“Never put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.”Mark Twain
This is a work of creative nonfiction. While all the stories are true, some names, locations and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of the people involved.
School closures have me thinking about what I miss about being around my staff and students. I’ve resorted to creating new routines and structures to keep myself mentally engaged and productive. My school family kept me smiling and laughing about the beauty of life. The first question of the day was usually, “Did you get my text? I sent it this morning.” If I checked my phone every time I received a text I wouldn’t get anything done. Most principals receive dozens of emails and texts each day so finding the time to filter through what’s important and what can wait takes time and a system. The messages, emails and phone calls about why folks can’t come to work always seem to end with the same hopeful phrase: “Will keep you posted.”
Teachers who find the humor in the job are less likely to be consumed by the emotional stress of being the sole adult in the room with 30 children. Principals need to laugh too! The responsibilities of running a school can seem overwhelming. Some principals take themselves so seriously that they mute their own joy and the joy of those around them. The ability to laugh and enjoy those unforgettable moments, mining them for lessons, is precisely how we keep going. Moving into the principalship has its humorous moments because adults can become as creative in their reasons for either not arriving on time or taking days off. Research shows that teacher attendance and student performance go hand in hand. That’s why schools look for ways to incentivize good attendance and punctuality. Standing alongside the millions of punctual and professional educators is another group of creatives. Every school has these creatives who, like true artists, have trouble getting to the venue on time: the consistently late, the frequently absent, and the early departures.
If nothing else, Mrs. Stevens is consistent. She seems to copy and paste the same text message to me every other week with only slightly different phrasing? I’m a writer, so all I ask is for a bit of originality and creativity in your approach to this process. Her approach is well thought out. Mrs. Stevens is the inventor of ‘the two step approach’ of calling out from work. It typically starts the night before. Mrs. Stevens sends the text with so much detail that I’d rather not read as I’m trying to get to other urgent messages coming in simultaneously. The text is nearly as long as this blog post. Seriously. “Had a late night last night. April’s fever was over 100. She is my middle child.Tried to get her to rest, first upstairs, then downstairs where it is cooler. My mother in law, who lives in Gwinnett County near the Mall of Georgia is coming over to help once morning traffic dies down. 85 can be thick in the morning.” Then, without fail, the morning text arrives. “My daughter isn’t feeling well this morning. Temp is still high, so I won’t be in today. Will keep you posted.”
Mr. Collier is one of the greatest literary minds of our time. He would make a great screenwriter for Tyler Perry films because his reasons for not coming to work are sheer creative genius. His mind is fertile ground for the most imaginative scenarios for not being able to come in. Once, after days of not reporting to work, he sent a text apologizing and informed us that he’d been hospitalized. Mr. Collier’s excuses are action packed with riveting cliffhangers. They are interspersed with interesting characters that pull you into the plot. My phone rings and the voice on the other end shouts through the sound of cars passing by, “Mr. Mountain, I was on my way to work and about a mile before I got there my tire blew out. I’m out here now waiting on the tow truck. I don’t think I’m gonna make it in today, but if I can I will let you know.” The next week I get a text, “My uncle Ephram just arrived from a military mission in China and he has lost his luggage at the airport. I went to pick him up, but we have now been detained by customs.” He pauses for a few moments, then writes: “Will keep you posted.”
The Appliance Warehouse
Mrs. Mims must have a magnificent home because it seems that her approach to not coming to work always centers around the delivery of some type of appliance. If there is a staff meeting, Mrs. Mims has to leave early so that they can deliver her dryer. If there is a teacher work day, Mrs. Mims has to come in later so that they can install the new deep freezer. Observation scheduled? Sorry, that’s the day the water heater is being delivered and they can only come sometime between 10am and 2pm. I swear she must have a washer, dryer and stove in every room of her house because the deliveries have been consistent for three years. If it’s a 3-day weekend, Mrs. Mims returns a day later because the only day they could bring the new refrigerator is the Monday we are scheduled to return. But she always leaves hope that she can get things adjusted. “I was trying to get this rescheduled outside the work day, but so far the only times they have available are Monday between 9am and 3pm. Will keep you posted.”
School of Dentistry
Wednesdays at 2:45 are designated as staff meeting days. We all agreed that we would keep this as our consistent date to avoid scheduling conflicts. Mr. Wilson always had something urgent to tell me at the beginning of the meeting or midway through. He’d get my attention, wave me over, then whisper, “I need to go to a dentist appointment”. “No problem. Take care.” It took me a while to pick up on the pattern, but it happened week after week after week. On this day, the meeting had begun and another staff member was presenting. I see Mr. Wilson gathering his things to leave about 30 minutes into the meeting. I rush over to the door and ask, “Are you leaving?” He says, “Yes, I have a dental appointment.” “Again? It seems like you have all of your dental appointments on Wednesdays. You know we agreed that this was our meeting date. Can you get it changed?” He smiled slightly as a person does when the jig is up, looked at his watch and said, “I’ll try to get it changed for next time. Will keep you posted.”
