Becoming a principal was not a goal that Elaine set for herself thirty years ago. She began as a teacher for a few years before going into public health administration. Working at the health department, many of the services provided were for children and families who were in poverty or at the poverty level. Once she began working with people in need of health services she found herself continuously drawn to helping people. She moved into administration with the school system in the area of health education working with health teachers and assisting with the health curriculum. After several years, Elaine made a decision that she could impact more children and more families if she went into school administration. With encouragement and support from the superintendent, she completed her master’s degree in school administration. Within a year she received her first principalship.
I really think that a part of me wanted to help people have a quality of life that they deserved. I knew that the best way for that to happen was through educating children and their families. I just don’t believe that we can meet the needs of children without in some way meeting the needs of those families. When families or parents send their children to school without having their basic needs met, their children are not going to learn as well or be the best that they can be in school. Sometimes it is just a matter of heading them in the right direction for services and resources.
The experience Elaine had in public health helped her make connections with parents in her school that might not have been made otherwise. She was able to tell them where to go for services they needed and make the necessary contacts for them. This knowledge paved the way for having productive relationships with some of the parents in her school and helped their children be successful as a result.
Working in public health education I learned to be a good listener, a positive communicator, and help people work through some of their problems. I am also able to use these skills in school, whether we feel like school needs to be a place for that or not.
Elaine found this perspective to be very effective when dealing with her parents, students, and staff.
I do have that human, caring, very positive, understanding side that is just as important in schools as the reading, writing, and math. My expectations are not any less for the children who come to us even though our school receives 95% free and reduced lunch, because I know that our children can be successful and learn and make growth every year. My caring side does not interfere with what I expect from teachers and what I expect from children.
Elaine is the principal of a highly impacted elementary school and she is there because she wants to be there. She doesn’t accept excuses for who the children are, what they have or don’t have, and where they come from. Instead, she constantly encourages children and families to be the best they can be. She enjoys the daily challenges she faces in the principalship and finds her role as a principal to be very rewarding.
Personally the impact that her role as a principal has had on her life has been the neglect of doing all she has needed to do for herself.
I do more for my family than I do for myself. The job can be overwhelming. But in the past eight years, I have learned to do more prioritizing of my life. I am better able to prioritize what I need to do everyday, what I need to do with my family, with school, and what I need to do socially.
Elaine has two grown daughters and she made an effort to always be there for them when they were younger. She stayed up late at nights helping the girls with their homework, going to PTA meetings, assisting with their Girl Scout meetings and trips, dance recitals, and cheerleading competitions.
I probably stretched myself pretty thin at times. My children realized I was a principal, but they didn’t really realize until they became young adults the enormous amount of time and commitment that I had given to my job as well as to them. I think they appreciate me and what I do as a principal even more now.
Once her children were grown the extra time she had spent with them became filled with additional schoolwork.
Elaine believes that to be a good administrator your time during the school day isn’t spent on schoolwork or paperwork, instead your time is spent out in the building working with teachers and children, and meeting with parents. She found that the paperwork part of the job actually started when everybody else had left for the day. With all of the requirements and expectations she would not have been able to do the job that she has done if her husband was not supportive of her and helpful with their children.
A marriage in this profession can be very difficult. You both have to have an understanding and respect for each other and what is required of each other. It takes your spouse’s understanding of what you need to be fulfilled. For me to be fulfilled, I have to know that I have done all that I can for the children in my school to be successful and to learn what they need to learn to be the best they can be.
Elaine admits that she has to make herself exercise. At one point she was doing a lot of walking and that was a great stress reducer. But even though she found walking to be helpful, she was not able to make the time to do it on a regular basis. Walking gave her time to think and reflect and she wants to make a commitment to get back to that. To relax, Elaine enjoys going to the beach with her husband for the weekend. She also enjoys reading and would like to be able to do more reading that is not school related. A source of strength for Elaine is her commitment to being involved in church. She enjoys being a part of the organizations within the church and takes on leadership roles in the church as much as she can.
I think it is just my will or desire to help people achieve whether it is a child or an adult. I want to help them achieve something that will make that person feel good about themself.
