Kaitlin began by talking about her beginning years as a science teacher and coach. During those early years she received her masterís degree in science and made plans to start a family.
I decided after being married for about four years that in the grand scheme of things it was probably time to start having children. After all, my mother started having children when she was 25, so I thought I needed to start having children when I was 25 too. The decision was made to move closer to my parents because I knew I would need them to help with the children and my work schedule and they were phenomenal.
Kaitlinís husband worked writing stories and taking sports pictures for his college alma mater, which constantly kept him on the road. Eventually he did sports coverage part-time with a professional football team and worked full time in corporate communications with a local tobacco company. Sports were a huge part of his life that he loved and working in this capacity was like a dream come true for him.
The good part of all that in looking back and thinking about quality of life was that he never became resentful of all of the time I was involved with my work during those years. He never had problems with what I did because he was always so busy himself and having so much fun with his work and the things he was able to do. His work has never been like work for him.
During the years Kaitlin taught in Clarkston, she was encouraged to get her advanced degree in school administration. Within the next three years she earned her sixth year degree in administration as well as her administrative certificate in addition to having her first daughter. Fortunately, her father was retired at the time and he stayed home with her daughter during the time she was involved with graduate classes.
My father was the one who always made me feel like my home was stable for my daughter. Since my husband was gone doing his thing and having fun with that, my dad made me feel like my infant daughter was loved. She went to day care during the days, but my parents took care of her when I could not be there at nights and on weekends.
Ten days after the birth of her first daughter, Kaitlin went back to work as the team leader for her middle school team. She was responsible for scheduling students and making the rules for their team. When everything was in place, she took three weeks off to spend time with the new baby and get some much needed rest. It helped that she lived between her parents and her brother so that her dad could come over to her house and take care of her daughter when she was busy with schoolwork.
As soon as Kaitlin completed her sixth year administrative degree she decided to go back to school for her doctorate in education.
During this time I was an assistant principal for a principal who was extremely smart, but he did not believe that I needed to go back to school. So I never talked about it and for two years of going back and forth taking classes, I never let it be a conflict for him. He thought I needed his practical experience. All of that book sense was fine with him, but he believed I needed to learn from a master principal and to be with a master principal I needed to be with himÖ..not in some classroom.
When I got pregnant with my second daughter, I took a long time before I told him about it because I thought he would not approve of my pregnancy.
As a twelve-month assistant principal, Kaitlin did internships at the central office during the summer months. The day after attending her last committee meeting for the summer, she gave birth to her second daughter. Six days after the babyís birth, her principal called her in to interview a new science teacher. During this time, Kaitlin was also contacted about becoming the principal of a new elementary magnet school, which she accepted. She had to report to work as principal two weeks from the time her second daughter was born.
I was 30 years old then and I was very fortunate. Back in those times, it was just an unwritten rule that if you were ever offered anything, you had to take it or you might not get that opportunity again, especially if you were a woman. We were just breaking into different roles and even though we had some good role models, there werenít many women really stepping out there to make it. A lot of people were uncertain that women could really handle everything and be tough enough for what it took in educational leadership.
The principalship had its own share of obstacles to overcome. The new magnet school did not have lower grades previously; therefore it was not equipped with furniture and other necessary materials to open. In addition, Kaitlin had been trained as a principal in secondary schools, not elementary.
But the teachers were incredible; they were very strong. Most of the teachers had been hired at that point. I just had to make sure children were placed and we had the appropriate furniture and materials. Meanwhile, my dad had fallen and broken his hip so he wasnít able to take care of the girls like he had before. I brought them to school when I worked at nights and my youngest daughter sat in her car seat and the oldest rode her tricycle around in the halls.
Three years later, Kaitlin was still working on her doctorate but the school systems were getting ready to consolidate and the current superintendent was on her dissertation committee. He was preparing to leave which meant she had to finish her degree right away. Prior to finishing her dissertation, the superintendent extended an offer for her to go to North Africa for two weeks with a group of school representatives, which she did. Her parents took care of the girls while she was gone.
