by Tom Moon
This is the preface to a book I am writing.
|I remember how jealous I was of Roland Barth (1991) when he began his book, Improving Schools From Within, with a letter to his colleagues. He was sitting at his typewriter in a nineteenth-century farmhouse in Maine while his friends were beginning another school year. At the time, I felt like most harried, overburdened, overworked, and under-appreciated public school principals: It must be nice, I mused, having the time to write and reflect in a summer retreat “a third of the way ‘down’ the coast of Maine” (p.1).
Now I have been given the gift of time by my former school district. As I write this introduction, I am sitting on a bench on a beautiful fall day in a public park alongside the Hudson River. Despite the fact that it is now late October, the setting is serene and the sun's warmth is still comforting. As an indication of how times have changed, I am using the graffiti pad of my Palm organizer to record my thoughts. During my quasi-sabbatical, I have grown to love spending time here. I accepted a buyout from a board of education to whom, over the span of ten years, I had become an annoyance. Because my departure occurred during the late spring, I needed a place where I could go recover and lick my wounds – for I was injured.
I resigned from my position as high school principal in mid-May, deciding that it was far better for everyone – students, parents, teachers, and me – if I did not drag out my execution until graduation. Earlier in the year, students had staged a walk-out in support of me and a parent was rallying forces sympathetic to my cause in an attempt to counteract the malevolent treatment I had received by the press. Many felt I should have remained to clear my name – for I had tenure and I was a very good leader. But I was green and glowing – so much so, that even the EPA's Super Fund could not help me.
While I felt angry and mistreated, I did not want to write a book about being a victim, although my detractors will claim that is the excuse I used throughout my ordeal. But after reading The Wounded Leader (Ackerman & Maslin-Ostrowski, 2002), I felt that I, too, had a story to tell that might add to the knowledge base on school leadership. As a high-school administrator, I often encountered stories of successful colleagues, i.e. Roland Barth, Rick and Becky Dufour, Deborah Meir, and Lorraine Monroe. But for most of us, despite having some knowledge, managerial skills, and a bit of enthusiasm, the forces that have been allowed to exist in our schools, especially high schools, frustrate our best efforts. I wanted to write this story because I felt what I experienced was not just unique, but something that could happen to anyone, whether to a school or a corporate leader.
I loved being a high-school principal. I knew from the first day that I worked as a substitute teacher 34 years ago, that was what I was meant to do with my life. Being around adolescents and young adults invigorated me. There was something about them that made me feel young. It was this intense caring for kids that eventually led to my downfall.
Before I became a principal, I felt that most high schools were not places created with teenagers in mind. Instead, I discovered, that they were habitats for grownups, and the children, many times, were viewed as objects that got in the way of an adult’s normal workday. This fact upset me and made me determined to become the head of a secondary school, one that I would want my own children to attend; one in which students came first and their learning was the main mission. My personal vision was that a high school should constantly be moving toward “striving to be a place where people loved to come and wanted to stay.” It became a picture of a better future for some and a call to battle for others.
Unfortunately, the American High School is still a citadel (Hampel, 1986) and it is built to resist the onslaught of a champion. And it is us, the leaders, who are at fault for letting it get that way. Secondary school teachers have been left to fend for themselves for so long that there is a culture of isolation and resistance to change that has taken on a life of its own. There is an induction process and ceremonies and rituals that imbed this mental model into the hearts and minds of teachers over time. Most high-school leaders, at least the colleagues I knew, accepted their fate and allowed it to continue, because they did not know any better, or did not want to upset the apple cart. That’s the way it always has been and that’s the way it must remain. Start to make inroads and the reactive push back can leave one permanently disabled.
After trying, and for the most part failing, and getting beat up in the process, in some ways I envy their willingness to tolerate the status quo. They spend their days putting out fires and jumping through the hoops set up by state and national accountability policies. They don't rock the boat and the boat doesn't rock them.
I remained positive throughout my ten years. Almost to the end, I held on to my dream, that I could make a difference, that I could be the Johnny Appleseed who helped germinate a forest of trees in an environment where teachers and students experienced constant growth – a place where learning was what we all did and continually got better at it. And where we cared about each other, like a family.
I hope that recounting my struggle to make a difference in a typical, small-town high school will add to the discussion of educational reform. I know it has helped me grow as a person and as a leader of leaders.