Catch Me If You Can
Ms. Wrigley is one of our best teachers. She is talented, reflective and always looking for ways to improve her every move in the classroom. I rarely get texts from her or emails about being late or having to leave early. But, if I announce that visitors are coming to do walkthroughs on a specific date, Ms. Wrigley will politely inform me that she will be out on that date due to an appointment. I might see her in the hallway and say, “Hey, I’m gonna come by today to see that guided reading lesson.” Best believe that they will be at recess or on a library visit or restroom break. Ms. Wrigley avoids being observed at all costs. Like any principal, I’d share with my staff if a district team was coming to do a walkthrough on a certain day. I’d remind them of our non-negotiables with the hopes that they would be at the top of their game. Ms. Wrigley wasn’t planning to even come to the game. So it it was time for me to check in on that guided reading lesson I told her I was coming to observe. I grabbed my rolling cart, laptop and cell phone and headed toward her classroom. After walking all around the school looking for Ms. Wrigley and her class, I find them in the rear of the school doing a science experiment. I look on from a distance, wondering why the schedule changed. She pauses, looks up at me and says, “We decided to get in a little Science today since it’s nice out.” I smile and nod in agreement about the weather. She looks at her students as they look around the lawn for a certain type of leaf. I ask, “So when will the reading lesson be tomorrow?” She takes a deep breath and says, “Should be around 10, but you know we have testing and project presentations. Will keep you posted.”
The Big Payback
Mrs. Olson ran a tight ship. She demanded respect from her students and operated her classroom with military precision. Students feared her, as did some of the staff. Underneath the tough exterior was a soft-hearted woman with a good heart. I began to notice that she was in constant conflict with her colleagues and parents. I was receiving many emails from parents complaining about her approach. I decided to take a closer look at the culture of the classroom. After a few observation cycles, I pinpointed some of the things that were undermining her work with students and families. The approach, the tone, the rigidity. But as I began sharing my observations, I quickly realized that Mrs. Olson hated constructive feedback. She only wanted to hear what went well and that was it. No matter how positively it was framed or how soft the landing of the suggestion, she despised being told what might improve her lesson or the culture of her classroom. If I had to discuss a parent complaint with Mrs. Olson, I was 99% certain that she was going to take the next several days off. As I planned the meeting with her, I’d just tell my AP to go ahead and prepare to secure a substitute for the classroom for a few days. Her emails were five paragraph long and winding treatises about being undermined by parents, students and staff. In her mind, the ultimate payback was to inconvenience us all by not coming to work. Securing effective substitutes could be a challenge for us and she was well aware of that. I always wondered if she realized that in doing this she was also undermining her level of student achievement, something she took great pride in. Naturally, in her absence parents inquired about what was going on. When will she return? Is she okay? I had no definitive answers. I’d reach out to Mrs. Olson to “check in” to see how she was doing. “Hope you are feeling better. Any idea when you will return?” A few hours pass and I get a reply, “Waiting on the doctors to let me know. Will keep you posted.”
Mrs. Edwards was either a member of a very large family or the central figure in an organized crime syndicate. It seemed that every other month she had to take time off to go to assist with the funeral arrangements of another family member. Not only was she attending the funeral service, she was playing a key role in the planning of the services, which required even more days away from work. I contemplated calling law enforcement. How could so much death surround one person. Was she…? Obituary after obituary rolled in as confirmation of deaths. I felt sorry for this woman. I think some family members even died multiple times. “On behalf of the school, please extend our condolences to your family. When is the funeral?”, I’d ask. “Well, we are still making the arrangements. This has hit us all hard. I don’t know when I’ll be able to come back. Will keep you posted.”
Principals don’t get the calls about absences and texts about running late now that schools are closed. It feels like the world as we knew it is now closed. When school reopens, I can’t wait to get my first call or text from a member of my team after having been out of school for months. I wonder who it will be and what will be the reason. Who’s sick? What new appliance is being delivered during school hours? Who is being laid to rest (again)? After this we could all use a good laugh. That text or email is coming, I can feel it. Will keep you posted.
Soundtrack to this blog: Tell Me Lies by Fleetwood Mac