Katherine was destined to be a teacher. Her mother and her sister were both teachers and so her career in education began as a teacher as well. After teaching three years she decided to stay home with her two children while they were young. When her youngest child started school she received a phone call from an elementary principal who needed an interim teacher to finish the school year. Before she completely realized what was happening, Katherine was back into the routine of teaching without making a conscious decision to do so. She remained a teacher for the next ten years and received her master’s degree in language arts.
I have to say that I would not have been able to go back to graduate school if I hadn’t had parents close by that would come and look after my kids and a husband that could make adjustments around my classes.
After Katherine completed her graduate degree she had the opportunity to take a position as a writing demonstration teacher for the county. She enjoyed being able to go into schools and work with them on improving their writing. Unfortunately, funding for the position was cut and she returned to the classroom for a couple of years. Soon after, she accepted a similar resource position that was recreated within the system and began working on her curriculum and instruction degree. When her advisor suggested that she go ahead and get her administrative certificate she was not interested. Her passion and love was for curriculum and instruction. But it didn’t take long to see where the trend for curriculum was heading as opportunities for administration were expanding. With this in mind, she decided to get her degree in school administration.
As soon as Katherine’s school administration degree was complete she was encouraged to begin as an assistant principal at an elementary school. Since the curriculum resource positions were being phased out in the district, she accepted a position as an assistant principal. She had a great experience and was able to work with a wonderful principal that changed her perception of school administrators.
She made me see that administration was not the “bad” role that maybe I had in my mind. I saw it as very detached from instruction and children. I didn’t see it being as involved, as I had wanted to be. The principal I worked with was an excellent role model and was very organized and able to get things done and balance it all.
At the start of her second year as an assistant principal there was a sudden opening for a principalship and Katherine was assigned to the position. She was shocked to find out that there was quite a difference between being an assistant principal and being a principal. Working without an assistant principal she discovered:
You are the only one to do everything. I knew a little bit about the budget, but I hadn’t really delved into it. All of a sudden it was all in your lap. Instead of having just my areas to concentrate on, I had it all. It was quite an adjustment, but it was also a great school environment to work in. The faculty and community were very welcoming and supportive.
Katherine remained the principal for the next five years before accepting a position as principal of the first new elementary school in the district in over ten years. The new school brought additional challenges and changes. The most significant change was that the enrollment at her previous school was about 400 students and the enrollment of the new school was over 1000 students. She found herself working with two assistant principals and making constant readjustments to whatever the setting dictated.
When the staff was in place, my support group expanded, because we needed each other, had a common sense of purpose, and developed strong bonds. From that point, the support expanded to community, and as the school community developed, the job changed, but still kept it’s magnitude. I had developed a pace and schedule that was a habit, and difficult to break, because, of course, there was always something important to be done. I think part of the frustration was that you never felt you had the work finished. You never felt you had it like you wanted it and you could work 14 hours a day and still have something else to do. That was a stress for me because I could work and work on something and still feel that there was more I could do because of the wide variety of demands.
Katherine was glad she had the opportunity of opening a new school, and felt the experience helped her grow in many ways. She was able to develop new insights and learned how to handle one day at a time, and problems as they surfaced.
I reflect on the hours and amount of energy invested, and sometimes wonder how I made it. I think this experience is not too different from the role of most principals. We are expected to handle whatever comes, cover all the bases, know answers to 1,000 questions, be many places at once, keep our cool, and keep smiling!
Katherine didn’t anticipate that she would enjoy her years as an administrator because changing roles from teaching seemed very foreign to her. But she found that she thoroughly enjoyed the principalship.
I think it is one of those things that you can’t look too far down the road when you step in and worry too far ahead, because there are so many daily things you are dealing with that you just have to work through.
Her children were in college when she entered administration and she doesn’t see how she could have done it all when they were smaller.
I had their ball games to go to; activities they were involved in and so many other things that I enjoyed doing that were hard to do even as a teacher. I just think people in administration with young children face a real challenge. It can be overwhelming.
She admits she was fortunate that her husband had always been very supportive.
In the teaching part, in my going to school, whatever it was he was always willing to pick up a lot of my slack and there was a lot of it I’m sure. He even volunteered at the schools where I worked. When I was apprehensive about opening a new school he told me that if I wanted to do it, he would be willing to help out. If he hadn’t done that I guess we would have been a sunken ship.
