Monthly Archives: November 2012

Funerals

On occasion, I think of a particular student I worked with once when I was an assistant principal at a high school in MD.  It was around this time of year 3 or 4 years ago that he died.  He hadn’t been attending the schol for a couple years at  this point.  He was what people would call “at risk,”: adopted with a family history of mental health and substance abuse issues; poor school attendance; discipline problems.  Most of his disciplinary record was accumulated over a 2 year period, as I was serving as his assistant principal.  I built the relationship with the parents.  I worked with law enforcement when necessary to try to help this student.  I felt like I did everything within my power to help this student, and it wasn’t enough.  It’s a constant reminder about the fact that no matter how many positive professional experiences come my way, there are always students for whom we will struggle to figure out what we missed.

That was one very important and unexpected lesson I never anticipated when I was preparing to be an administrator.  The other was simply the sheer number of funerals I attended over the years as a school leader: funerals of colleagues, students, family members of students, family members of colleagues, etc. As painful and awful as they are, the importance of paying those respects is part of building and maintaining relationships among members of the school community.

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Acts or Threats of Violence

How can anyone, including school leaders, be prepared for violent events to happen in schools?  Most of us who work in schools have never experienced school from that perspective.  This week, my graduate students and I discussed the book Columbine (Cullen, 2009) in class, and their question was truly this.  It brought my memory back to a few unexpected specific incidents, one of which I will share.

While we all focus on instructional leadership and being in classrooms as much as possible, let’s face it; an administrator sometimes has to handle difficult, uncomfortable, and sometime slightly dangerous circumstances.  As an assistant principal at a large high school, certainly there were some occasions when I had to intervene on a conflict between students, and sometimes that was physical.  One time, I broke up what I thought was a fight between two girls (turns out it was really an assault), and the student I ended up removing from the situation actually turned on me and started hitting me, pulling my hair, etc.  Wow….. was I surprised.  Usually, once I was able (most often with the help of others) to separate the students in an altercation, I was able to deescalate the student enough to start the physical and emotional triage process.  Luckily, I had participated in some self-defense courses over my life and was able to focus on keeping myself relatively unhurt without aggression on my part until another grown-up came to assist.  It took every ounce of me to maintain the self-control to not follow my “instinct” to fight back.  Of course, that would have been professionally unethical.

I brought up this example in class in relation to the question about how does a school leader ever truly prepare for a situation like what happened at Columbine High School or other unexpected violent events.  Of course, we talked about how police and school officials have plans in place now that they didn’t back in 1999, although one could argue that there are always loopholes in safety plans.  However, what I shared with them was this.  I would visualize, over and over again, some worst case scenarios.  One of them was what I would do if a student in my building had a weapon.  My hope was that through that mental training and practice (like the same type of visualization that good athletes use), that what I had visualized would actually happen, as opposed to the instinct that might want to take over.  I also stated that by maintaining my physical well-being, I always felt more prepared to perform whatever task might come about, since unexpected events happen in schools every day, like when I ended up being attacked by a student.

*On a side note, my students and I really appreciate the fact that to this day, Mr. Frank DeAngelis is still the guide, the sage, and the principal of Columbine High School.

Reference

Cullen, D. (2009). Columbine. New York, NY: Twelve Publishers.

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School as Community Center

“Frankenstorm”, “Superstorm” Sandy…… for the Northeastern part of the United States, this event has had a devastating impact in certain areas. One may wonder what this has to do with school leadership. In many areas, schools became areas of community support even more so in times of emergency. This coordination happens among community members, school district offices, and administrative teams in school buildings.

As someone who completed excellent principal preparation programs, I wasn’t prepared for the intense amount of community events that take place in schools as simply the regular course of action. Anything from mega-church services in the auditorium on Sundays, to Special Olympics, to Relay for Life, to voting, etc. The list goes on and on. Although the principal isn’t directly involved in the planning of these events necessarily, these events themselves can impact the school operations and create tensions with school staff if communication doesn’t occur.

With this recent paralyzing storm (in certain areas), the American Red Cross set up shelters in some larger schools, including my last place of employment as a school administrator. What a blessing for those community residents who needed a place to go due to damage to homes and /or property from the storm. As a school leader, there’s no question that allowing this to happen in your building is the right thing to do. However, how does that impact your students if they are able to be in the building? These details…. coordinating and communicating with staff (i.e. the physical education teachers since the gym is now the shelter) and providing that safety precautions are taken (do the individuals staying in the Red Cross shelter have any history of abusing children?) are just two of the planning pieces that one might not naturally think of or might not have learned in a principal preparation program.

In New York City, where Hurricane Sandy has had devastating effects, school leaders are feverishly coordinating any necessary repairs to the building to provide the opportunity for students to return to classes ASAP. The coordination of those efforts and communicating with a community that is virtually shut off from the regular lines of communication is a challenge that school leaders there were probably not prepared for within their certification programs, but are figuring out as they go using common sense and their love for their students and community.

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