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Inside the Principal's Office
After years of the glories, duties and daily headaches of running a middle school, was it time to get out?

By E. Keith Dodd

E. Keith Dodd, an educator for more than three decades, lives in Berwyn.

Inquiror photo
Principal E. Keith Dodd and his journal. Photography by Michael Bryant

After 15 years as a principal - five years as principal of Radnor Middle School, rated one of the nation's best by the Wall Street Journal and Consumer Reports - I was haunted by questions. Am I still a good principal? Have I lost what it takes to run a good school - or do I just feel that way? Days filled with more conflict than reward and nights living with these questions suggested it might be time to get out. I always thought I would sense when that day had come, but I guess I didn't know what the signs would be.

For two years, I kept a diary of the daily headaches, glories and responsibilities that came with the job of shepherding the old brick school's 825 students and staff of 100. As I wrote, I often wondered whether this record would be of my last months as a principal. The following are selected excerpts from those years.

Labor Day, Sept. 7

Each school year is a cycle and carries a sameness. We rush to open school, resolve beginning-of-the-year conflicts, settle into routines, look forward to mid-year vacations, trudge through the months of February and March, and, finally, accelerate toward spring's conclusion. Each fall, I tell teachers they should feel anxious before school begins. "If you don't, it's time to get out of the business." I accept today's anxiety to mean that I'm not ready to get out yet.

Sept. 22

"I'll try to come in tomorrow," she cried on the other end of the phone, "but I don't know if I can." Rachael - I've changed some student and staff names in this account - represents the fourth case of school phobia this fall, and hers is the third call I make today to three different homes. I feel inadequate dealing with this new phobia, but in each case, a therapist recommends that I force school attendance. Parents escort a fifth grader to school this afternoon; he has missed the first six days. This morning we thought he had overcome his fears, but he froze in the car, unable to come in. We've had reluctant students before, but this year's cases force me and this school to operate in uncharted waters.

Sept. 26

At this Saturday-morning informal meeting, board president Ruth Payne speaks passionately about the challenge of serving our many gifted students in Radnor. It's mind-boggling that, under state law, we are expected to provide "specially designed education" for nearly a third of our kids. The average IQ of Radnor students is more than 120; in my opinion, state standards - which consider an IQ of 130 to define giftedness - shouldn't apply here. But they do. And because they do, parents expect individual treatment, special classes and gifted activities beyond our regular programs.

Nov. 15

Give me the strength to hang in there with Jannie; I'm tempted to throw in the towel. Her mother questions every move we make. I think she wants Jannie to remain dependent on her. Everything was fine until teachers reported on her daughter's remarkable progress. Our mistake was saying, "and she's becoming more independent!" That's when our working relationship began to deteriorate. Her teachers' frustrations are beginning to show. I can't hold mine in check much longer.

Dec. 2

Saw A River Runs Through It the other day. Think I'll ask Robert Redford to consider doing a sequel about Radnor Middle School, A River Runs Under It. A stream really does run under this building. Pumps labor 24 hours a day to fight off flooding but in four years I've had to deal with the aftermath of five floods.

Jan. 2

New Year's resolution-setting becomes question-asking: What about Branford? He's defiant toward teachers and simple misbehavior is turning toward violence. Life's deck is stacked against him. We'll keep on plugging, but . . .

A zero percent budget increase? More students next year, more with problems, which means more expenses. Will even a zero percent increase satisfy this school board?

Jannie? And her mother? We could make a difference with this girl, but that mother and her legal documents - spelling out not only what we are to do with her, but how to do it - are major stumbling blocks. We are beginning to tire of this student because of her mother.

Rachael: Placed her in a treatment program for school phobia; now she's dropped out. Hospitalized for emotional problems, she's just been released and will be returning to RMS.

That one class has so many with problems, and Branford, Rachael and Jannie are but three of many. The problems require so much energy we have little left for the majority, who are good kids.

Am I the right person to lead a school in today's world? Is anyone?

Jan. 26

Twenty sets of departmental spending requests, copies of past years' budgets, and sheets of notes are scattered on my desk as I total a first draft of next year's budget. If I honor most requests, first total comes to $299,402 - 14 percent over the board's directive of a zero increase!

Good news: Rachael has been in school 12 consecutive days since our court appearance. Teachers are sacrificing their schedules to support her; their hard work and Rachael's commitment are paying off.

