Headmaster’s Thoughts – September 2008

Welcome to the new school year. I look forward to a wonderful 40th anniversary year at York; when you love what you do as much as I do, time passes very quickly.


These are my monthly “thoughts.” If you are new to the school, I should say that usually they are light and frivolous. One month, of which I am particularly proud, I wrote about the best way to make s’mores. This month’s “thoughts” are more serious and the longest I have ever written. They came about as a reaction to a New York Times article bemoaning how bad American public schools are.


As sometimes happens, once I started writing I couldn’t stop. So the result was this long letter of advice to new public school principals. Perhaps in the piece you can glean my ideas about what a head of a school should do, private or public. For those of you who have the fortitude to read the whole thing, I apologize for the lack of humor which, hopefully, is normally somewhere in my “thoughts.” I promise to revert to my old ways next month.


Members of my senior ethics class have, as an assignment, the requirement to write an essay disagreeing with my “thoughts.” It may have been difficult to philosophically disagree with recipes for s’mores or comments about the way my dog feels in the summer, and yet they seemed to accomplish their task very well. This piece is easier to disagree with since it makes more concrete suggestions. I can anticipate that some of the seniors will tear into it. You are welcome to join in and write back and tell me where you disagree. At least it will show me that, apart from the seniors, my wife is not the only other person who reads the whole thing.


Let me use this final paragraph of my introduction to thank all of you who continue to enthusiastically support York Prep. Chris Durnford, my wife Jayme Stewart, all the members of our administration, and York’s great faculty join me in this welcome and look forward to seeing you as part of our warm and outstanding community in the 2008-2009 school year.



The New Public School Principal


My, there are a lot of complaints about education. Scarcely a week goes by without a New York Times editorial bemoaning how poor our educational system is. We are fourteenth, eighteenth, twenty-first, some gloomy comparative statistic assessing us against other first world countries. The whine is consistent about how poorly we teach our students and particularly our secondary school students. What is noticeable in virtually all of these articles is that there are absolutely no solutions suggested except monetary ones – no pragmatic strategies of how we could get better, no specific and simple ways to improve the disaster that, they say, is American secondary education.


So let me say right up front that it is true that there are some awful schools in the United States, schools that have a drop out rate approaching or even exceeding 50 per cent of their students. These are most often public schools where students are required to attend for geographical reasons. You live in this neighborhood and so you must go to this school! And, if one used the analogy of hospitals, they are indeed awful. Who would go to a hospital where 50 per cent of the patients going in would die during their stay? If anything, these “drop-out academies”, as they are sometimes called, sadly represent the despair of those families who have been forced to send their children to them. They have no alternative, and no real voice in changing the system.


But there are also some wonderful public schools in similar neighborhoods, schools servicing the poorest and most underprivileged areas which somehow manage to maintain high standards and graduate virtually all of their students. How they do it is almost always because they are well led. Articles are written about the wondrous change that the principal brought about, the discipline, desire for knowledge, sense of community, etc. The principal is rightly hailed as a hero of the education system. No mention is made of the fact that the previous principal must have been mediocre at best, and, when the “wonder” principal leaves, little mention is made of the fact that in many cases the school reverts back to its former, sad drop-out status.


What I would like to do is give some simple suggestions to future leaders as to how to make real changes if they find that the school they have been given to lead does not give them pride. None of these suggestions would require getting the approval of the local Board of Education or even the Superintendent of Schools. Nor would they necessarily cost any extra money, although a principal should always try and get the most funding for his or her school.


Let us start off with the beginning: from day one, a new principal (and for the sake of pure simplicity let us use the masculine form throughout) should make some impact on the physical appearance of the school if it is not clean and attractive. From day one, he should set the example of picking up trash off the floor and encouraging everyone in the school community to treat the building with respect. The effect of sprucing up a building from the get-go is to make a statement about standards and personal pride. I have walked into schools (public and private) and have been appalled by the dirt and garbage around. To turn that around requires a force of character and determination.


