Alyson has twenty-eight years experience in middle schools as both a teacher and administrator. The last fourteen years she has been a middle school principal and currently is principal of the only combination grades three through eight school in the school system. Working in a complex school has resulted in an average workweek of 75 to 80 hours. The extremely long hours have taken a toll on the balance of Alysonís family, church involvement, recreational opportunities, and physical rest. She found there to be too many tasks to accomplish and too little time to accomplish them. As a result, she had to make wiser decisions about delegation of tasks for her assistant principals and prioritize the tasks and responsibilities that are the most critical for each day and each week.
Alyson began by sharing a commitment she made to herself and her two daughters early in her career:
No matter how challenging my career became in terms of the level of responsibility, I made a HUGE promise to myself that I would never let it take away from family time Ė the involvement that I wanted to have with the girls.
She went on to explain that the only way she was able to do this was because she made sacrifices in other ways. Her life was divided between being a parent and being involved with the girls and their school activities, athletic involvement, and their friends, along with the career part which involved being a principal.
To avoid letting her career infringe on being the best mother she could be, she had to learn ways of efficiently using her time.
You learn to compensate. I had to learn to use the 24 hours in a day different ways so that it did not take away from my involvement with the girls and my responsibility to be a parent. I did not want to push them aside and I didnít want somebody else raising my children.
Alyson believes that her daughters always knew that school was a huge priority for her and that she was committed to doing the very best job she could. Regardless of her job, her children always came first and Alyson doesnít believe they were ever shortchanged as a result.
Emotionally and mentally in terms of support for childcare, there was minimal support for the children from her ex-husband. Although he loved the children, he provided very little custodial care. Taking care of the childrenís needs by herself and working full time as a teacher and coach when they were young proved to be quite a challenge.
The last ten years of Alysonís principalships have been directed at seeing her children through their adolescence and high school years without any custodial support from her ex-husband. She was responsible for picking them up and getting them where they needed to be. There was always a struggle with balance and making sure everything fit, but without the help of their dad, the balance became even more difficult. It is interesting to note, now that Alysonís daughters have grown up and moved on with their lives, she still finds it difficult to take time out for herself.
Relationships, things for myself were just not a priority for me. You know your life would probably be a lot more enriched if you were able to balance all those parts, but I couldnít figure out how to get everything done. I needed to be there for the girls and be involved during their waking hours, their school hours and their activity hours, and still manage to get everything done as a principal.
Any female administrator Iíve worked with or mentored, Iíve told them: you look at every responsibility you have whether you are married or not married, whether you have a responsibility to your parents if they are still living, and the nuclear family you have, your friends, and yourself and you try to develop a balance so that you can manage your time and the efficiency of that time without having to do a lot of sacrificing.
Admitting that her quality of life had not been balanced since she became a school administrator, Alyson found herself constantly searching for ways that she could avoid having to sacrifice and get out of balance.
It takes a very strong person mentally and emotionally to cope with lack of balance. If you didnít have a great desire for perseverance and very high expectations of yourself it would be easier to make the balance happen. But when you have such high ideals about performance for yourself, for the kids at your school, and the parents at your school, to help them be the very best they can, it is very difficult.
Alyson found that frequently the greatest amount of her time was spent supporting teachers emotionally, and mentally with their careers as well as improving their teaching and developing those skills.
If the teachers truly see that you have wrapped your support around them, they often come to you personally. You have a lot of different issues as you try to be consistent, supportive, and very proactive with them. That really pulls on you too.
Many principals have stepped out of the principalship for an assistant principal position because they donít want to miss out on their own children growing up and because of the stress of the principalship. Some see the job as consuming and donít want to sacrifice their personal life.
You have to be organized and proactive Ė stay ahead, plan ahead, and maintain your productivity so that you can balance personally and professionally. If you put things off and procrastinate to do the things you want to do personally in your life with your family, it will catch up with you and then your level of performance will begin to suffer in the principalship because you canít stay on top of everything. To maintain at a high level you have to set goals and have a plan. You also have to set priorities because once you get behind it is not only hard to catch up, but it is extra stress too.