Thatís been the part thatís been the key for me, the two of them. My father is the loving, caring, nurturing, giving person and my mother takes care of the basic needs, like making sure everyone has eaten and has clean clothes, those kinds of things. The combination of their personalities right next door with my children made them feel almost like they had two houses. They would always sleep in ours, but they would go back and forth to the other house too.
Kaitlin left the elementary school principalship after five years and served as a middle school principal for the next five years before accepting her current high school position. While she was a middle school principal, Kaitlin earned recognition as State Middle School Principal of the Year.
As the principal I really do get to set the schedule and because I get to set the schedule, as much as I can and I canít do it all of the time, but a lot of things I am able to work around my girlís schedules.
Kaitlinís daughters attend school in the same district as the one in which she works. The oldest daughter even attended the elementary, middle and now the high school where Kaitlin has been the principal.
She is an athlete and she plays AAU basketball and volleyball. She is also in the band and drama. The good part to all of this is that she is at a lot of the activities I go to. Iím not quite sure if there is resentment on her part because she has had me as a principal since she was in kindergarten, so she doesnít really know anything different and the girls have never known me any other way. They have never had the mother who came home and fixed everybodyís dinner and had everybody in bed at a certain time and read everybody a story. They never had those things. They have been very independent. They have had to do things and learn to do things on their own.
For now, Kaitlin believes it has been best for her daughter to be at the same school because she is able to get her to school and be at most of her activities and events. But she does think her daughter deserves the right to have her own high school years.
Iím not quite sure whatís been best. You know as a mom, you just really do the best you can every day and you try to make the best decisions in the situation while thinking about their long term growth. There is not anything I value more than having them be healthy in all of the different areas of their lives. Therefore, I will probably start thinking about the possibilities for other things I might do next and let her have the high school.
Although Kaitlinís husband has changed his work schedule because the girlís athletic schedules became so complex, he is still not very responsible when it comes to providing help with the girls. Kaitlin said he refers to himself as a twelve year old and he likes being a twelve year old because he has always been able to do that.
When he had to go wherever with his sports reporting, he would just go. There was never any discussion; he just went. For example, family vacations were a big deal to me, but not to him and he couldnít understand why I felt the way I did until finally I realized that with his job every day was like a vacation. That is why I have had to be so responsible for the children.
My father passed away two years ago and my mother drives but she is sort of a nervous driver and doesnít drive at night now. So I have sort of lost that too.
Part of being a working mom is always trying to balance what is best for my children and what is best for all of my other kids at school too, while trying to keep both a priority. As a result, I have felt like I have tried to make my childrenís life so wonderful because I feel guilty about what Iím doing at school sometimes. I try to be very conscious of the fact that they are growing up very quickly. And I get scared thinking how quickly they will be going off to college and I donít want to miss anything.
Kaitlin shared some of the advantages of being able to leave school and go to her younger daughterís field day and graduation from elementary school. Working the long hours that she does enables her to get away when needed as long as everything is calm at her school. For instance, before her dad passed away she was able to go and stay with him for a period of time every day.
With other jobs I would not have had that kind of flexible time. Yes, I do work long hours (7:00 am until 9:00 or 10:00 pm), but I really enjoy what Iím doing. One night last week I worked until midnight, but it was because I had a lot of things to do and I was very happy and it was fun getting them done and seeing the accomplishments.
Kaitlin confessed that she does not have a lot of natural child in her personality, but when she spends time around her younger daughter she is able to appreciate the fun parts of life. Whenever she is able to read something just for pleasure, she considers it a treat. She also looks forward to spending time with a couple of special friends that are educators. Once a year they go off and spend a weekend together and they also try to go out for dinner together once a week or once every two weeks. These outings provide a time for them to reconnect and talk about school as well as what is going on in their lives personally. Kaitlin appreciates these friendships for the support they give her and for making things special. She knows that she can count on her friends to try to keep her from overextending herself with too many commitments.
The public will take and take from us. It is impossible to give enough to please everyone. We must do our best with our children and then give time and energy to the people we love. When the school day ends we must make sure we still have enough time and energy left for the people we love and who love us.
