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Real Life: I'm a Principal

One principal shares about how she tries to cultivate empathy within her students, teachers, staff, and administration.

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 15, 2012

This journal is dedicated to the idea that in order for schools to be places that foster empathy in its students, the teachers, staff, and administration need to be actively and collaboratively cultivating an empathic work environment.  Therefore, in my journal entries I will focus on how I, as a school leader, actively seek to create a working environment in which empathy is encouraged and extended among the staff.  I will examine how my role as a school leader presents me with unique challenges and opportunities for creativity, reflection, relationship building, and conflict resolution. Also, I will illustrate how I am presented with opportunities for personal growth as I am challenged to balance institutional needs and convenience with the professional and personal needs of staff members. I must stretch my tolerance, focus my attention, find patience when it is lacking, and see issues through to a resolution so that relations among the staff remain productive and relatively free of the kinds of divisions that lead to divisiveness, low morale, and isolation.

Note: The names of the teachers have been changed in this journal to protect their confidentiality.

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October 1, 2012

School has been in session since September 7th.  The school year began with the usual setting of institutional goals for curriculum and the updating of systems. New students settled in with the establishment of classroom routines and rituals. The energy of a new school year was rife with fresh ideas.

Also as with every year, people entered with changes going on in their own lives, bringing the range of human emotion, complications, and conflicts, as well as joy and grief. Within just the first month of school, one teacher separated from her husband, while another got married. Two teachers entered the year with newborns while another became a grandparent. One teacher learned her father was terminally ill, and another reunited with a father she had not seen since she was a child. And in the last 48 hours, one teacher’s mother nearly lost her life to an aneurism but then recovered miraculously.

Schools are a microcosm of the universal human experience.  I could choose (and much as I hate to admit it, there are times I wish I had it in me) to diregard the personal lives of staff and make the work of school my only priority.  But that approach would be contrary to the central ethos of the school, and it would no doubt relegate the cultivation of empathy and holistic teaching practice to the fringes of the classroom experience. To teach the whole child, the whole teacher needs to be considered.  So I am going to talk in this series about the interactions I have had with three staff members in the past 48 hours, which challenged my ability to balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the school, demanded my empathy, or required gentle trouble-shooting.

Read Chapter 2 here.