Many of Alysonís colleagues, married or not, have suffered in their personal lives and their health has probably suffered too. As she observes her female colleagues especially in the months of February, March, April, and May she sees them looking tired and worn out, but somehow her male colleagues never appear to be exhausted.
Their spirits (female principals) are still positive and their soul is still positive about what they are doing, but they are worn out. I donít know if it is a womanís chemistry and all that goes along with being a female. Just the mechanics of being a female and balancing the hormonal explosions that goes on in our bodies whether or not weíve had children can be difficult. Trying to keep your health and your mind sharp, and give your body enough rest in this profession is tough to do. Also, many females tend to have a very high level of excellence for themselves because they have had to work to demonstrate that their level of performance can be the same as their male counterparts.
Alyson acknowledges that although she has never thought or worried much about comparisons to male administrators, a subconscious goal she has set for herself is to always appear to handle and maintain a level of control and competence comparable to male administrators. She hopes that the current women administrators have ďbroken some ground and furrowed some pathsĒ for other women to follow that will make it a little easier. She believes that people are not as skeptical about female leadership as they used to be and many schools have been able to experience much growth and improvement under the leadership of females.
As principal of a middle school, Alyson has experienced more job related stress in the last five years than ever before. Stress and concern over meeting the expectations of the huge high stakes accountability testing has increased. She is concerned over whether or not the teachers are going to be able to lead the children throughout the year, with the learning that should take place; and at the end of the year whether the school will continue to show growth and improvement. Despite the stress she feels, she is guarded about transferring that stress or letting the teachers see it.
You have to reroute that stress into talking with the staff about teaching and learning and continuing to be learners themselves so that their skills are more profitable for the children because that is the bottom line of what we are here for. I tend to internalize that stress, to try to take it off of the forefront with them. Thatís probably one of those invisible stressors for me.
She also shared that safety is more a concern now than it has ever been before. This concern is in regard to external safety issues for the children and staff. In addition there is the stress of day-to-day operations and wanting everything to go smoothly for the children and staff.
Some parents have added an additional stress and can take a lot of your time and patience. Working through the challenges that we face in education today brings about additional stress as well. And the paperwork, making sure that you have gotten all of the paperwork done. There are so many more reports and you are more accountable for data and information back to different patrons like your parents, your teachers, and the central office.
Despite all of the stress that goes along with the job, I try to be very consistent day to day. Everyone knows exactly how I am going to respond. The temperament I walk in the door with everyday puts my staff, children, and parents at ease and they have a much better focus. They should never focus on me; they should always focus on what their role is within the school community. My temperament or inconsistencies should never factor in for them. There should not be any barriers between you and the children, you and the staff, and you and the parents. You have to have your core values that you believe in and not sway from them or they will do you in.
Alyson emphasized the importance of staying consistent and available for the school community and in doing so, sometimes she is more balanced for them than she is for herself.
A method and coping strategy Alyson used to deal with stress has been a renewed commitment to an exercise program. She tries to set goals for herself and work out three times a week. She is also trying to pick up golf again on those rare opportunities when she can get away from everything.
Alyson attributes her professional success to the dedication for the schools and principalships where she has worked. She has worked diligently within her schools to build culture and work toward improvement. She chose to be actively involved with the internal part of school and focus all of her energies and efforts on the parents, children, and staff of her school.
I have chosen not to get involved in the political realm of educational leadership. My politics have always been within the school and within a network of other administrators that I felt had high integrity, were very dependable, and very trustworthy.
Leadership skills are developed early and the way a person is nurtured and the models they observed as a child contribute to their own personal leadership style (Helgesen, 1990). Alyson believes that the activities her parents chose to have her involved in contributed to the development of her desire to be in leadership roles and the development of her people skills.
I see the greatest necessity of a female administrator to be able to keep their temperament and demeanor very consistent and in control. Nurturing, yet not on the ends of the extreme. Male administrators seem to be a little more consistent day to day and as a result, the school tends to know where they are coming from and how to anticipate their actions. As a female, you have to really work on that, consciously think about it and develop that kind of skill. Every year that I am an administrator I have tried to get better at this.
