It’s the principal of the thing
For more than twenty years, I’ve been an education reporter. Most of the time, I’ve loved it. I go into more schools than the milk delivery guy. I regularly visit twenty different counties and school districts, and more than a hundred schools a year. I see the rich ones, the poor ones, the new ones, the crumbling ones.
How did this come to be? My boss called me in one day and said, “David, we think you should specialize in something. You need a regular beat.” I replied, “That’s fine, but just keep in mind that I like to be positive. Could you assign me something that doesn’t have controversy, conflict, and politics?” He said, “Okay, how about schools?” I jumped at the chance. Now about that controversy, conflict, and politics: all I can say is, be careful what you wish for.
During this time, I’ve met hundreds of principals. Most of them understand my role. If their school has great test scores, or wins a big award, I should cover it. But if their school is vandalized, or a teacher gets in trouble, I should cover that too. Early on, a few principals hit me with this painful accusation: “You only put us on the news when it’s something bad.” Sadly, too often they were right. I pledged to visit them when something good was going on too, to give them positive coverage. That is still my goal.
As you might expect, being an education reporter, I get plenty of parental complaints. They used to arrive by letter, a few still come by phone, and now they’re most often by e-mail or Facebook. Many of the complaints are about bus drivers and others are about teachers or principals. I look into each one. Most are the result of poor communication, and when the two sides actually talk, the problem resolves itself. However, some of them are valid complaints. If I do my job well, the problem either gets solved, or it becomes a story in which the public is informed about an issue that could affect them.
Certainly there are poor performing principals, just as there are poor performers in every occupation you can name, including news reporters. Still, I sympathize with principals, particularly those in public schools who feel like they’re wearing huge targets on their backs.
The best principals are the ones who understand what I believe to be the three most important parts of their job. I often tell them they should spend 40 percen of their time on academics, 40 percen on discipline and 40 percent on public/parent relations. Yes, that adds up to 120 percent, but any principal will tell you they put in that extra time.
That is especially true for high school principals. The money is good, for sure. But who among us wants to unlock the door at 6 a.m., be responsible for the safety of 1500 or more teenagers in this unpredictable world, and attend every athletic event, PTA meeting, dance and fundraiser? Folks, they earn their pay.
They face increasing scrutiny from the public and the press, have to deal with ever-changing state and federal regulations, and must adjust curriculum and class schedules every year. They must manage a staff of several dozen educators, each of whom is given one of the most important jobs on earth: being responsible for the safety, behavior and progress of or children. Speaking of safety, when you enter any public school you’ll be reminded of how times have changed. Sophisticated security systems have been installed at each entrance, replacing the unlocked doors of our youth. Principals will tell you it is a necessity, reflecting the real world dangers of today.
Most principals understand that they’re the face of their school, and the good ones know how to set the right tone for their campus. One of my favorite principals is at a rural high school. Walking down the hall with him one day, I saw him spot a 9th grader out of dress code. “Boy, you better get that shirt tail in, or I’ll whup your (butt),” he said in a stern tone of voice. He could tell I was a bit startled by his colorful choice of words. “Aw, that’s nothing,” he said. “I grew up with that boy’s daddy. That’s the only language he understands. And he knows I’m not really gonna whup his (butt). I’d let his daddy handle that.”
Such is the life of a high school principal. Middle school principals deal with raging hormones. Elementary principals get a lot of hugs, but have to wave off clingy parents. Above all, my experience has taught me this: I’d rather report on principals than be one.
David Carroll, a Chattanooga news anchor, is the author of the new book “Volunteer Bama Dawg,” a collection of his best stories, available at ChattanoogaRadioTV.com, or by sending $23 to David Carroll Book, PO Box 15185, Chattanooga, TN 37415. You may contact David at firstname.lastname@example.org.