The Principals(ples) of Parenting
I was a high school principal – leaving the principalship a little after my kids were born. It’s an all-consuming job with insane hours and demands and there was no way I could lead a building full of students and spend the type of time I wanted to with my just born kids. Being a principal (and teacher) had many impacts on me as a parent – chiefly among them is trying to avoid being one of “those parents” at their school.
Yesterday, a friend called me asking for advice on a situation at their kid’s school. The context and details do not matter as every few months, a friend calls me out of the blue asking for a “principal’s perspective” on something that happened at their kid’s school – sometimes good, but usually not. The advice is usually the same and what I try to employ at my little angels’ school on the rare occasion we need to talk to the principal. Several themes have emerged that I thought I would share with you all just in case you ever have the need to interact with your school’s principal during a challenging situation.
- Start with positive pre-suppositions – Principals almost always have the best interests of all of their students at heart and do not enjoy punishing students. Similarly, they are usually adept at conducting thorough investigations and almost always come to an appropriate conclusion. When other parents are involved, always assume those parents have the best interest of their own children at heart and hopefully yours as well.
- Be rational – Truth is, the hardest part of being a principal is not working with the kids (that’s the fun part); it is dealing with their parents. When my child is in trouble, I try not to get overly emotional. Getting overly emotional leads to irrational and often erratic behavior atypical of one’s usual demeanor. Parents want their child exonerated, especially when falsely accused of something or in trouble for something he/she did not start. I have seen my fair share of parents come barreling into my office demanding justice – screaming and yelling, thinking that the loudest voice is heard the most. This type of approach backfires almost every time. I always appreciated the rational parents who sought to understand first and tried to come to solutions second. This leads me to #3.
- Be pro-active – When I find out my child has been involved in a situation that is going to be elevated to the principal, I reach out to the principal before the principal reaches out to me. I send an email that goes something like this, “I understand that my child was involved in an incident that has come to your attention. I will talk with my child when he/she gets home from school and try to find out their side of the story. I look forward to working with you and your staff to gain resolution to this challenge and will await your email or phone call on when and if you would like to talk with us.” This establishes me as rational and fosters an environment where the principal will be more receptive to hear what I have to say. Principals get anxious in dealing with parents and being pro-active lessens that anxiety which is good for everyone. (3a. Be super-proactive – Send your principal an email like this or meet with them during the first few weeks of school. Talk to them about your child – what they love, what they appreciate, what sets them off, and the best ways to work with them. Let the principal know you are a partner with them in the education of your child(ren) and look forward to working with the school on their academic, social, and emotional education.)
- When you try to “win” you usually lose – I’m competitive in everything I do. I brag about the accomplishments of my kids (I try not to too much, but they’re pretty damn great) and can see their errors as my errors. Therefore, it is difficult to acknowledge my kids’ errors and not want to prove that my child (actually me) was right. I’ve come to see there are three sides to every story – mine, theirs, and the truth and the truth always lies somewhere between the first two. When I try to win an argument for my child, I entrench my position making it impossible to hear the actual truth. Similarly, when I have one specific outcome in mind, I rarely ever get that outcome – making it impossible to win.
- Advocate, but do not protect – When my kids are wrong, they are wrong. They need to accept their punishment and learn from the situation. I’ve seen too many parents try to propose alternate, lesser punishments that go against the systems and structures of the school (I actually had one parent of a suspended student disagree so vehemently with the school’s decision that they took their child to Disneyland on the day they were suspended for cursing out a teacher in front of the entire class). I would not be doing my kids any favors by trying to protect them from a consequence they deserve. If my child is found wrong, and they are not, they learn a valuable lesson – life is not fair.
- Advocate, but do not protect (part 2) – Similarly, there are times when as a parent, I want to escalate a situation that does not really need to be escalated. Maybe there is some girl drama or mild teasing. I have to remind myself that my child needs to work conflicts out themselves. I can coach them in how to do it, make their teacher or principal aware of the situation (see be proactive), and let my child do as much as he/she can on their own.
I hope this helps. Anyone else have other tips or strategies? Also note that sometimes a principal is not rational – that’s a much harder situation to deal with. Most are dedicated, hard-working people creating a positive and productive learning environment. Please feel free to leave questions in the comment section on specific scenarios.