clerks, the secretary and the chief of them all, the principal. Anyone else was simply an outsider trying to sell them something.
It wasn’t until a couple of years later during one of many intense struggles over employee discipline that I understood what an outsider I had become. From the perception of the staff, a teacher who was a lemon was still their lemon. None of them wanted to tolerate incompetent teachers, but they knew the hearts of their incompetent teachers and judged them to be well meaning if not pure. As colleagues and union brothers and sisters, they knew whom to defend and whom to dislike. I understood just how disliked this work was making me when I discovered that my best friend was now the attorney who worked for the district. As for the staff, the support staff, the secretaries, they had no idea what I actually did. And thus, I could just as well have been a yearbook salesman as far as they were concerned.