Moving Across the Hall

Posted by Ronald | November 15, 2012  |  No Comment

By Dr. Regina Merriwether

I always knew that I would be a teacher; however, I never envisioned being a principal. It was not until my sixth year of teaching that I discovered the possibility that being a principal and being well liked could occur in the same context. You see, it was my fourth principal whom I would describe as a true educator. He possessed many of the attributes that I feel are necessary to create a nurturing learning environment where both students and teachers want to be lifelong learners.

Like most people on his staff, I became very fond of my principal, and in fact, decided that I too, wanted to become an administrator. When my principal was assigned to a new school, he took me with him as the instructional assistant principal. Words cannot explain how excited I was on that day in August when I answered the phone and heard the question, “Merriwether, are you ready to come to work?” I never will forget arriving at the school with my newly purchased briefcase, and having my principal give me a yearbook and saying to me, “Get to know your people.”

The five years that I worked for my principal were filled with educational prosperity. I attribute this success to his ability to foster, nurture and encourage a wonderful relationship between the library media specialist and me. He called us his ‘thoroughbreds’ and he never pulled in the reigns. Working directly under his leadership, I grew to respect him even more. I thought so highly of him that I worked harder than I ever had before. His approval meant so much to me. I made a conscious decision to adopt his best leadership qualities and combine them with my instructional expertise. With those credentials, I would be able to foster real changes in the place we call “school.”

During my tenure as assistant principal, I worked at building relationships that would be characterized as trustworthy. I was adamant about keeping the door open to good communication. I tried to be fair and consistent and stood fast in my values, never letting them waiver. In essence, I did everything to prove worthy of the teachers’ trust. Once I was truly accepted and respected for my instructional expertise, the place we call “school” started to soar. With the staff’s help, we not only established goals and visions, we realized them. We took a school that was academically grounded to another level. We were, according to Ken Blanchard, “Gung Ho.”

It felt like divine intervention when I was named the principal of the school after working as the assistant principal for five years. My appointment was somewhat humbling. I had truly been blessed to have the unique opportunity to actually see my work come to fruition and to have the benefit of realizing my dreams in an environment that I labored to create.

I felt that the advantages of moving up in the same schoolhouse were both abundant and obvious. I had the advantage of knowing the dynamics of my staff, and a clear understanding of the unique needs of the students, parents and community. Such knowledge and understanding gave me a sense of ownership and empowerment that no other newly appointed principal could possess.

Shortly after the appointment, I was faced with the cold calculating reality that the “move across the hall” involved much more than I ever imagined. It became a brutal confrontation with my core values and beliefs. Suddenly, I realized that the same appointment that afforded me a great number of benefits would also prove to be contentious.

For the first time, I now had the opportunity to attend to issues within the schoolhouse that had not been addressed. I was faced with making a decision to follow the rules of Principalship 101 and continue with business as usual during my first year, or have the courage, strength, endurance and fortitude to make needed changes. I was determined to follow my heart by confronting staff members who lacked passion in their jobs and whose efforts and job performance were less than adequate. I challenged their professional practices. In doing so, I ruffled feathers.

I found myself dealing with a plethora of other challenges that no other first year principal would face. Most would not have had my familiarity with the dynamics of the school. However, my situation was different. I had firsthand knowledge of all the issues because I had shifted positions within the same structure. As the old adage states, “familiarity breeds contempt.” I was denied the luxury of what is fondly referred to as the “honeymoon year.”

I am convinced that being promoted within the same schoolhouse or in my case, literally “moving across the hall” complicates the transition from assistant principal to principal. Promotions from within the schoolhouse cause a strain on solid relationships; those principals are more likely to have their ideas and opinions viewed as statements of power and manipulations rather than as suggestions for improvement. Most of all, you’ll find that “moving across the hall” will be painful because it becomes a leadership task of the heart.

Dr. Regina Merriwether is a retired principal who served 30 years in K-12 education. During her tenure, she worked as a mathematics and science teacher, instructional coordinator, assistant director of instructional technology, assistant principal of instruction and principal. She is currently a professor of practice in the School of Education for a university.

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