The stress Elaine faces on the job comes from the daily experiences and expectations of schools. She finds it especially stressful when she sees parents who have been given resources, direction, and opportunities, yet they still refuse to follow through and do what they need to do for their children.
I find it very stressful when a child comes to school and is not ready to learn because of what mom continues to do or what she fails to do to meet the needs of that child and improve the home environment. I know that we have children who are suffering and children who are in need, yet there are parents who are given opportunities to get it together and they just don’t do it.
To address these community needs, Elaine’s school has a wellness center with wellness programs and a health clinic twice a month to meet some of the needs of their children. She initiated a health program that focused on preventive health care for children and adults, which has improved attendance, test scores, and overall school climate.
The best coping strategy Elaine uses to deal with stress involves taking a few minutes of “time-out” to walk around, often outside the school building. This practice gives her the time necessary to clear her head and get her thoughts processed so that she can regroup and confront stressful situations. She also tries to practice relaxation techniques and positive self-talk. And most importantly, she finds some time each day to laugh with the children and teachers. Elaine believes that the good things that happen for children far outweigh those things that cause stress in her life.
Elaine attributes her success to her nurturing and caring side along with a supportive husband and family. There have also been mentors, both in and outside of education, that have been supportive and encouraging to her throughout her career. She values the various perspectives that her mentors offer when she is confronted with difficult situations.
Elaine’s experiences as a mother, wife, daughter, and sister have enabled her to be nurturing and caring with a vision to see the big picture. She believes that women need to be courageous and organized to be effective school leaders. She finds the strengths that women bring to school leadership are their communication skills and time management. Because women have proven themselves to be strong leaders, she doesn’t perceive as many barriers nor difficulty in advancement for women in the principalship.
Elaine is motivated to reach her goals by the fact that children are going to grow and learn.
The education and experiences the children receive in our school will help to determine what kind of individuals they will be in the future. The older I get the more I realize that these are the children that will make decisions for me one day. I want to see them succeed by growing and learning and feeling good about themselves.
Her professional goals are to eventually buy some land and build a boarding school for young boys and girls from fourth to eighth grade. These children would come from high-risk families with the motivation and skills to be successful.
A more realistic goal would be for me to retire in two to three years and teach at the university level. I will never stop working. I would also like to do some volunteering at the health department where I could still use my skills and knowledge, but not be as time consuming.
Personally she had not taken the time to set any goals, but admitted she would like to take a couple of classes at the local community college just for pleasure and she would also like to be more involved with her friends socially. Elaine would like to be remembered for making school a place where children and parents felt welcome and for making school the center of the community.
Elaine has always had a passion for education and doesn’t feel that she has had to make too many personal sacrifices in her principalship. The sacrifices she has made have been time for herself, time to travel, and time to socialize with friends. There have been many people that have been influential in shaping her leadership style. Her mother and grandmother provided her with a very nurturing and caring side. A first grade teacher she had instilled the love for learning and made school a wonderful place to be. Former superintendents and mentors planted the leadership seed for her and provided constant support and encouragement in her professional growth.
As Elaine reflected on things she could do differently to improve her quality of life as a principal, she realized the need to make better decisions about leaving work on a regular schedule.
I can always find something to do to keep me here at school. There is always something that needs to be done or something to plan for. And of course, one thing always leads to another.
She also believes that if something is going on at the school then she needs to be there to support it. As she gives people the opportunity to take the lead and grow professionally, she struggles with being able to step back and take a less active role.
In order for principals to restructure their lifestyles for balance and maintain effectiveness in their schools, Elaine believes that principals need to continue to support each other. Teamwork and shared decision making is encouraged with school staffs, yet there are few opportunities for principals to share. She also thinks that there needs to be more effective lines of communication established from the district office to the individual schools. And she would like for all schools to be able to have an assistant principal.
For example, our school may only have 250 students, but 98% of them are socio-economically deprived and the needs and concerns they bring with them impact their learning. It would be nice to be able to have someone to share the responsibilities of making sure that the things that need to happen for children can happen efficiently and as quickly as possible.
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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