There are many types of stress in the principalship that Katherine was able to identify. One type of stress she found was trying to be on top of what was going on in the community and keeping the balance of being on good terms and friendly with the community, while running the school and having the community support to do that effectively. She found the greatest challenge was the pressure regarding test scores and feeling as though someone was constantly following the school’s test records. She also worried about safety issues, especially with school buses and having so many children going in so many different directions. Working through the process of getting special education children identified was another source of frustration because she wanted the process to move quickly and it was very hard for that to happen.
There were a wide variety of minor requests that pooled together so that it became a list of things to do. You are constantly dealing with a lot of different things and not feeling that you could really give focused attention sometimes. I often felt as if I was flying by the seat of my pants. It was like, ‘OK, we are doing the best that we can, now what’s next on the list?’ We were just trying to survive. And I think there are a lot of people out there who get into that position. There are too many issues to address to be able to get as involved as you would like to.
Katherine acknowledged that she was not very good at using effective coping strategies to deal with the stress of the job.
I gave up a lot of things. I used to be involved in different organizations and involved at church, but I gave it all up because I just didn’t have time. It got to the point that I didn’t do anything but school. That was not a good coping strategy, but I didn’t know any other way to do it and physically I could not do it all.
I knew that I needed to make some adjustments, but I couldn’t figure out how to do that because it’s hard to back up. I think you establish certain standards, like visiting in the classrooms and doing demonstration lessons and it’s hard to stop those things. Something has to go and you don’t want it to be the things you’ve created, so you start looking for other things. What is left is all of the things outside of school. My husband would even go to our beach house alone on weekends because I had too much to do at school to go along with him. I was at school almost every Saturday and sometimes Sunday afternoons too.
She found weekends to be the time that she could get most of her work done. Reflecting on her open door office policy is something she would change if she had it all to do over again. Instead, she would set aside some time that she would close her door during the day to get some of her work done. She also realizes that she should have been better at delegating.
I think part of the reason that principals keep so much for themselves is because they know how much the teachers are doing too. And so rather than pass things off, they just do it themselves.
Katherine admits that she was never very good at keeping a schedule for leaving school each day. Because she did not hold herself to a time frame, generally her husband prepared dinner or they would go out to eat. She knew that this was not a good way to be living, but struggled to find ways to change it. Early last spring the decision was made for her. She developed a virus and had complications with the virus that made her realize that she couldn’t keep going at her current pace. Physically it was taking its toll. Her doctor told her that she was either going to have to really change the way she did her job or she was going to have to find a different job.
I could see the decline in looking back because I didn’t do anything physical any more. All of my exercise and physical activity just faded out when I got into administration.
But, you know, the women who go into administration are generally people that are very dedicated and who are very committed to what they are doing and so they want to do it right no matter what it takes. There are so many things now that are being added to their plate, yet they are still trying to do it all right. There is just no way to really describe the job until you live it.
Katherine even found that if she was not doing the job then she was thinking about it.
It became almost obsessive. I would wake up at night and I would write down whatever I was thinking. And then instead of going to sleep, I would think of other things related to school. I was constantly thinking of what I needed to do. We would go to someone’s house and everyone would be talking and I wouldn’t even realize that I was sitting there thinking about school. I just couldn’t separate from it. Situations from school went with me everywhere and I could never just relax. That is a weakness of mine; some people may be able to handle that a lot better than me.
Since Katherine’s mother was a teacher, she was very influential in shaping her life and leadership. She also had several strong teachers who were role models for her. Previous principals and mentors provided her with learning experiences about establishing a positive climate, interacting with parents, and maintaining balance within the school. Katherine loved the people she worked with and the relationships within the system are one of the things she will miss the most. She always felt supported by people at the central office and knew they were great resources when she needed them. Katherine attributes having a sense of humor to her success in the principalship.
Sometimes you just have to laugh and you have to let the staff know it’s all right to laugh too. It is important to let them know that we are all going to make mistakes and when we make one we are all going to move on and do it better tomorrow. You have to lighten up a little bit sometimes and then just move on from it.