March 25

We have broad programs and the vast majority of our students find a niche. But, as is usually the case, my mind is occupied today with those who haven't. Branford is still with us, his short "vacation" seems to have helped, but he remains a ticking time bomb. Stella ran away from home and has been admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Counselor Susan Fisher distributed three confidential memos: one about Stella; another about a girl whose mother was rushed to the hospital because of a drug overdose; and a third describing a seriously depressed fifth grader - his mother found stacks of notes he wrote about death and suicide. Don't think we have enough rooms in RMS to provide for all of society's special needs.

April 3

No matter what we do to make school interesting, a few students push every limit, forcing us to clamp down on everyone. Parents demand well-disciplined schools, but argue about consequences when it's their children. Superintendents require further budget cuts to satisfy angry taxpayers, but still expect quality programs. Board members think that, as principals, we hire more teachers than are actually needed. They forget that, in my time at Radnor, I've increased the number of students in classes by nearly 30 percent. Teachers expect principals to fix everything immediately, from computer mistakes to unmotivated students. I think I'm losing perspective about this job.

April 10

Baseball manager Tommy Lasorda once said that you win a third of your games no matter how well or poorly you play, and you lose a third regardless of what you do. Your season depends on the team's playing and your decisions in the final third.

I hear those words as I mediate what could be a difficult parent/teacher conference. The dad who was so angry on the phone speaks calmly, and the usually defensive teacher listens. I massage and suggest. The teacher explains, the dad nods. The teacher learns that her style can be threatening to some students; the dad learns that his daughter leaves out important details when reporting at home. I sit back and nod, feeling I've made a difference in that decisive third.

April 17

A principal's spouse lives with compromise. Disappointment, too. Rose celebrated her birthday last night at a sixth-grade party. I think she would have appreciated something more than Twister, basketball and roller-skating. But she did get all the pizza and soda her heart desired.

April 29

Bright sunshine and warm temperatures - what an ideal spring day! In the office, things aren't quite as bright. A seventh-grade girl ran away, only her second day back from psychological treatment. Spanish teacher's wallet stolen during class. Two fifth graders in serious slugfest during recess. Keys to nurse's office missing, right off her key ring. Rumor of possible marijuana sale during lunch. Initial investigation suggests this could be more than a rumor. Sixth grader slugs and kicks an eighth grader. Same sixth grader won't say a word, won't sit in the office, no one answers either home or work phone number. If this is the spring sap beginning, I'd rather return to winter.

May 17

Counsel a young teacher who can't get along with an older colleague; give morning announcements; observe a substitute teacher; plant a tree in memory of Ryan Spiess, the eighth grader who died last fall after a seven-month battle with cancer; observe an elementary school teacher who wants to transfer to seventh grade; interview fifth-grade teacher candidate; sit through administrators' meeting; complete summer maintenance list; talk with fifth- grade team about the teacher candidate; travel a half mile to cheer RMS lacrosse team, tonight try to convince fourth-grade parents from Wayne Elementary not to be afraid of the middle school. A principal's job never lacks for variety!

May 20

Letter received today on stationery with lovely red rose at the bottom: "Dear Mr. Todd (sic): I am refusing to accept Elizabeth's progress report. Next Tuesday the budget is getting voted on. Everybody knows how much our teachers work and their salary. . . . I believe you should clean house! Please reply after school hours, since I have neither a teacher's timetable nor a teacher's salary."

School property taxes are a sore spot. Teachers' salaries are a source of anger. I fear today's letter could be the tip of the iceberg. Good people will be hurt by innuendo, programs will likely be cut or curtailed, but community expectations for quality education will remain. Can't say I'm looking forward to the next few years in this business.

June 2

Difficult to judge teaching potential in an interview. She's a little rough around the edges, but there's something I like. Little offbeat, too. That helps in middle school. Maybe she's a diamond in the rough. My track record with this kind is good. Could turn out to be a real bomb, too. Other administrators will think I'm crazy if I pick her. This one is going to bother me all night, but I'll probably convince myself that she's the one for my school.

June 18

After I meet with the father of yesterday's yeller (he thinks that keeping his son from last-day activities would be a terrible punishment); after the eighth-grade breakfast; the yearbook signing; after I suspend Millie for yelling obscenities outside the office when I tell her she can't stay here without shoes; after we dedicate a memorial garden to Ryan; after I meet with Paul, an eighth grader who this morning called his teacher profane names; after the eighth-grade graduation assembly and reception; after my conference with Paul's mother, but before I say good-bye for the summer to fifth, sixth and seventh graders, I close the office door and cry.

