Only once in my life was I sent to the principal’s office. I was in seventh grade and was caught in an inappropriate use of sign language. At least, my older brothers always taught me it was sign language. In my defense, the teacher Mrs. Shady (all the names have been changed to protect…me) was not supposed to second guess her decision not to let me get a drink from the water fountain and turn around to come back down the hall to tell me yes. Actually, now that I think about it, it probably wasn’t a good decision to leave a class full of seventh-graders alone either.

When I got to the principal’s office, I had to sit outside and wait for Mr. Manion. He was about eight feet tall, 350 pounds and had hands that could fit around my whole entire head. OK, in actuality, he was about 6 ’2″, about 220 and could fit one of his hands around my whole head. Suffice to say, he only had to tell me once not to use that kind of “sign language” again.

Back then there were boundaries. Teachers were in the classroom and principals stayed in their offices. A lot has changed since those days. Principals are still disciplinarians, but they are also supposed to be experts in curriculum and instruction. They are in the classrooms every day and try to provide great professional development to their staff.

The power of the principal

As an elementary principal, I don’t want students to be as intimidated by me as I was from Mr. Manion. Many principals, including those who came before us such as Mr. Manion, understood that kids make mistakes. It wasn’t supposed to be the end of the world when we made them, although our parents were never happy if we got sent to see the principal.

Mr. Manion stayed in the office most of the day and saw the “bad” kids. I’m sure he occasionally met with parents, but school and home did not always communicate. Most of the communication took place at open house, parent-teacher conferences and with report cards. Teachers would write notes home from time to time and the last thing you wanted was your teacher calling your house.

The principals were pillars in the community and treated people with respect. Most adults and kids respected them as well. Their impact, as well as their names, will be remembered for as long as most teachers. We should all hope for the same.

The following are some of the rules all principals should try to live by:

Be the role model — Students look up to you. If they don’t, you’re doing something wrong. Even kids who don’t want to grow up to be teachers and principals need to have a good relationship with you.

Work with teachers – Not against them. Administrators may have a different title and a different skill set but they all work in a school. Support your best teachers, and help the ones who are struggling. They don’t work for you, they work with you.

Kids make mistakes — There are students that make mistakes. Sometimes they make a few, but it doesn’t mean they should get branded for life. Clearly, if there are students hurting others or themselves, they need to have their behavior addressed. Our job as principals is to help kids learn from their mistakes. We may be the only adult trying to provide that intervention.

Parents are sending you the best kids they have — We get stressed out because of state tests and kids who may score a 1 or a 2. We get frustrated with kids who give us a hard time and with parents who seem like they lack the skills to be good parents. They may not raise them the way we would or make the same choices we do, but we haven’t lived a day in their life so we should be careful not to judge.

The principal’s office can be a very rewarding place. We have the opportunity every day to work through problems with students. Those problems are just as important as math and writing problems because they are the social and emotional issues that our students are facing. With what some of our students are going through I’m surprised they get up in the morning and make it to school. If they do, it shows how important school is to them. They just don’t always know how to thank us.

It’s tough being a kid these days. If I had Facebook or Twitter back when I was young, I don’t know where I would be right now. Everything they do is under a microscope, and there seems to be enormous pressure to be older than they really are. Some of our students live in situations that we cannot fathom and others are struggling to find themselves. As a principal, don’t for one second think that you can’t have an impact on them.

Peter DeWitt is an elementary principal in Averill Park, N.Y. He blogs at Finding Common Ground for Education Week and is the author of “Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students,” published by Corwin. He can be found at PeterMDewitt.com. Connect with DeWitt on Twitter @PeterMDeWitt.

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