Fortunately, there is often a honeymoon period with a new principal. This school beautification program is an essential beginning. Graffiti must be cleaned immediately, blackboards cleaned after each class, paper picked up off the floor of every room and hallway, bright and optimistic messages should abound (more on optimism later), and the curb appeal of the school should be dressed up in the way one would dress up a house one was going to sell.


Students are also part of the environment of the school and self pride is part of the message of a good school, so what the students wear may have to be looked at. Gang colors are clearly unacceptable, but so also are provocative clothes that affect the educational goal of the school. The word “appropriate” is vague and applies differently in different parts of the country, but nowhere are boys’ underwear displays acceptable nor girls’ clothes that deliberately sexualize the student who wears them.


From day one, the principal has to introduce himself to the parent body and establish a sensible form of communication. A weekly or monthly blog on the school website is critical. If, heaven forbid, there is no school website, one should be started immediately. The cost is virtually nothing nowadays, and it is inconceivable that a school can function without one. A website provides a vital tool of disbursement of information to the parent community which promotes a team approach to student improvement. The blog should encourage feedback and the principal should give out his e-mail address as well as a phone number that has a functioning answering machine to receive messages. It is not a phone number that the principal uses for outgoing calls but just a receiving line. Students and faculty should be given the same e-mail address and phone number on the first day. The message must be clear: I am someone who will listen and act if I can help a child, but I will always listen to both sides of any dispute and am a solution-finder not a blame-finder.


The third innovation that is rarely made, except by good principals, is to avoid their office during school hours if possible. The principal needs to be seen around the school all the time. Office hours are for after school if possible. Since I believe in the rule of twenty four, namely that all calls should be returned or dealt with in some way within twenty four hours, even if the return call is just to say that the principal will look into the matter, the principal will need to set up a delegate who can call people on his behalf to either say that the principal received the message or actually give a solution if the solution is simple and non-controversial. A good deputy is essential since there are only so many hours of the day, and a principal will often have to resist the desire to micro-manage everything in his school.


Finally, security must be a very high priority from the beginning. No student should be afraid to go to school and the principal must insist that there is no tolerance of violence in any part of the school or its surrounds. This has to be a non-negotiable issue. Schools cannot function if students fear attending.


Soon the principal will be faced with the job of arbitrating between the faculty and the Superintendent or School Board. In a private school, the Board of Trustees serves a similar, although by no means identical, role as the Board of Education. The prime role of a principal is to lead the faculty as one of them. In any conflict, he needs to retain the trust of his teachers. In Britain, the principal is called the “head teacher” for a very good reason. That is his first duty. And the easiest way to do that is to teach a class himself. It need only be one class one time a week but, teach he must. It will show the faculty that he understands both the environment that they are in and the student body that they are working with. I teach every senior at my school. I also teach a select group of eighth and tenth graders. I understand that I am a headmaster of a very small school of about 340 students. I equally understand that teaching more than once a week might be difficult in a larger institution. But teaching is critical for a principal. Indeed, every member of the administration should be required to teach at least once a week and preferably much more. Just that requirement would help break down any potential we/they conflict between the principal’s office and the faculty room.


The lectures of a principal are somewhat of a show-boating nature. They have to be open (other teachers should be invited to watch if they want) and exemplary. I remember that one year my faculty felt that the seniors were difficult to teach first thing on Monday morning during the second half of the year when they already had been accepted to college. They were concerned that seniors came late after partying during the weekend, and, if they did come on time, sat listlessly through the first lesson on Monday morning. So I taught the entire senior class (some sixty of them) for that first Monday period that term. There were no more complaints from the faculty (and, I like to think, no more listless seniors).