Then, I dial the high school. "Hello, principal's office, please. Hi, Anne. They're all yours!"

Sept. 3

A father wants his son to skip algebra and go directly to math seminar. His son is bright, but algebra is the basis for advanced math, and I'm skeptical that he'll receive a solid foundation through the tutoring Dad proposes. A bright student might cope with a seminar, but what's the rush? Still, I believe parents should be allowed to make such decisions for their children, and students do have a right to fail. I want the father to understand my professional opinion but, deep down, I know I might as well agree to parents' plans because if they are set on their ideas, our position rarely stands a chance of succeeding.

Sept. 10

Eighth-grade counselor Florence Hubert is giving background on students with special needs to the teachers. Bill has no friends but has improved; the first year he used to just sit and poke pencils in his eyes. Matthew's father won't speak to him since the divorce a year ago. Cheryl was recently discharged from a psychiatric hospital. Natalie is her only friend. Keep an eye on Tom. His father abandoned the family over the summer, and Tom attempted suicide once.

I lean across the table to the student teacher, who appears dazed by the litany. "And you thought you were assigned to a school? Sounds more like a hospital, doesn't it? Don't worry. Most of our kids are well-adjusted."

Sept. 11

At my desk this Saturday morning after the first week of school, trying to get through all the projects I've left undone while getting school opened. Having trouble, however, not simply propping my feet on the desk, leaning back, and basking awhile. Don't know what next week will bring, but gone are the worries about getting another year rolling. I'm bursting with pride.

Oct. 13

This afternoon assistant principal Bill Laffey, the nurse and counselor revive a girl who raided her mother's medicine closet, grabbed a bottle of pills and took them at lunchtime. She'll be hospitalized tonight. This is the second potential suicide by a middle school student in two days. At night, I have time to burn before a meeting so I drive around Radnor Township. Big expensive houses near Bryn Mawr, so different from my blue-collar hometown in West Virginia. Girl who took pills lives somewhere around here. Her mother doesn't think the problem is serious, that she's just a spoiled girl. RMS glows warmly, and lights framing the door illuminate fall harvest decorations. No big homes on Highland Avenue, decades ago populated by poor Italians and now home to most of our few African American students. Not sure why, but this drive makes my responsibilities weigh heavier than usual.

December 10

"My son's not learning," the mother says. "That teacher doesn't explain so kids understand." I sigh and put down the receiver after the second such conversation of the week. Counselor reports she has received three similar complaints. I've observed the teacher's classes many times. Although her techniques aren't the best, they aren't poor, either. Unfortunately, the teacher's personality is such that kids aren't endeared. Parents start talking. Rarely do I see a teacher who is downright incompetent. Some have troubles with technique, which can be overcome. Significant problems almost always involve personality, which is difficult to change. And it's tough to justify personality as a reason for dismissal.

Jan. 23

Switchboard operator receives a call from a parent wondering why we canceled school. Operator answers "icy and rutted roads, kids waiting in frigid weather for buses that might not arrive, some staff unable to get in, heating problems." Caller wants kids in school. Referring to entire Radnor school system, he asks: "If only two of four buildings have problems with heat, why not put all the kids in the two heated schools?" Caller was a doctor. A doctor! I can just imagine my call to Wayne Elementary: "Hey, Charlie, do you have room over there for 830 more kids?" I remember that, in some people's minds, what we do here is little more than glorified baby-sitting.

Feb. 6

The School Administrator, an industry journal, suggests that superintendents and boards, "heed your principal's concerns before the exodus begins." More than half of current principals will retire this decade, the article reports, and due to fiscal crises and increasing stresses "the number of exiting principals could soar." Many principals plan to quit before retirement, feeling overwhelmed and frustrated by the increasing demands of the job. Most of the job is preventing or dealing with conflict, many report. Salaries don't compensate for duties, responsibilities and headaches. I do a quick calculation. At a daily rate, my salary is lower that that of many teachers - and that figure assumes I use all vacation, don't count working weekends (of which there are many), school cancellations due to bad weather or building problems (which I work anyway) or hours beyond a teacher's day (I can't even begin to count the meetings, dances and athletic events I attend). I earn a good salary, but wish I hadn't done this last calculation.

