At each gala, it’s been our tradition for parents to place a bid so their child has the opportunity to step into the Principal’s shoes- one year it was to “skip school” with a friend to buy books and have tea with the Principal, then it was to attend a special writing workshop with her. The year after that we had a Principal-hosted Grove party sleepover and just last Saturday, one lucky winner gets to be “Principal for the day” on June 9th. I understand the mystique, of course- what happens all day in the office with the salmon couch? When students walk towards the library from the bridge or go down the slide, they wave to me through the glass. When I’m there, they see me talking to people or working on my computer. I enjoy their smiles and always wave back. I’m sure it all looks like fun to them and for the most part it certainly is, but I’m reflecting on the fact that I still feel it’s surreal to be on this side of the glass known as the Principal’s office.
I never set out to be a Principal, not as a kid or a novice teacher, not even as a young doctoral student. While I have always wanted to improve kids’ lives, (ameliorating education systems to alleviate poverty is still a dream of mine) being Principal was never factored as part of that path. In fact when Jadis first asked me to leave the classroom and consider the promotion to leadership, I responded “Um, I’m not sure. Can I get back to you?” She was taken aback I wasn’t chomping at the bit. But I really wasn’t. I had such a dated idea of the position and it seems everyone else did too. We all have that caricature of Principal-ship from our childhoods constructed from personal experience and Hollywood: whether you picture a stern presence doling out detentions in Ferris Bueller or a stuffy bouffant making announcements on the PA system in Grease, being the Principal in a school was akin to being the dark cloud looming over a child’s memory, bereft of any joy or creativity.
My first forays within the “Headship” world, Administrator conferences, meetings with seniors at the Education Bureau and other government organisations had me feeling like a fish out of water: a woman of color, wearing color, diplomatically learning to be patient with stodgy bureaucratic elements while navigating an unwelcome spotlight given a tendency toward introvertedness. Speaking publicly at assemblies and parent evenings, even asking a question at a conference set my stomach into a tailspin for years. But most of all, I really like kids and the ghosts of Principals past made me wonder how I could stay “me” in a role that had such strict parameters which felt resolutely, not me.
Thankfully the luxury of existential musings didn’t last long as the synergy that electrified a young, hungry, progressive school leapt into hyperdrive. Before I knew it, my colleagues and I had our sleeves rolled up as we red-knuckled our efforts into every nuance. Regardless of title, we wove ourselves into the daily fabric of pedagogy, curriculum, logistics, operations, accreditation, school allocation proposals, projections, development and even school design (we had just moved into the Garden and shortly after, won the allocation for the Grove which meant weekly meetings with the architects between 4-8PM for a full year and a half). None of us could afford to be silo-ed. If we wanted a new path forged, there was no department which would take it on; we had to either find people on board willing to add to their already full plate or go the extra mile ourselves.
Fast forward to today where I sit, a woman of color in a decidedly colourful office. After an especially tough week (or year!) I pinch myself that I get to be here, afforded the latitude to refine my role and suit it up for all it needs to be. From my colleagues who consistently set the bar on breaking new ground to students who feel seen and heard enough to reach out directly for matters important to them, to parents with whom I’ve established an authentic rapport and partnership through the years, everyone has played a part in forging this role with me. Leading a school with a mission unwilling to accept the trappings of tradition, I look at the culture we’ve painstakingly built over the years- a people primed to look past a set horizon and I understand now what an advantage it was to have such fresh eyes. It would only be with them at this school that I could deconstruct and rebuild a new memory of what a Principal could and should be: imaginative, energetic, driven, thoughtful, unwilling to accept “good enough” and fun. Zero detentions, zero hall passes, zero fear and alienation between constituents. Instead, only the current of joy in meaningful undertaking and the lift of hope that goes with change.