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Real Life: I'm a Principal

A thoughtful look into balancing professionalism and friendship in the workplace.

By Michelle Hughes

Michelle Rosenfeld Hughes was born in 1960 to two public school teachers, grew up in New York City, and attended public schools. She spent the first twelve years of her teaching career as a progressive public middle school teacher in Red Hook, New York. In her twelfth year of teaching, No Child Left Behind policies took hold and, after struggling to find ways to continue real teaching and learning, like many, she found it impossible to remain teaching in the system. She left public education to begin the middle school program at High Meadow School in Stone Ridge, NY, in 2001 and assumed the headship in 2010. High Meadow is an independent not-for-profit progressive school serving 165 children from Nursery to 8th grade. In addition to her work in schools, Michelle is a writer of fiction and essays on education. She received her BA in Visual Arts from SUNY New Paltz and her MA in Elementary and Museum Education from Bank Street College of Education.

November 21, 2012

Editor's Note: Here's Chapter 2 of High Meadow School Principal Michelle Hughes' Journal Series, Real Life: I'm a Principal.  Take a look at her previous post here.

October 2, 2012

I am friendly with most of the people with whom I work.  I know, it is said so often that you can’t be friends with your employees.  It is definitely a challenge.  I walk a fine line every day. I trust that my friends on staff make the effort to differentiate me as a person from my role as their supervisor just as I make the effort each day to separate them from their role as employee. The greatest challenge I face is to remain attentive to any possibility or appearance of favoritism or lack of equity, as this would undermine the whole mission of our small community school, and shake the foundations of my dearest friendships.

Jeanine is a veteran teacher and a close friend of mine as well as an important member of the staff.  Her father has been fighting cancer for years, but this time it may ultimately kill him.  When Jeanine told me about her father, I was surprisingly devastated.  I thought when that news came, I would have somehow anticipated it and been more, I don’t know...level-headed?  When she explained that she would need to take Thursdays off to accompany her father for treatment, I criss-crossed crazily from friend to boss, not knowing where to land, thus fumbling the conversation entirely, neither giving support, nor any real information.  This is where it gets really sticky, and I struggle to find my footing at times. 

Recently having to let go of another employee influenced my response to Jeanine. In that situation, our effort to be flexible with staff members in need of a leave of absence was flipped on its head and used against us. It resulted in a difficult separation from an employee that left me reeling and questioning our approach to the policy.  In my conversation with Jeanine, I found myself wanting to both reassure her that we could cover the time she needed but not promising too much. I vacillated between, “I don’t want you to worry about the time you need,” and “this may affect your sick days, and we’ll have to see how much time this is.” Oy veh, it didn’t feel good, and it was later confirmed when she told me my timing was inconvenient.

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Jeanine had her hands full. In addition to switching to third grade for a year in order to avoid teaching her daughter, she had to learn and implement a whole new curriculum for just one year. She dealt with this while also having a couple of challenging parents to manage, a number of new students, and one family that decided to home school their children. This week Jeanine’s father decided he was going to discontinue his treatment. She came in this morning looking distraught, only to discover that the nature preserve for a field trip hadn’t received her reservation, the parent drivers were waiting, and the forecast was rain.  And, believe it or not, it was her birthday! 

We thought about what she should do about the field trip; it was ultimately decided that she would take the kids on a hike at another location.  The finance director rushed a check and paperwork to the preserve office while she led students along the trail in the rain. Over the past few weeks, Jeanine has taken the Thursdays off she needed to spend with her father. Meanwhile, I regrouped and decided that the flexible policy that has served so many of our staff over the years would not be made inflexible because of the deeds of one person. 

Tonight I am asking myself, how else can I serve Jeanine, an extraordinary teacher and friend? Would holding a weekly support meeting feel like one more obligation, or would it be helpful to her?  Would lightening her load make her feel like I don’t think she can handle it, or might she feel relief?

Read Chapter 3 here.