The principal will have to establish some social events for the parents in which parental issues rather than school issues are discussed. An outside speaker program works well. And a school sponsored get-together for parents of each class, where no representative of the school or administration is present, is also a good idea. If issues are raised about how poor the school is, at least there is discussion, and parents should be encouraged to delegate a spokesperson to have regular dialogue with the principal after such meetings. The problem I have found is that if faculty or administration members actually attend these get-togethers, then the tone of the meetings changes and individual agendas are brought up. The meetings should be at times that are convenient for most parents and should have either food brought in at the school’s expense or a pot luck dinner of some sort.


The most outgoing teachers should be encouraged to give a series of talks to parents about their field of interest. The history teacher might give a walking tour of the neighborhood, the guidance teacher a series of discussions about sexual issues facing adolescents, and the computer teacher might give classes on word processing or using a spread sheet program. Outreach must be real, and I sincerely believe that if offered, parents will come.


If change is not made during the first year, the new principal will have lost the opportunity to create a dynamic first impression. So there has to be a great deal of action. The following is a list of “should be there’s” which must be introduced in short order if not in place already.


An open grade book through the use of the school website should be developed. There is a variety of good grade recording software programs (GradeQuick is one) just as there is a variety of programs that can convert this software into a password protected program for the student and parent to review. “Edline” is a good example of a program that does just that. In effect, every week the parents should be able to see how their child is doing by connecting with the school’s website. Faculty input homework grades, quiz grades and test grades into their computer program and then the program should be converted so that the parents can access the password protected program, preferably each Friday. In this way, parents get the information that they can use in a timely manner. What good is it to tell a parent at the end of a term that the child has failed due to missing homework? How much better to tell them in the midst of the process so that they can require the child to get the homework in, and still get credit for it? Throughout the year it is critical for parents to be kept informed of triumphs and failures, both academically and behaviorally


There will be parents without computers and computer skills, so it is up to the school to provide both of these. Most companies (and schools) replace their computers every three years. These “old” computers are usually thrown away. It is an easy “sell” to ask companies for their old computers, all of which will service adequately the needs of the “Edline” type programs. At our school, we give away a third of our computers since we are on a three-year rotational computer cycle. Without having to go to outside companies, we have more than enough mildly obsolete but functional computers to give away to any parent or faculty member who needs them. Every single parent night has a coordinated class in computers and particularly on the use of our “Edline” program. There is a parent software advisor available by phone to help those who have a hard time working the program. That same individual is also available to faculty members who have difficulty with the various programs that we internally use. We require that our faculty come in before school starts (as most schools do) and the teaching of software is a vital part of that faculty orientation program. So you need a faculty member who is going to be both a teacher of teachers and a teacher of parents.


The byproduct of making the grade program available each week is that it sends the parents, students, and faculty to the website. And this is an opportunity not to be missed. The website should contain as much information as possible about what is happening at school. I have already mentioned the blog by the principal, but he should delegate a faculty member to keep it fresh with news of activities that have taken place and a calendar of what is to take place -school plays or musical performances, athletic events, school trips or special speakers, parent activities. For students, each teacher must be required to have their own blog brimming with information for their students; dates of upcoming tests or when long term assignments are due, which books to bring to class, and, most importantly, the homework for each night so that a student who is sick or absent can keep up with the homework requirements. The college guidance department should have its own blog for all juniors and seniors which gives dates and times of upcoming SAT’s or ACT’s, due dates for college application and financial aid forms, sites where forms can be downloaded from, and as much information as possible about the tense process that getting into college is nowadays.


You will remember that I began this piece quoting the criticisms of American secondary schools. What is not usually mentioned along with these attacks, is the fact that our universities are admired around the world. In fact, we have a greater number of universities in the top fifty (as evaluated by the Chinese Government, no less) than any other country. You need to have great students to have great universities, and we have them. So the next piece of advice to our new principal is to echo something I have already alluded to. He must have, and frequently express, optimism about his school and his students and faculty. Optimism is a quality that is vital in a principal. I have been a headmaster of one school for 40 years and there has never been one day that I have not believed in the transformative ability of our school to improve the lives of our students, the innate abilities of our students, and the professionalism of our faculty. This message of hope and success through education is what a principal has to believe in and project. If he cannot, he should not be a school administrator.