Although Kaitlin admits to walking a lot around the school, she does not have exercise built into her life right now. She has a membership at a fitness center, but doesnít use it. And her eating habits are not much better. She acknowledges eating low carbohydrates, but is bad about skipping meals and drinking too much coffee. Her background as a science teacher with health and physical education certifications have enabled her to understand that she will not be able to abuse her body forever. She has the desire to do better with her exercise and eating habits and realizes that she must make them a priority.
As for her relationship with her husband, she does not believe that they have a lot in common any more.
Mostly what we do are things for the girls. Everybody tries to tolerate each other a little bit longerÖ.. Iím not so sure he respects what I do. I think itís really hard because he is not in education. We have a marriage of appearances, that is what it is and itís probably the best situation for the girls at this point in our life. There is not enough energy for anything else.
When Kaitlin was asked about the types of stress involved with the job of a principal, she said that there is a lot of good stress with challenges.
Every day you are trying to figure out ways to get everything going better. You want kids to do better in the halls, kids to do better in the classroom, academically you want them to be happier, you want their discipline to be good, you want parents to come and feel welcome, and you want the entire school to always feel like we are moving in a positive direction. There is a lot of good positive stress to constantly focus on.
And then youíve always got the stress of the next phone call, who might be on the line, what might happen, children dealing with very traumatic situations, and decisions about whether a child will be allowed back in school. Itís just a variety of things every day and every moment you just never know what will happen. There is constantly a roller coaster of emotions. At times I need to be the head cheerleader, but when things are breaking loose I have to be the one who remains calm and problem solves. I especially enjoy that role.
One of the hardest parts of the job for Kaitlin is that she admits she is very sensitive. In some ways it helps her to be sensitive to children, parents, and teachers, but she is also sensitive to criticism and as a principal of a large high school that becomes difficult for her.
The trouble is that I canít really cover it up. That is probably the best reason for having a door in your office, so that you can go behind the door and be by yourself for awhile.
Kaitlin has found several coping strategies for dealing with stress. One of the first principals she worked for reminded her that she does not have to make every decision immediately. Instead, she has found it very appropriate to gather additional information and facts and think through the decision. She also does a lot of walking and venting to people who understand that she is just venting, like her close network of friends or her assistant principals. Another strategy she prefers is to go into good teachers classrooms when she is not feeling at her best.
When I donít feel at the top of my game, if I go into somebodyís class who is at the top of their game I just feel better. Seeing good teaching and being around good things happening for children is extremely rewarding.
Kaitlin attributes her success to always working with strong people who care about her. Sometimes she questions her success, realizing that it all depends on how you measure success. She believes that when you surround yourself with great folks and are able to pull from their strengths, situations are made better.
I also have a lot of ďstick-with-itnessĒ skills. I go a long ways before I give up and Iíve always been one that every time I get an opportunity Iíve been receptive to learning from that opportunity. I also have a very optimistic attitude and I believe in people. When things are really bad I think, ďOK God, Iíve done my best and this one is yours.Ē I am very much at peace with that and I believe things happen for reasons and that when one door closes another one opens and that is all a part of his master plan. My job is to stay focused on trying to do the right thing for kids and all of the other things will kind of work out.
Kaitlinís experiences as a mother, wife, daughter, and sister have enabled her to encourage people and listen to new ideas. She believes that her job is to help others problem solve where all of the pitfalls might be and what some of the solutions might be and then support the decision that is made. She makes a practice of always keeping her door open and nurturing others. Kaitlin prides herself in believing the best in people and being non-judgmental.
She believes that women administrators need to know people and just as importantly they need to know themselves. They need to be aware that different people are comfortable with different amounts of change. Just because someone is different in how they see the world doesnít mean they are right or wrong.
I think that if women administrators know people and understand how to motivate and communicate with people then they will be able to accomplish great things.
She also believes that they need to know curriculum and have organizational skills to be able to get everything done. They must have an awareness of what is expected of them as school leaders. Kaitlin believes that one of the barriers that women face in the principalship is that people do not think that they are going to be tough enough.
