As a high school principal, I am often asked in various venues what the hardest part of the job is.
Last week at this time if someone would have asked me that question, I would have answered as I have done to many of our stakeholders and our greater learning community. So let's pretend it is one week ago and I am discussing what is the hardest part of being a high school principal in a PTO meeting or perhaps one of the Parent Breakfasts that I host every two weeks. Bear with me as we proceed on this pretend dialogue briefly.
Question 1: Is bullying and harassment a hard part of your job, particularly on social media sites such as Tumblr, Twitter or Instagram?
Answer: Yes, certainly those are problematic leading to sometimes serious situations involving bullying, pornographic or obscene photos and harassment often spilling over into classrooms and lunchrooms. We certainly worry about and try to be proactive about social media and bullying and harassment and work to educate our students and parents. It is a difficult part of being a principal.
Question 2: Is the threat of violence in schools and the presence of weapons in schools a difficult part of your job.
Answer: Absolutely, that is the concern of every principal of every level in every school in America. After Sandy Hook, our district reviewed every security measure we take and we have undertaken new measures in school safety that we are still working on today and every day. You bet, school violence is a really difficult part of being a principal, and we will continue to focus and improve our efforts in this area.
And so on. Drugs? Yes-- very difficult. Communication? A challenge. . . And so on.
Yes, a week ago if you would have asked me I would have certainly identified all of these areas and more as hard parts of being a high school principal.
Last week I would also have told you I was worried about this upcoming school year with all of the proposed changes in education. I was worried about my opening staff presentation on Aug. 15 and the first workday. How would we present our data, inform our staff about how we are proceeding with growth measures, OTES, our literacy focus, feedback, differentiation, the change in our special education model, meet with department chairs. . . and so on. and so on. and so on.
Throw in that our new office carpeting hasn't been installed, our new lockers haven't been painted or installed, a resignation of an assistant principal on July 31, and schedule pickup days next week and it seemed that all of these things make being a high school principal difficult work. Really tough. Hard, really hard. Throw in interviewing and hiring a new assistant principal in August and it just adds to the list. Yes-- we are busy people with big problems to solve. That's what we think most days, isn't it?
I mean, just look at all of the actual problems from above. Wow. I thought last week at this time that all of these things were tough. Tougher than tough.
Well, Sunday changed all that.
"What is the hardest part of being a high school principal?"
You see, on Sunday, I got up, clicked on my smart phone about 9 am and saw numerous Messages and Voicemails that brought me the news that reminded me of the REAL answer to the question.
One of our students had been killed in a tragic car accident early that morning. The world stopped turning for an instant for all of us. I had to sit down. Try to get info. What? Stephen? Stephen can't be dead. We had hugged on the stage of graduation with an O-H and a response of I-O as we were sending him off to my alma mater of Ohio State. He was going to be a great Buckeye and study chemical engineering.
Stephen? One of the most popular seniors in the class of 2013. Baseball player, football player, excellent student leader, the kind of boy you would want your daughter to marry.
Sunday was filled with tweets, posts, messages and phone calls. Everything else at work and at home stopped. It just didn't matter anymore. And at the end of this day, the most amazing event came together with the positive power of social media.
Hundreds and hundreds of people swarmed onto our baseball field starting as early as 8:30 pm for the 9:30 pm vigil. Churches donated hundreds of candles and droves of alumni, former Jerome families, community members, teammates, other administrators, staff, friends, neighbors . . . 1000 people. 2000 people. Unbelievable.
And under a star-filled sky hundreds of candles were raised high to remind us how much Stephen lit up our lives. Student leaders spoke, his best friend spoke, parents spoke, his cousin, assistant principal, his coaches-- all spoke eloquently and passionately about how much we all loved Stephen and how much value he added to our lives.
And I worried, for as the principal and as the vigil proceeded I worried-- Is it good enough? For Stephen deserves only our very best, in life and now, unbelievably, in death. I wanted it to be perfect for Stephen and for his wonderful family.
And I spoke, for I, too, loved Stephen. And I was not afraid to say it aloud. For to know Stephen, was to love Stephen. He is why we are all educators. We were so blessed to have Stephen for 4 years and watch him transition from a freshman to such a fine young man. Watch him lead the student basketball section in crazy outfits, watch him lead the football and baseball teams, and watch him smile EVERY morning he came in school. A great, great person and student.
I was and am so honored to be his principal, and I know I will never forget him.
How do I know?
One reason is because Stephen is unforgettable as a person and student. But secondly, it is because I can name, as most assuredly every other principal and teacher in this situation, every student we have lost as an educator.
The first student I lost was in my first year of teaching. He was Cliff, a senior, who also worked as a custodian in the small rural school in which I taught English because Cliff and his family needed the money. Every morning I came into my classroom in the old 7-12 brick building and found a note from Cliff on my blackboard. Yes, it was a real blackboard. The white-chalked note in squiggly small writing usually said, "Hi, Miss Smith, Have a good day. Cliff." I looked forward to the notes and really liked Cliff, a wonderful shy farm boy who was so kind-hearted.
One Monday morning I walked in, read and erased Cliff's note as usual, and started preparing for the teaching day when the teacher next door walked in to let me know sadly that Cliff had drowned in a farm pond over the weekend. Just like that. The notes stopped and I had a hard time understanding how to deal with a student's death. I didn't believe it, and I am sure I did not handle it the way I should have with his parents and with my students. I didn't know what to do. I was 4 years older than Cliff, and his death was incongruous.
Others followed, sadly. Car wrecks. Kids and cars. Still a worry. Every one of these students was special, and I remember each of them vividly. I can name them all, and I remember the calling hours, the long lines, grieving parents and sobbing classmates. Hard. Really hard.
And now Stephen.
What is the hardest part of being a high school principal, or any principal? Being a leader of mourners, instead of a leader of learners. I cannot imagine being a principal in a building rocked by school violence as this would be certainly the most difficult and unimaginable part of the job.
But I will admit that I struggled Sunday with comforting others and leading a memorial service on a baseball field instead of cheering on these wonderful students. Didn't I just shake Stephen's hand on this field on his senior night with a Go Bucks?
Turning school fields and halls into vigil sites instead of their intended use of joy and celebration.
Burying a student.
A week ago-- the things that seemed the hard part of a being a high school principal seemed to consume my time and thoughts. Bullying, OTES, Growth Measures, resignations--
These things are now petty and minor. I am not able to focus on them or anything else so inconsequential.
A life cut short at 18-- now that's hard. Life's tragedies have a way of adjusting our priorities and identifying what is really hard about a job-- but more importantly, life.
And even this tragedy has reinforced what I really know about this job or any job. Life itself is more important than any job at any time. As hard as these times are, they pale with the suffering and pain that Stephen's family is feeling. Burying a student is hard. But burying a child-- truly one of life's greatest tragedies. It makes even the hard part of any job trivial and petty, and that is a valuable lesson from this week as well. I am more acutely aware of that than many, for we too have buried a son, and in times like these those memories become vivid once again.
That is why I know that it is an honor to be a servant leader in these situations for our families. We strive for perfection this week in particular because we want to support Stephen's family in the best way possible to honor them and his memory. It is the right thing to do in life for a family in need, and if that is our job, then we do in out of love and service. This I do firmly believe is also the mission of an educator.
Especially when we get bogged down in things that we think are important and hard when they are not.
So if you are fortunate to have someone in your life that you love, hug them today. Then hug them again. I know I will. As Jon Gordon says in The Energy Bus, life is not Disneyland. We can't get on this ride again, and neither can our loved ones. And that is what is really hard.