March 29

I place Peter on his second restrictive probation of the year: He isn't allowed to do anything other than attend classes. The first probation ended in February. Since then, my assistant, Bill, has suspended him for throwing snowballs - inside school - refusing to serve detention, and defying a teacher. Peter is also a prime suspect in a recent school bus vandalism. Later, our school psychologist confers about a fifth grader. Diagnosis? Hyperactivity, inability to focus attention, severe anxiety and extreme hostility. I hate to confess that I haven't the slightest idea of what we can do to really help these two.

April 28

A time for honesty, brutal honesty. I hope her mother and father can accept it. "Teachers haven't given up on your daughter. Contrary to what you might think, she is learning. Her IQ scores are just about 100, average in a usual population. Unfortunately in Radnor, these scores place her in the lower 25 percent. Not fair, but that's reality.

"You expect all A's and maybe a B or two. She'll never be able to please you. Fortunately, she still wants to, but that may not last for long. When she learns she can't win, she'll quit playing the game and you might lose her. Yes, high goals are important, but realistic high goals are even more important. Your daughter is a fine girl and can be a success if you are realistic in defining her success."

There is a long pause and my heart pounds. But they don't walk out.

May 10

I'm not scared/I'm not afraid/I'm an animal and/I will eat you if I have to."

"Limits? I don't need no stinkin' limits!"

"Cover girls like boys who are covered: Lifestyle Condoms."

Simon and Garfunkel were wrong. The words of the prophets are not written on the subway walls. They're printed on T-shirts in the middle school cafeteria.

May 14

Nervous kids, looking more like young adults, stream into the eighth-grade dance. They step from their parents' cars, hoping to be seen but not be seen, their parents wanting a good-bye kiss, but understanding why it doesn't happen. We watch, laugh with them, these students we've known since fifth grade. They grow up. We grow old. They move on. We remain.

At five minutes to 10, Whitney Houston sings "That's What Friends Are For" and our kids dance, first as couples, then as one intertwined mass. In the dim flashing strobe light, we watch with a strong mixture of emotions difficult to define. Parents may not understand our feelings, most school board members can't, lawmakers who make the rules surely won't. But in these brief, certain moments, we know why we are educators.

June 9

Radnor's cable TV station airs a call-in program without any time delay to screen calls. A boy calls the show, identifies himself as a Radnor Middle School student and announces that a teacher has molested him, and names a teacher. Later, after word spreads throughout the school, the boy admits it was a joke. The teacher is devastated.

A father calls, accuses Bill of "raking his son over the coals" because Bill questioned the boy about a rock-throwing incident.

Another caller is upset that a teacher, as a consequence for misbehavior, kept his son after class. A seventh-grade boy on in-school suspension runs away from school. My secretary, Ginny, pencils in an appointment: "A mother insists she tell you how bad her daughter's seventh-grade year has been." If I didn't have a concert tonight to look forward to, I'd throw up my arms in surrender. "I give up, you win!" I'd shout. But I don't know who you is.

June 17

At the reception after the eighth-grade ceremony, a steady stream of parents heap praises on RMS for our wonderful teachers, nurturing environment and my leadership during their kids' past four years. Students in other grades celebrate the last day with parties, picnics and recognition assemblies. Then, with less than an hour to go, the fire alarm goes off. Probably a prank, but we must assume the worst. Teachers report there is no fire; we spot a pulled fire alarm box. Fire sirens blare, too late to report a false alarm. Kids stream out of the building and police and firefighters swarm into the gym. A perfect last day of school. Almost.

The final diary entry of 672 consecutive days found me looking down the long, stifling fourth-floor corridor - another year beckoned. The diary didn't answer all my questions but, yes, there was another year. And as it worked out, another and then one more. The diary helped me see that, although they are not nearly equal, there is a balance between stress and reward. There is a flow to the school year. Part of my job was to massage that flow and make it work for the betterment of all those people who make schools what they are.

However, I found my work growing repetitive. The situations and players changed, but the script remained the same. Realizing Radnor Middle School needed a new director perhaps as much as I needed a new role, last summer (1997) I resigned.

I started a consulting practice, using this diary and my experiences to help others in this noble, though often exhausting, profession.

There is much I'm glad is history. But there is much I miss, too. Though this diary reflects frustrating situations, I miss the involved and caring Radnor parents. I miss working daily with dedicated colleagues. I miss being at the helm of a vibrant, youth-filled institution. I miss being involved in people's lives.

Most of all, I miss the kids.

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