It may not be an entirely unappreciated job, but it’s one with plenty of external stresses, much of which comes from critical eyes. Principals must cope with more than just the scholarly pursuits of their students. They also must respond to the demands of parents, district administrators and state and federal governments.
Principals must keep order in a school filled with hundreds — sometimes thousands — of pupils, each of whom comes with his or her own set of personal challenges. Principals are responsible for each child’s safety, an ever more challenging task in today’s world marred by school gun violence.
And they do it all with severely limited public funding, while working with unfunded mandates.
When Fall Branch Elementary School Principal Mark Merriman asked me to be “principal for the day” — an annual awareness project in Washington County Schools — I thought back to my own principal at Kingsport’s Andrew Johnson Elementary School in the 1970s, the unflappable Tom Milam.
From a young boy’s perspective, Mr. Milam was mainly a disciplinarian, the guy you had to see when you talked back to your teacher, pulled a prank, pushed another kid on the playground or forgot your homework for the umpteenth time.
But in upper grades, Mr. Milam chaperoned our weeklong field trips to environmental camps. He hiked with us. He tucked us into our bunks at night. He wore jeans and no tie. He laughed and told jokes. Who knew he was an actual person? My perspective on Mr. Milam was never the same.
On Friday, with Mr. Milam in mind, I looped on a tie for the first time in months and headed to Fall Branch. I was immediately struck by the fact that Mr. Merriman knew each child’s name as he greeted the pupils with handshakes at the door.
Later as we toured the school, I realized he knew much more than their names. He knew their academic successes and deficiencies, their disciplinary requirements and most importantly the personal circumstances affecting their school performances. He encouraged them, was stern when necessary, and smiled when they did well.
Meanwhile, he balanced his watch over classroom academics with a fire drill, a teacher who suddenly needed a substitute, a student who required his attention and more.
This was in the span of two hours. I dare say more happens in a principal’s first few hours than a whole day in most jobs.
After our morning rounds, we joined the school district’s other principals for a day in a luncheon at the central office, where we heard similar stories about the experience.
So here’s to Mark Merriman, the late Tom Milam and other principals out there who tend to our kids’ needs.
The next time you see your child’s principal, offer a handshake, a smile and those two little words. It will mean more than you know.
Sam Watson is content director for Johnson City Press. He spent more than 18 years as the newspaper’s education writer. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/SamWatsonJCP.