Alyson explains that women must be proactive and have a clear vision without being afraid to step outside of the box. They need to make strategic and well-planned decisions and empower those around them to provide input and assistance.
Snap decisions will come back to haunt you. Iíve made many of them, but I try not to make as many as I used to. Thinking through a decision, asking questions, and getting additional information is not perceived as procrastination, but of being forthright.
She also believes that effective leaders have to try and develop a lot of high integrity and trustworthiness with parents, children, and staff.
The biggest thing that people need to see today is that you care. Until they can see how much you care, nothing else really seems to matter. They will see where your heart is. You canít lead without the affective part of your leadership. Youíve got to wrap your arms around them. They have to be able to feel that in order to follow you. Itís the little things that you do that they notice.
Alyson perceives there to be fewer barriers for women in educational leadership than there were five to ten years ago. A lot of the barriers have eroded and been broken down. Now for the most part she finds the barriers to be similar for men and women.
I still see barriers for females in administration and their responsibilities if they have a family. Having a family is a huge responsibility that females still have to learn to balance. But I also see so many more dads and husbands being actively involved with the family, taking on more responsibility with the roles and tasks for child rearing now. Men have to begin making some decisions about balance because more is expected of them. The roles and responsibilities within the home have become more of a partnership.
The motivation for Alyson to reach her goals comes from taking care of the children and staff at her school. She wants to make sure that things are in place and that they are understood and well planned so that there is a comfort and confidence within the school community. Professionally, Alyson foresees herself remaining in the principalship as long as she is still enjoying what she is doing and as long as she has the energy and feels that she is making a difference. When she retires she would like to remain involved in some level of education, whether working with adults in continuing education or developing a masterís program in educational leadership at a nearby college. Personally, she just built a new house and looks forward to enjoying it. She also wants to be there for her mother as her functional years come to a close. One day she might even be a grandmother and she looks forward to being accessible and involved with her grandchildrenís school and other activities. Another priority will be for her to maintain good health and take care of herself.
In reflecting about what she wants to be remembered for in her principalship, Alyson shared that she believes herself to be a very fair administrator, one with a vision, no matter where she has been, for the school to be better. She devoted considerable energy to inspire teachers to work hard and be better than they were the day or year before. In pushing students and staff to be better, she wants them to remember and feel the support she provided them.
To advance in school leadership, Alyson found that when the system was smaller there was more of a commitment within the county to bring teachers along into administrative positions, train them well and send them out. There was more of a commitment internally to develop leadership within the system, but that does not seem to be a priority now.
There is so much more competition now and the competition is not with high integrity. In the past, you would never discredit another administrator by stepping over or on them just to get above them, even if you were going for the same position. A barrier to advancing is that integrity doesnít seem to matter much any more. Integrity is a core value I believe highly in. You can see it in the people that believe in it and teachers and staff also recognize it quickly.
The personal sacrifices Alyson had to make to advance her career have been related to health as well as in relationships with her spouse and her family. She believes that she has probably devoted more time to her career, which has taken time away from good health practices and time with family.
You can always look back and wish you had done some things different, but you canít go back and redo them. Instead, you have to learn as you go and make improvements along the way.
There have been many positive role models that have made an impact on Alysonís leadership style. She admires their poise, sense of humor, energy, sincerity, and commitment. The teachers that have demonstrated leadership have made a significant contribution to her career as well. She refers to their ďteachership,Ē because they donít have a desire to be an administrator, but they combine being a wonderful teacher with being a great leader.
Each person I have worked with or really focused on has had strengths that Iíve wanted to replicate. At this point in my career, I have taken a little bit from some really strong, focused leaders and tried to say that those are the things I need in myself. But most of my significant influences have been from teachership.
In terms of support systems, Alyson has established a network of a few principals that share a lot of the same core beliefs that she does. She has found this small group to be people that she could pick up the phone and ask questions or share confidences with.
Julie Lynne Vandiver, Ed.D., is an Educational Administrator in Greensboro, NC. She's a North Carolina Principal Fellow (Class of 2000) and a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her professional interests include best practices for educational leadership and the effects of testing and accountability on teaching and learning.
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