The Schooling of a 21st Century Principal

Tales of Travel

by Michael L. Cahill

from First Day Jitters

“I never wanted to be a principal, here or anywhere else. At least not throughout most of my twelve years as a classroom teacher. Along my journey came the influencers and guides whom I alternately blessed and cursed for coaxing me out of my own comfort zone. I was on the precipice of something, too, of proving myself worthy. Now it was showtime.

The best way to describe opening day in middle school is ‘managed chaos.’ A building dormant for the summer suddenly transforms into a hub of motion and sound as kids pour in, like bees to a hive. When more than a thousand middle schoolers show up on the first day, or any other day for that matter, a healthy percentage of them will not know where they are supposed to be, or what they are supposed to be doing, at any given moment.” 

From Baptism by Fire

“No one in school or anywhere else could really understand the scale of what was later determined to be an attack, a jihad on America intended to cripple our government, military and financial institutions. No one could have anticipated that those two behemoth edifices would collapse and take with them thousands of employees who worked in commercial, legal and investment companies, the very people who lived in surrounding communities and many of whose children attended suburban schools like mine. Stories were later published about the many unclaimed automobiles sitting in the parking lots of the suburban train stations that dotted the New Jersey Transit railroad tracks. Millburn, New Jersey, is located only about 20 miles outside of the city. Eight individuals from Millburn Township perished in this massacre, as did my 32-year-old cousin, still known in our family as ‘Little Richie.’ ”  

From Suspend Reality

“Beneath the veneer of the perception of the township as a perfect place in which to live and work lurked a culture of comparison and competition. While for some that might have just been considered a given, like “keeping up with the Joneses,” one must consider the compounding effect of the expectations of opportunistic and often pushy parents within a homogenous, high-density concentration in the fifth wealthiest community in the nation. School leaders and staff had a front row seat to see how that played out in classrooms and in schools in a variety of ways every day.”

From I Don’t Belong Here

“Everything happens for a reason. I grew up a lot during that semester. I went from trying to please others to taking charge of my own future. And that led me to the people, learning, and opportunities that would prepare me well for my various roles in education in that ‘ideal town’ not far from my new campus.”

from Lessons from the Holocaust

“I observed Holocaust survivors speaking with our students, and I was moved by their stoic recounts of terribly painful memories. Speakers recalled events and details – the separation from family, the suffering, the sorrow and the good people who helped or hid Jews – as though they were reliving them in the moment, seeing it all play out in their minds.”

from Way Leads on to Way

“It was disheartening not to be able to continue. And the gloomy countenance of my students reflected their disappointment as well during the final months of the school year. On the last day of school, during one of those half-days that last an eternity, a gathering of students came to school just to hang with me. They asked questions about my future and joked about things that happened and signed my yearbook. They helped me clear out my belongings and fooled around a bit, but their antics were not enough to mask their sadness.” 

from On the Job Again

“Amidst all the hustle and bustle of visitors coming and going and flocks of chatty students meeting up with their harried chaperones, I waited and wondered what I was getting myself into. Just beyond the periphery of the glass-enclosed lobby of the New York Museum of Modern Art, I was aware of the busyness of Manhattan, the cacophony of honking horns, revving motors and screeching brakes, and pedestrians scurrying by at lunchtime on a promising spring day. It was, without a doubt, an unconventional and chaotic place to brave a job interview.”

from Trouble in Paradise

“We are all works in progress. Looking back on my own practice, I have owned up to making mistakes and have changed directions at times, enlightened by new information or perspectives or an updated cost-benefit analysis. Leaders do not know everything there is to know, and listening is a crucial component of forging the best plan to accomplish a reboot.”

from Old Age and Growing Pains

“Another ramification of the rejection of the original 2005 bond referendum was the delay of construction in time for the 2008 arrival of what was going to be the second of three consecutive years of hiring more teachers in each grade level. Our enrollments for both sixth and seventh grades that year exceeded 380 pupils. Without the additional space we could not staff this rising seventh grade class to have four teams like it did in sixth grade, and this sparked another significant public feud.”

from Angels and Makeovers

“Two major concerns, the painting of the classrooms and the lack of any curb appeal in front of our school, were addressed by a surprising benefactor. You might say that it was the hand of God.”

From Stuck in the Middle

“Over the years, whenever I disclosed to anyone that I was a middle school teacher or administrator, a quizzical look would come over the other person’s face and he or she would invariably ask, “Why would anyone want to teach middle school? (It was a slightly nicer way of asking, “Are you insane?”).  A fair question, if you don’t get who middle schoolers are.

Today more students are identifying as transgender, and the last several years have catapulted principals and schools into an emerging field within education that has required greater understanding of transgender individuals and how to support them in school.”

from Pressure Cooker

“With each published grade came a recalculation of how high the next grade had to be in order to maintain or achieve a specific average. Parents, and some students, became literally obsessed with checking grades, and we knew this because PowerSchool counted how many times the gradebook had been opened. While having up-to-date information is always helpful, the portal became another source of stress, especially for those students and parents who could not regulate their compulsion to check for updates and whose placement into an accelerated class might have already been precarious. 

