How to Be an Effective Public School Principal in Five Easy Steps!

As the parents of 2 specials needs children, my partner and I have had our share of run-ins with the public schools in our efforts to advocate for our children in the face of a system that is designed less to educate children than it is to provide underfunded and often low-quality daycare. As any parent of a child that has obstacles to thriving in the mainstream can tell you, it’s an exhausting, discouraging and often lonely uphill battle. And the face of the primary opponent, the smiling one across from the table from you in an IEP meeting, is usually that of your school principal.

This clown is not your child’s friend.

I want to be sure to note, that my partner and I (and our sons) have been blessed to encounter some amazing teachers who work tirelessly within a system that undervalues and underpays them to provide a safe, appropriate, and fertile environment for our children. But we have yet to meet one school principal who we felt actually was on our side or had the best interests of our children (rather than their own agenda) at heart.

So after years of observation of this particularly political animal of the world of American public education, I have noted a few common traits and strategies that they all seem to possess or employ – a few simple rules, they all seem to follow.

  1. Treat all children the same! Uniformity is key! Remember it is not nearly so important to provide a free and appropriate education for each child (no matter what the individual differences in their abilities, challenges, learning styles, or circumstances), as it is to make sure they conform to the herd at all costs.
  2. Move them along! Differing rates of development, circumstances or intervening illnesses are not nearly so important as making sure that ALL STUDENTS move along in a timely manner from one grade to the next. Remember, the goal here is not to provide the student with the best chance of graduating. It’s to make sure they move on to the next school without delay so that they (and their loud-mouthed parents) will become another principal’s problems.
  3. Always listen politely to the parents! And then ignore their concerns and advice and make your own decisions based on political expediency and handy tools like standardized tests. (There is some leeway here for allowance for personal style. Some principals may choose to interrupt constantly with their own uninformed opinions in an effort to derail or distract the parent.) Whatever your personal style, though, remember that parents will constantly try to get you to break rules 1 and 2 by whining incessantly about their child’s “needs.” Be firm. Be resolute. And above all, when it comes time to make your decisions, ignore the parents.
  4. Strategy is important.Some of the more wily parents may persist in making nuisances of themselves in an effort to “advocate” for their child. In dealing with them, remember this simple three-part strategy:

–          Make yourself as inaccessible as possible.Don’t return their phone calls or emails. When they ask for a meeting, make sure they are given a date and time at least 6 weeks out that conflicts with their work schedule.

–          Patronize them.When they do somehow manage to get access to you, lead them to believe you are actually considering their input and educating yourself about your child and their issues. (See number 3.)

–          Put them off for as long as possible. Wait to spring your decision on them at the last minute it so they have little time to respond or prepare their child. Just before the end of the school year or just before the beginning of a new year are particularly good times to spring unwelcome changes on a parent. The former has the advantage of the fact that you and most of your staff will shortly be unavailable for the duration of the summer and the latter will usually catch the most wily of parents off-guard.

5. You are a demi-god! Remember, you are a public school principal. Your word is law. In some school systems, there is no avenue of formal appeal open to the parent. But remember, ultimately, you are bluffing. If your problematic parent becomes angry enough, they may engage an attorney and your school system has no money for legal fees. (Fortunately, neither do many parents, so knowing their economic status may be a pretty good gauge of how far you can push them.)

So what do you think, parents?! I’d love to hear from you! Especially parents of any child who has special needs or circumstances (with or without an IEP). Have you ever been so angry with a school system or principal that you felt like vomiting? Stand up and be counted!

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  1. Oh boy. We are fortunate enough to be able to afford private school. Because when I hear friends of ours with autistic kids talk about their struggles with the public school administrations, it’s downright scary. I don’t know how you do it. How you keep your cool. Well, I suppose you have to, if you want to get anything done. But really, to all you parents with special needs kids in public school, I have the utmost respect for you. I would probably go postal! (Disclaimer: this is not meant as a promotion of violence against any person or persons.)

    • Thanks, Barbara! Venting through biting satire in a public forum seems to work for me. Made me feel much better! My partner and I have a division of labor that works for us. She is poised, cool, and articulate so she handles all the IEP meetings on her own. I’m a hothead in person but sometimes fairly eloquent on paper so I do all the letter writing. These battles just aren’t fun though, and they take an emotional toll. I can’t wait for summer. (I’m glad you have the option of sending yours to private school. We definitely would if we could.)

  2. Paul J. Stam

     /  May 24, 2012

    Unfortunately, you are so right. I have several friends with special needs children, everybody does, so everybody has to read this post of yours. Special children need special care and that is why I have designated all income from the sale of my pottery to be used for pottery therapy for autistic teenagers and young adults.

    • That’s awesome, Paul. I think I remember you writing about that but you’ve rearranged your blog a bit since then. I’m a big fan of art therapy in any form. I wish pottery therapy had been available for my youngest. He would have loved it.

  3. Anita Gallagher

     /  May 24, 2012

    I take it, that it did not go well?! Love you Mom :- /

    • Not so well, Mom. But it may all work out in the end. I’ll call today and tell you all the fun details. (I know I said I’d call Tuesday but I lost my voice. Really! I think I caught something from one of the field trip kids.)

  4. Sounds frustrating. Sometimes they forget that the parents are equally well educated and able to research their children’s issues and fight for them. Academics seem to get farther and farther removed from common sense. Drives me nuts too.

    • Exactly! I think it’s that patronizing attitude that gets me the most. Thanks for speaking up. It always helps to hear from other parents when I’m feeling so frustrated. Much better today, though. Quite optimistic, really. I think I’ve figured out that life almost never goes as planned and that often works out even better if you let it.

  5. Can’t even imagine what this must be like. Our education system in this country is so broken, it’s tragic!

  6. I have several good friends who are public school teachers, and I’m constantly amazed that they don’t commit mass suicide. Every couple of years there’s a new “strategy” that demands ridiculous busywork and a revamping of their entire protocol. The pressure from the government to “leave no child behind” ends up leaving most kids behind.
    Bless you for hanging in there and working to get your kids what they need.

  7. Bravo and Amen! You have encapsulated this experience perfectly. My wife did the PTA prez thing, and raised thousands for them. The teachers mostly loved her (we’re still friends with a few), but the admins not so much. Turns out the principal was doing something wrong, and was asked to take early retirement, She also resented that my wife was liked by so many of the teachers (even tho the money being raised hepled the school!). Ug. I could go on and on.

    I dropped out at 8th grade. Years later I went back to college and grad school, but you are 100% correct–they just wanted me to go away, and I did. Now my daughter doesn’t like school either, and the asst. principal, when told this and asked for help, just nodded and smiled until we went away.

    My wife’s advice would be to NEVER take ‘no’ for an answer. No one’s word is ever really final, if you publicly embarass them enough. You’re kids are lucky to have you care about them so much!

  8. It always amazes me that there is a war on teachers. Why not leave the teachers alone and have a war on administrators?

  9. more nice work!

  10. I’m so sorry that your school system treats you that way. I teach gifted students in a suburban public school district near Memphis and would be blown away if anyone treated our parents like that. All children are unique and a good teacher finds and enhances those gifts. A number of gifted students also have Aspergers , many are ADD or ADHD, some are dyslexic, some a combination, but they are all children first. I tell my parents that the IEP insures their rights and to use that power in the fullest way possible to attain what they need for their child. A parent is always the student’s best advocate. I love your humor, it’s what will save you!


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