Principals’ Jobs Not Unlike the Labors of Hercules

Principals’ Jobs Not Unlike the Labors of Hercules

Jeff Smith

The recent kerfuffle within the domain of Alameda Unified School District (AUSD) secondary education shocks many of those unfamiliar with the machinations and vagaries of public schools, while it surprises few of the AUSD stalwarts.

Last year, given there were zero students and nearly the same number of teachers on campus, steering the Encinal Juggernaut was a piece of Johnny Cake topped with Apple flavored Ivermectin. This year, given the campus is repopulated, the job resembles the Labors of Hercules. Students and teachers, especially teachers, could drive anyone to the levee. But alas, it was not as if the gondolier toppled into the canal, the cockpit crew bailed out of their overhead hatches, the Giants lost Buster Posey, or a math teacher quit.

Having been stationed at Encinal for 25 years, such convolutions are practically de rigueur. Some students have graduated from Encinal having had five principals guiding them to the finish chute.

Teacher of the Planet, Brian Rodriguez taught at Encinal for 17 years and served under 17 principals; all 17 were carefully vetted and hand-picked by discerning, over remunerated, well-dressed superintendents who consulted with haruspex, sibyls, and Ouija Boards, and with an abundance of caution scrutinized the entrails of birds.

Diamonds at the Shane Company do not face such scrutiny; the East German Tremblant did not have such a Quality Assurance program. Principals, or what I call the temp-hires at Encinal, are rotated out for a basket of reasons; some merely for show and yet others for the sake of appearances.

Sometimes principals hit the road to clear the path for rising stars who have not yet reached the apex of their professional parabola. Two or three have voluntarily bailed during the school year but fear not, no swivel chair in the head-shed gets cold.

In public education, change can be gussied up to look like progress, even as the objective, quantitative measures are dropping like a Mosler Safe pushed out the cargo door of a C-17. One principal was called to the AUSD puzzle palace, given her marching orders, and not even allowed to clean out her desk. It could have been much worse: she could have been called to the offices of the KGB, Stasi or SMERSH.

Another principal fled when state funds evaporated before reaching the Encinal campus and it looked like we would be operating without paper products. A well-meaning principal announced to the faculty that his mission was to provide teachers with the support and resources they needed to do their job; given his inverted priorities, he lasted only as far as Lincoln’s Birthday.

This year was unlike most others.

Previous years, it was traditional that only teachers had the summer off; this year it seemed that the franchise had been extended to higher echelons. The only difference being that the teachers returned to work in mid-August.

Some hyperbolically report that Encinal got off to a rocky start; personally, I would temper that assessment, it was no rockier than the Farallon Islands, Moab or Brice Canyon. Even hysteria should know its limits.

One of the most successful principals was not computer literate; at best, he could operate the keyboard on his TV remote, his blender, and his garage door opener; he thought that byte was the Gaelic spelling of bite, and he thought pixels were the female equivalent of leprechauns. To make matters worse, he was not a sycophant and could not tune in to group think.

In short, he was not a team player, as we say in organizational theory. He was obstreperous at meetings; stopping progress to inject facts, common sense, and professional experience into what could otherwise have been a productive event.

In short order, he was persona non grata at Alameda Unified School District HQ and with no computer savvy, he was forced to haunt the Encinal campus, walking around like Napoleon on Elba, redirecting lost and disoriented students back to class.

Before we eliminated the achievement gap by extirpating objective measures, this principal took Encinal to its highest state ranking: a Bo Derek 10. Naturally he had to be cashiered at the earliest convenience—imagine the embarrassment of our sister school.

As we said in the Navy, “No amount of competency will go unpunished.”

I can safely speak of this principal now that he no longer writes my evaluations, but instead tops off my beer mug. Many principals at Encinal spend a substantial portion of the week at the school district headquarters; that is the land of opportunity. It is “win-win” given that headquarters wants to look relevant and indispensable while the principal wants to get groomed and reconnoiter potential sinecures.

Upwardly mobile principals, with the lean and hungry look of Cassius, use Encinal as a steppingstone, springboard or pogo stick, they know which side of their bagel has the cream cheese. There is no point languishing at 200 Central Ave. when the CalPERS remuneration ladder stands taller at 2060 Challenger Dr. This year, we should have known a swap out was coming down the pike; there were rumors circulating in the Bladium Weight Room.

Furthermore, strangers with impeccable sartorial standards were making cameo appearances on the Encinal Campus. At first, I thought the free lunch program might have been the magnet, but I did not see them eating, although the fare is excellent thanks to Diane and her staff.

They looked like they could have been salespeople trying to huckster new office equipment on to the administrative branch.The students too were curious, “Who are they?” they asked not recognizing the very flywheels and articulating arms that keep the AUSD locomotive barreling into the future.

“What are they doing here?” they demanded.

I told students that they were DEA agents, checking on the hot boxing taking place in the restrooms; that scotched both the vaping and the torching for the rest of that day.

Undoubtedly, the Encinal vacancy will be filled; public education abhors the vacuum of an empty office. The replacement, like his or her predecessors, will be the very avatar of Aristotle, Horace Mann, Dean Edward Rooney or Dean Vernon Wormer.

Some advice to the replacement principal: lard your conversation with edu-jargon, dress as if you expect a call from HQ at any minute, leave your most ostentatious vehicle in the Encinal parking lot so that teachers will think you are taking care of Encinal business, and Uber over to Challenger Drive.

And finally, attach your name to your office door with Velcro; it will help during the next change of command.

Jeff Smith teaches at Encinal High School.