55. The Principal’s Office

I once got sent to the principal’s office. I don’t remember what it was for, but I remember that I didn’t want to go there, I didn’t like being there, and after I’d experienced whatever happened there, I didn’t ever want to go back. And I never did go back, so whatever it was they were trying to get me to do or not do, I must have done or not done from then on. If you think like a diehard behaviorist, the experience was 100% effective.
I don’t think he hit me, but I was so scared that I don’t think he needed to do anything. In fact, he may have even been nice about whatever it was, but by the time I met him, I had already heard enough to form my image of him: he was the punishment bad people got for doing the bad things bad people do. I did not look at him except when he said, “Look at me
when I talk to you!” The tiles on the floor were olive-green with white streaks in them. They were about one foot square, and shiny.
Later, I learned a mnemonic sentence to remember how to spell “principal:” “The principal is your pal.” I was sure that would not help me remember how to spell “principal.” He was no pal of mine. (Ironically, I think remembering that the mnemonic sentence was not true did help me remember how to spell the word.)
When I first started teaching, and for several years thereafter, I used the principal the way I thought principals were supposed to be used. It was common knowledge that the principal was the last resort for dealing with behavior problems. I would gently ask for appropriate behavior, then demand, then threaten, and if all else failed, send the culprit to the principal’s office.
Since then, principals have come a long way. I have worked for principals who have not wanted to be feared. The principal’s office became a place where children got some extra appreciation. This bothered some teachers. “Now where do I send children who misbehave?” For me, it was a relief. I liked having the buck stop in the classroom. Children grew to know that I would occasionally send someone to the principal’s office to show off some excellent work, but I never sent them to the office with the shiny olive-green tiles on the floor.
The role of principal, one I have never wanted for myself, is to be many things for many people. Some teachers can be annoyed if they perceive this person as a “parents’ principal.” And vice versa. Some teachers want a demon in a dark cave called “the principal’s office.” Some, like me, want a principal who is a pal. And most want something in between.

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