She also believes it has been important for her to keep some enthusiasm for the classroom and teaching.
I think if I hadn’t had experience in the classroom, I wouldn’t have enjoyed the administration as much. I loved the interaction with the kids and I loved going to their activities and helping out with them however I could.
I think doing as much of that as you can keeps you in touch with why you are there. It’s easy to get lost in all of the paper part. You learn so much from just talking to the kids.
Katherine’s experiences as a mother, wife, daughter, and sister have enabled her to be more empathetic with teachers. She understands and appreciates what it means for a teacher to come to school with a sick child at home and a husband out of town because she has been in that role herself. She also believes that females can often relate better to parents in stressful situations by having the patience necessary to help them work through their problems.
Some strengths that Katherine believes women bring to the principalship are their organizational skills and their attention to detail. She has found that most women administrators are also very focused and goal oriented. Katherine sees them taking in the big picture and focusing on everything in it. She also thinks that women in administration usually have a strong curriculum background because they have been in school settings enough to relate to the curriculum and the strategies they want in place.
Some women can go to the extreme and are too picky. I think you have to ask yourself what is important in the whole realm of things. You have to pick your battles and generally pick ones you think you can win. There are things you endorse and then you have other things you can give a little room on, so that teachers don’t feel like they are in a box.
Katherine believes that most women have to work harder when it comes to being the authority and confronting the hard line items. She worries about having to tell somebody that they really shouldn’t be in the teaching profession or that they are not coming back the following year. Because of her nurturing nature and temperament, it is difficult for her to be as direct as she has to be at times.
Katherine has never felt any barriers in the principalship, although in her early years she did feel like males in administration dominated the profession. Most of the people she dealt with in regard to decision-making were male and she had to go to them to get things done. Even though they may not have known as much about her area as she did, she still had to gain their support. Katherine believes women administrators almost have an advantage in the current system because of the success so many of them have had.
I believe that the system has endorsed women administrators as being a “good bet.” It seems that being a female is no longer a hindrance, but balance in regard to gender and race remains significant.
Most of Katherine’s motivation to reach her goals is the result of her internal drive. Her professional goals are to teach education courses at a local university and supervise student teachers. She has always known that she would not be able to go from working twelve-hour days to not doing anything.
I had always had a purpose and a focus that I thought was significant for some reason or another and so I knew I would have to have something similar. To get back to teaching would be kind of like getting back to my roots. It is something I always loved to do and I had really never intended to leave it because of my focus on instruction.
Personally she would like to travel and get to the beach more. She also hopes to spend more time with her granddaughter and more time with friends as well as become more involved with her church.
Because of the personality I have, I don’t want to make it just like it was before and take on so much that I am over committed. I tend to always think, ‘I can do that’ and then later I think, ‘How am I going to do that?’ I don’t want to turn anything down because it may look interesting, it’s an opportunity, or it’s a challenge. And so I take it all on.
I think another thing for me is that I was always looking for the right answer. It was like, if you try everything you are going to get it right and we have to come to the realization that there is not just one right. Realizing there are a lot of rights, you have to accept it and move on.
Katherine would like to be remembered as a principal who established positive programs and actions for children. She created a positive climate within the school that provided everyone with an opportunity to succeed and made children and parents feel welcome. She always believed that combining a positive climate with high expectations would result in a good learning environment.
The sacrifices that Katherine has had to make in the principalship along with her personal health have been with the things she enjoys personally, like reading. During school, all of her reading consisted of professional journals, required articles, or memos. Personal time was at a premium and most all of her decisions were based on the immediate rather than personal interests or long term effects.
In relation to quality of life, Katherine’s advice for school administrators is for them to set goals and standards for their own long term good because there will always be something to do at school. She also believes that they need to find ways to relieve pressures early on in their career because the pressures tend to build and get worse over time. Having a supportive network can enable principals to restructure their lifestyles for balance and maintain effectiveness in their schools. It can be hard to prioritize in the principalship, but Katherine emphasizes:
One thing we all have to realize is that when we are in the role of principal, we think everything we do is so crucial, and it is to us. Then when you move from it, you realize that the job goes right on without missing a beat and that other people can keep things going. I think it is important to remember that there are others to take on some responsibility and that maybe not everything is of top importance.
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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