A Principal’s Job Is Also to Teach

Photograph by Jeff Woodward.Early in my career as a school leader, I learned a great lesson: that as a principal, I needed to help children learn the skills that would enable the behavior their teachers and I wanted to see. As a teacher, I’d used myriad proactive and reactive approaches to handle classroom situations. But once in the principal’s office, I was less certain about how to be supportive when a teacher and a struggling student needed my help. Like many novice principals, at first I saw myself primarily as an imposer of consequences. But then an experience with a kindergartner helped me see that there was much more I could do.

I learned this lesson from Devin, a five-year-old whose smile lit up the room. He was joyful during one-on-one conversation, and had many positive moments in school. Unfortunately, most of my interactions with Devin were accompanied by a referral sheet listing the profanity he’d just used in the classroom.

I had been in constant dialogue about this with Devin’s teacher, who desperately wanted him to succeed. She had given Devin reminders regarding his word choices. Mostly, though, our collaboration focused on consequences. Devin had lost privileges to work with others, I’d spoken with his parent, and he’d taken a break from school for a day. But the foul language persisted, and we began receiving calls from other concerned parents. Everyone wanted a solution, and they were looking to me to provide it.

Burying the Words

When Devin showed up on yet another morning remorsefully holding a referral, my mind churned, and I thought of Word Cemetery, a method for helping students avoid bland, overused words in their writing. Wondering if this approach could be adapted to meet the needs of a five-year-old, I decided that Devin and I would physically bury all his inappropriate words so he could tangibly separate from them. I cut paper into slips and told Devin, “Tell me all the words that keep getting you in trouble.”

As Devin nervously went through his repertoire of words, I wrote them all down on the slips, without reaction. “All the words we just wrote down,” I told Devin, “are now dead, and we are going to bury them.”

I grabbed a spoon from my cabinet and we went outside for the burial. On the way, Devin noticed a dead cricket and asked if he could bury that as well. Figuring doing so might solidify the idea that the words were in fact dead, I said yes.

Devin dug a hole with the spoon. I stated, “Today we are saying goodbye to ______” and read the word on the first slip. We continued until I’d read every slip and Devin had placed each into the hole. We added the cricket and covered everything with dirt.

Back inside, I said to Devin, “Now that you can’t use those words, we need to think of other words to use. What else can you say to the kids in your class?”

Devin looked at me with such a blank stare that suddenly I realized I had missed the most obvious reason for his misbehavior. He didn’t know acceptable ways to speak to another child.

Teaching New Words

As a novice principal, I had been so caught up with doling out consequences that I had failed to ask myself the critical question: Does this child know how to do what we expect him to do?

Once I realized that Devin needed to learn more appropriate ways to speak to others, we started by generating a list of conversation starters: “What is your favorite thing to do at recess?” “Do you want to play?” “I like your shoes.”

Devin and I made a poster of the new phrases, with picture clues, and we practiced a few of them. Devin decided to hang the poster near his desk, and his teacher helped him find a spot. For many days afterwards, he beamed at me and pointed to the poster as I did my morning walk-through.

Working with Devin reminded me that while consequences may stop a problem, only teaching—making sure the child knows how to do what we’re asking him to—can solve it. Devin buried his words that day, and I buried my notion that an administrator’s role is merely to enforce consequences. I am, first and foremost, a teacher.

Karen Poplawski is a Responsive Classroom consultant. Prior to joining Northeast Foundation for Children, she taught kindergarten, first grade, and fourth grade for ten years, and she was a principal for seven years.

Tags: Conversation Skills, Misbehavior