After All These Years
Kim was a student of mine at the University of Louisville in 1996. As a requirement of the program she was in, she had to keep journal entries throughout the year. In the first week or so, Kim and I did not see eye-to-eye. She was a redheaded spitfire, and I was a hardheaded former high school principal! We worked out our differences and have remained friends for 23 years. We email once or twice a year to catch up, and in a recent email, she said she was sending me her portfolio from our 1996 class so that I could read again just how pissed at me she really was. Geez! She wasn’t kidding. I read Kim’s collection of journal entries recently, and below is the letter I wrote to her in response. It contains reflections on school leadership, the travails of teachers who try to teach in spite of the school system, and a little advice on retirement.
January 2, 2020
I read your portfolio last night – sorry it took so long – and I came away as touched as I was when I read it the first time back in 1996. I was again taken with your perceptions of the shit that goes on in most schools on any day, and how little administrators care about it. The just step over the turds and keeping working on the meaningless minutia that makes up the most of their lives. No wonder, the perception of most school administrators that the principal’s job is such a demanding undertaking.
It is that only because the occupiers of the principals’ chairs allow it (or want it) to be so. For many. No. In my experience, most principals take pride in shoveling the shit instead of working with teachers to make them better professionals. Shoveling the shit does not take leadership skills. It means that they never have to put their professionalism on the line every time they suggest a new way for a teacher to perform in the classroom.
It is true that no matter how attuned one is to instructional leadership, there will be those days when the shovel is the primary tool employed. However, it need not be so. There is so much to be done in the realm of instructional leadership, that the effective principal must delegate the shit shoveling to lower level administrators. That is an onerous decision, but it must be made. Every AP should know how to shovel shit and how to do it well and how to improve the process in the doing of it. They should also work instructionally, but not to the degree of the principal.
I have a dear friend, a former teacher I hired in her first job, who I called on to help edit my book. I began teaching her how to teach when she was just a pup. Truth is she was good from day one, and I just helped her become great. Of course, I treated you the same way that year in our IDEAS class at UofL!
Your journal should be published as one teacher’s journey into the hell of trying to teach in ineffective schools in a large school system. It would take some polishing – mostly in the form of introductions to each journal entry about what was going on that day. Of course, cleansing names of people and places would need to be done.
The poignancy of your young words is what makes those words so powerful. You did not possess the gene for diplomacy as you wrote about your experiences. That is also what produced so much stress for you over the years – knowing the right things to do, and frequently not being able to do them. I have been there, too. Not so much as a principal, but later as a superintendent and at the university.
I hope you know I admired you back then. Still do. The kind of admiration engendered by kindred souls. After I moved from Louisville, I worried about you because I knew I could do nothing to help you get out of the morass that was Jefferson County Public Schools. I worry about you still in your retirement, and that is the nature of this last section.
As a retiree, you are faced with some critical choices that will define this last portion of your life. Will you become a slug, a game player, or a producer?
The slug sits and sits and sits and absorbs. What they absorb, I am not sure. Electrons from the television or computer, I suppose. Their arthritis gets worse, and they might get out of the house to walk a toy dog around a short block. I see lots of those around me.
The game-player is busy playing cards and table games and chatting away their lives around tables of four other people. My neighbors on either side of me are game-players. I love them, and I started out the same way after we were invited to spend every Sunday night playing games. After a few weeks, I was depressed, and it showed. Sandy was worried that we had made a mistake in moving to an age restricted community. We made a mistake by beginning to define our retirement lives as game-players. We made a bunch of people angry when we quit going! I would rather be a productive hermit that a mindless game-player (not that we are hermits or want to be).
The producer realizes that joy comes from creating and doing and producing end-products. My doing is my writing, and the end-product so far is my FIRST novel and my blogs. My next novel is at the front of my brain, and I will begin soon. I know that it continues with characters from Angry Heavens and takes place in post-war Charleston during Reconstruction.
The second part of my producing comes from continuing to guide my former doctoral students to completing their dissertations. I promised them when I recruited them to the program that I would be there when the finished. I saw one graduate last year and another this fall. I have two more in the pipeline. As an emeritus professor, I can continue to work with them. So much fun to help in meaningful ways. After all, isn’t that the joy of teaching?
I challenge you to be a producer, too. Maybe you are. I hope so. If you are, please let me know! If I can help you get started, you know you can contact me. I will be pissed if you don’t! – MD
Not only did you describe retirement as one of three styles but I feel this is like the last years before retirement. I watched these stages for years and now as I move into the last years I see how one could continue to produce to the last day, play the mindless games and coast or be the slug and do nothing. This hits home as I sit here the night before the first day of a new semester after writing plans all day based on what to do different from last semester. Forty six semesters for me but the second semester for many of my students, they deserve way more than a slug.
You could not be slug if you tried.