I really think that because I smile a lot that people think when the hard things come I will back down. And I have thought that about age too, that when things get rough I would go the other way. As a matter of fact, I find that not to be true at all. People expect us to be either very weak or a barracuda. It used to be thought that women couldnít handle big kids or big problems.
(It is interesting to note that the three largest high schools in the district currently have female principals.)
The motivation for Kaitlin as a principal can be found in the fact that she truly loves working with the children and seeing them be successful. She enjoys being a part of helping them achieve their goals and when things donít go so well she can be directly involved in trying to make things better. She believes the only limitations are the ones people place on themselves.
Kaitlinís professional goals are to eventually be a superintendent of a small system. First, she would like to be an associate superintendent for a well-respected superintendent so that she can learn about the job.
You can get caught up in being a principal and it can be a lot of fun when you are in the middle of it. The more you do the more you want to do. You have to be careful and have friends who can keep you under checks and balances. They need to remind you to take time for yourself or even time for them.
Her personal goals are to achieve a balance of health and happiness outside of school so that she can enjoy her life for a long time. Often times she is afraid that time is going to pass her by and people are going to say that she doesnít have a life outside of school.
Kaitlin would like to be remembered for always encouraging kids to do better and as someone who cared about kids and wanted the best for them. She is an advocate for all children and wants to help take down the barriers that exist for some children.
I have dealt with some children that come from some difficult situations and they have needed me. You really feel that you can make a long term difference for those children.
When looking at the difficulty in advancing for school leadership, Kaitlin has always felt that there were lots of people out there competing for her job. With the current superintendent in her district, it appears that everyone can be replaced, but Kaitlin cautions that faster doesnít always mean better.
Currently the system seems to be very inhumane and does not value anybody. It just seems to be a system where no one really cares which affects morale and achievement.
Her parents have been influential in shaping her life and her work as a school leader. Kaitlinís dad grew up as a tenant farmer where he worked long, hard hours. He always treated people right and was very sensitive to others. She attributes him for the work ethic that she brings to her principalship. The toughness in her personality is characteristic of her mother. Sometimes when she is doing the right things for kids, the no nonsense and tough part of her personality comes out. There have also been others that have encouraged her and given her good advice along the way as well as those she has tried to emulate because of their work habits.
When Kaitlin was asked to describe her quality of life as a principal she shared how much she enjoys spending time with the students and seeing them excel in the classroom as well as in cultural arts, orchestra, band, chorus, athletic events, and drama productions. The downside is that she rarely has time just for herself.
Being a principal you feel so responsible for everything and there are always things to work on that you never quite get finished. I never stop thinking about how we can grow as a school and how we can do things better.
To improve her quality of life, Kaitlin believes that she could take the initiative to control the amount of time she spends exercising and the amount of time she spends with friends. She realizes that if she spent more time with her friends doing things that were physically active she would feel better. Having support and encouragement from the county office is another way the quality of life for principals could improve. Support from the county office level could enable principals to restructure their lifestyles for balance and maintain effectiveness in their schools.
There is so much to balance and juggle and the stakes are so much higher now. Everyone has to win; they have to win with testing and accountability, with the perception of the community for a safe and orderly school, in the classroom, and on the playing fields. The county office supervisors should require principals to take care of themselves by making it part of their personal growth plan. If they donít make it a priority then there will be fewer and fewer principals to take on the responsibilities.
The principalship has become based on such high stakes accountability that the amount of time spent testing students takes away from the time for instruction to get the results that are needed. Kaitlin believes that currently principals are much more focused on being instructional leaders than they have been in the past. Rather than talking about logistical and management type problems, principals now discuss various ways to improve instruction.
The principalship is very demanding and at some point the public has to stop asking so much of their public schools or the people they want with their children will not be with their children. The only way it will get better is that the folks who are making the decisions about who our superintendents are must insist on different qualities.
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.
Copyright 2002 Edu-Leadership.com. All rights reserved.