The Principal Story (Film Review)

At the recent National Staff Development Council (NSDC) conference in St. Louis, I had an opportunity to view The Principal Story. This documentary, which aired on PBS earlier this fall, tells a poignant story about two elementary school leaders who turned around their under-performing urban schools. (Follow the link to the Wallace Foundation website for more about the documentary, including sample clips, a companion viewing/field guide, and information about ordering.)

Tresa Dunbar is the principal at Nash Elementary in Chicago, and Kerry Purcell is the former principal of Harvard Park Elementary in Springfield, Illinois. The film follows each of the women for a year, highlighting the daily struggles that are faced by principals and teachers as they strive to create strong learning communities.

One of the ways these principals accomplish this goal is through building positive relationships and making connections with students, teachers, staff, and families. The strong leadership and teaching practices I saw in the video have a lot in common with the Responsive Classroom approach. The principals featured in the film clearly understand that children (and adults, for that matter) do their best learning when they are immersed in caring communities that place value in both social and academic learning.

Many children today come to school lacking social and emotional tools and skills, which are key ingredients to learning. In Responsive Classrooms, we seek to balance students’ social/emotional and cognitive needs, whether we are addressing academic issues or discipline.

I was particularly moved by Tresa Dunbar’s comments about school discipline. She shared that most of the discipline problems at her school are about emotions. She believes that misbehavior is a form of communication, and she places value in understanding children’s motives for misbehaving. She says the message children often send is, “I am angry. I am upset. I feel disheveled and unloved and this morning you’re hollering and screaming at me because I don’t have my uniform on or you’re talking to me because I can’t sit in my seat, or you have the nerve to not let me get breakfast when I’m five minutes late and I’m starving. I haven’t eaten in a day and a half. And so the only thing that that I know how to do, because my whole family or my entire community acts up, is be indecent and act up.”

Tresa Dunbar and Kerry Purcell have faith in children’s and teachers’ positive intentions, a foundational idea shared by Responsive Classroom practitioners.  These principals recognize that children (and sometimes teachers) may lack the skills, or the support, or the environment, in which to thrive.  Just like Tresa and Kerry, it is our job as educators to create schools where all students and teachers feel a sense of belonging and significance, and where all members of the school community are meaningfully engaged in learning.

This documentary shows that creating these environments within our present educational system is no easy task. It takes a great deal of courage and heart, and the critical role of the school principal cannot be overlooked. As Arne Duncan reminds us in the film, “We have no good schools without good principals.”  I would add that we have no good schools without good teachers, and that the role of the principal in supporting good teaching is paramount.

Babs Freeman-Loftis is a Responsive Classroom consultant and coauthor of Responsive School Discipline. She was assistant head of the lower school at the University School of Nashville for nine years.

Tags: Building Schoolwide Community, Schoolwide Rules

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