This was not a community that took “no” for an answer. Parents’ efforts to push their kids into accelerated classes bordered on desperation.” 

from Guiding Lights…

“During that same interview “Annie,” a former student of mine as well, referred to me as “one of her favorite teachers of all time.” Anne (Hathaway) was a student in my morning accelerated language arts class, one of only nine students whose desks were arranged in a circle with mine. This class had a workshop feel to it because of its size and also because it happened to be a period when kids could munch on a morning snack. We chewed on granola bars, apples, and Brutus’s motives in Julius Caesar.

“At our fifth grade parent orientations Mr. Rogers spoke from the heart as he painted the home as a demilitarized zone where parents should try to de-stress with kids, listen to what’s in their hearts and avoid what I call ‘the rat race of measuring up’ to other students or what was important to other parents. He pointed out that what kids remember most are the simple things. Mr. Rogers gave voice to the need for unconditional love from parents and ‘the courage to be imperfect’ for children whose brains during the middle level years are not fully developed, even if they have an off-the-chart I.Q.”

from Not So Black and White

“A pupil of mine on one of these trips who was African American was just outstanding in every way. The student was smart, athletic, witty, and friendly, and I took for granted that this youngster fit right in. In one exchange we had on our travels, though, I will never forget how the student summed up the experience of attending school in Millburn: ‘Mr. Cahill, do you know how hard it is, every day, when you do not look like everyone else?’”  

from An Era of Curriculum Upheaval

“Without a doubt, this era of curriculum upheaval was exacerbated by the Middle School’s lack of department overseers providing directed, specific, and thoughtful curriculum reform to formulate well-developed and consistent goals and expectations for instruction. In what world or, for that matter, in what other district, including a less affluent community, would it have been okay for a board of education and central office administration to disregard curriculum oversight, quality of instruction, and teacher accountability in a school?” 

from The Baby and the Bathwater in 21st Century Schools

“Even instructional practice in schools is becoming increasingly dominated by project-based learning and technology collaborations….Teachers want to engage with learners on a human level. Abandoning storytelling, anecdotes, and examples as a way for teachers to relate, illustrate, inspire, and foster empathy is becoming an existential threat to the original network of “wireless connections” forged in the classroom.”  

from Get the Nurse

“A friend informs their guidance counselor that Jasmine is cutting herself again. Burt, a student diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder, refuses to leave when the teacher tries to remove him from the room. Raymond, known as a ‘runner,’ absconds from class, heading for an exit with his aide in tow, unable to keep up. Shannon is so anxious that she has to call her mom every period today. Bobby has a meltdown because his social studies teacher told him to put away the sci-fi thriller he was reading so he could pay attention and participate in class. The school psychologist huddles with Ethan in a stairwell trying to help him understand that his behaviors affect how his peers see him.

Not fiction, and only a slice of life in schools today. This chapter speaks to the changing composition of our students and how their evolving needs impact the roles of nurses, child study team, and administrators.”

from Reinventing Leadership and Our Middle School

“In 2007 Millburn Middle School was featured on the ABC nightly network newscast, Nightline, in a segment called ‘Echoes of Autism,’ about the transformative work of Millburn district psychologist Dr. Jed Baker. Through his training of our peer leaders he created a peer social support system in our school for students with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism. He had students practice doing something we took for granted, even before the advent of texting and other forms of digital communications: he had them practice talking. The art of conversation is a skill that is already tough enough to practice if one is shy or awkward or even just a ‘normal’ preadolescent, but it can be downright limiting for students coping with additional communication hurdles. These conversations generated important and enduring peer connections.”  

from The State of the Union

“All of us who worked within the field of education were affected directly and indirectly by the actions, or inaction, of state leaders from the past twenty years to the present as New Jersey educators continue to hear about the vulnerability of our pension fund.  

Everything was changing, not just on the inside with curriculum, instruction, assessment, and technology, but also simultaneously on the outside, specifically the jeopardization of a once certain future counted on after a life’s career of dedication to one’s students and for the greater good of society.” 

from Game Changers

“School shootings have become the nightmare that is real. Schools are supposed to be a sacred place, a sanctuary for children and for learning. Nowhere in the realm of reason could I, or anyone else who prepared for a life as an educator, have anticipated back in the day that our lives could be endangered by working in a school. Now, in addition to fire drills, schools in New Jersey and elsewhere conduct crisis drills. As principal, especially after the Newtown massacre, I began to feel more intensely the weight of the responsibility for the lives of all of the people in my building.” 

from Climate Change

“I have heard teachers talk about the lost joy of teaching, a pervasive sentiment around the state, too. It is no wonder why. Requirements, regulations, documentation and deadlines infiltrated everything teachers did, including lesson plans, instructional practices, technology integration, standardized testing, goal development, special education, and professional improvement plans. All of this on top of trying to conjure creative ways to present lessons that promoted higher level thinking for preadolescents with varying abilities, fleeting attention spans, and raging hormones.” 

%d bloggers like this: