What do you remember about your elementary school principal? One of the activities that I like to do with Principal Qualification Program’s candidates is to have them generate a picture, along with descriptors of their former principals. Often the visuals includes descriptors like mature, male, stern, scary office door (mostly closed). At times, we hear terms like cool, laughing as they go down the hall and colourful clothes. This activity sets the stage for richer conversations about the importance of our role and how others view the work that we do. We know that relationships are the foundation of our work. How we build and nurture those relationships are key ~ especially when we need to support students who are struggling or families who need our compassion and understanding. It is easy to be “sunshine and lollipops” when all is well. It is more challenging to maintain authentic relationships with our students and families who need us the most during the difficult times.
When I reflect on my experience (back in the late 70s), I can easily recall Mr. Dickson. He was a tall, thin man with grey hair and glasses. I do not recall him ever smiling. When he walked the hallway there was complete silence and groups of students automatically fell into a straight line. Each Friday, Mr. Dickson would come into our grade 8 classroom and teach us grammar. Up until my grade 8 year, I assumed that I was an adequate writer. I had never received any feedback from previous teachers to the contrary. Yet, Mr. Dickson, with his endless worksheets whereby we needed to underline objects, circle adjectives, and put some other mystical grammatical symbol around prepositions, convinced me that I was a terrible writer. Try as I might, I failed more of those grammar tests than I passed ~ to the point that I was called to his office one day to practice and review the appropriate symbols. To this day, I can recall the details of his small office, tucked in behind the main office where the secretary was. There was a small single window with brown/yellow flowered curtains, which faced the playground. I place that I desperately wanted to be. I was so scared and felt so stupid. I remember the look on the secretary’s face as I made my way past the counter and towards the looming doorway. It was as if she was saying with her eyes, “Hang in there, kid”. He towered over me as he tested me with multiple examples, which I would continue to answer incorrectly. I could sense his disappointment. I remember my nose running and being embarrassed that I did not have a Kleenex in my pocket. I tried to inconspicuously wipe my nose when he was not looking. I recall leaving his office, making my way to the washroom and being so thankful that there an empty stall. I cried, blew my nose so hard that I am sure I caused damage, then made my way back to class, thankful no one questioned my absence or my bloodshot eyes and red nose.
I dreaded Fridays for the remainder of the school year and to this day, there are times when I need to use a comma, colon or semi-colon and I revert back to that insecure 13-year-old, who thought she could not write. Some of you may notice that I often use the symbol (~) in my writing. It has become my “go to” when I am unsure of the correct grammatical notation.
I doubt that Mr. Dickson woke up that morning with an intention to make my cry and to make me question my ability to write. I cannot help but wonder, if in his own way he was trying to make me a better writer.
I often wonder if Mr. Dickson was as surprised as I was when I was awarded the General Proficiency Award at our Grade 8 Graduation.
I will leave the conversation about teaching grammar in isolation and the connection to authentic writing for another day.
So much has changed in the last 40 years or so.
Today I had 3 students who popped by to see me.
S. is a grade 1 student with ASD. He wandered in singing the theme song to the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse series. He is fascinated by the planets and there is a video in the series about Mars. So, I found the link on the Internet and started to play it. He jumped up on to my lap and together we watched it. He occasionally would get up and role play his part in the video. I have a feeling that I have started a trend. Let us see if he pops in tomorrow.
M is a grade 6 student whose educator has challenged her class to find and implement a social justice cause. Last week she came to see me about a fundraiser to support families in the Ukraine. We went through several possible ideas. She has been exploring websites to see what the greatest need is. Today when she popped by M had landed on a used book sale with the proceeds being donated to the Red Cross. I admire her tenacity, her confidence, and the way in which she entered our conversation. There was no talking her out of this initiative. She has promised to check in again tomorrow morning to work on the advertising campaign.
And finally, I had a visit from another student in that same grade 6 class. She is interested in gathering information/opinions about a proposed 4-day school week. The richness of the conversation was so jarring that I had to remind myself that this was an 11-year-old. Her maturity, her forthright confidence, and her ability to not only ask the right questions, but listen, pause, and then respond was remarkable. This young woman is going to change the world. I have no doubt!
Like all my colleagues, there are times when students come to see me as a result of situation that needs to be resolved. There have been times when students have been upset, angry and even drawn to tears. We know that part of this role is to help students make better choices and to understand how their actions impact others.
My hope is that when (if) my former students conjure up a memory of my office, they think of it as a place where they were always welcome to come and visit, a place where their ideas were respected and if they required support, it was a place where they were treated fairly and compassionately.
What do you remember about your elementary school principal/office?
Come write with me….