All of this speaks to the internal public relations that should be a never-ending story within the school community. Successes should be noted, students who triumph congratulated publicly, teachers who are remarkable should be given recognition and their names forwarded to those public agencies that look to celebrate successful teaching.


The principal, as the head teacher, is responsible for the curriculum of the school. This is another project that will not wait until the principal’s second year. He needs to ensure that the right curriculum is taught to the right students. That means that weak students should be able to succeed if they work and gifted students should be challenged. There are several ways of doing this from tracking students in different subjects to providing extra help and offering extra challenging classes. This is a delicate issue, but I believe that confronting it with sensible class placement is a far better idea than ignoring the problem. I would suggest that one distinguishes different abilities. A skill in math does not necessarily mean a skill in English. It is imperative that those teachers who provide extra help are qualified to do so. Too often, the tendency is that the best teachers are given the honors classes. Our new principal will have to ensure that teachers teach only those subjects they are qualified to teach, and that the teachers of the weak classes are every bit as good as the teachers of the ablest. For me, if a teacher is state certified to teach in a remedial program and has a Masters degree in the teaching of remedial students, that is a good indication that the teacher wants to teach those students. I am with them: there is nothing more rewarding than helping weaker students find their self confidence and desire to succeed. Certainly, we have students who are destined for the Ivy League from the day they come to our school. So long as we keep them challenged we need not worry about their motivation. Their success may rightly be a source of pride but it is not the full measure of our school. The students who arrive feeling beaten before they have begun, whom we can turn around, are among our real challenges. And when we get them into a great college they never thought they would even be able to apply to, having properly prepared them to succeed there; these are the successes that give enormous satisfaction.


Our new principal should use every curriculum tool possible and appropriate from honors programs to remedial reading programs, to raise the standards of the school. He will also have to contend with the “No Child Left Behind” federal requirement (sometimes referred to as the “No Child Left Untested” program). I am not a fan, but I recognize that reality is reality and this is the current educational fad. So students have to be taught how to take the particular test, and be encouraged to take these tests seriously (something that is easier said than done). A great deal of this rests on how the principal can “sell” the value of education to the students. For that reason alone, our new principal needs a strong personality. I have had students “shadow” me from Columbia University Teachers College where they are getting a Masters degree in school administration. Without exception, they have been smart and of great character. But only some of them were forceful enough that one could confidently predict success. The job of being a principal is not one for the meek and the shy. It requires a quality of showmanship that degrees in education cannot by themselves confer.


Some time during the first year, our new principal will be faced with an irrational parent, a self-destructive student, a School Board member who disagrees with him, and a teacher who just cannot teach. Since every situation is different there are few words of advice I can give here except to say that empathy is also a needed quality. With the obvious statement that the school must be protected, a sympathetic approach to conflict resolution is always the best. But eventually there will be stands that will have to be taken, and so our principal (who, by now, you may be wondering if such an individual exists?) must have a strong stomach and the ability to stick to his guns when sticking to guns is required.


So far, our principal has had challenges on how to succeed in his new job. The final challenge cannot be created: he has to love it. Good principals love what they do. They like their teachers and students (and parents) and are able to get satisfaction and pleasure by taking the long view even when the issue of the moment is irritating or worse. At no time can the principal forget who he is. At no time can he forget he is a leader of an educational institution. It is a heavy responsibility, and yet he must embrace it with joy.


I hope, in the future, that editorials would recognize the fact that we have wonderful public schools in America, that great principals can turn around any wayward school, and that we should sing the praises every day of those men and women who successfully lead our schools.



Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster
E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org 

“Headmaster’s Thoughts” for previous months are archived in the section In the News . You may access additional months by clicking Headmaster’s Thoughts Archives on the same page.