By Tom Balitewicz
Doctoral Student of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University
Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University
In the late 1800’s, before the advent of the Edison light bulb and the electrical current to illuminate it, humans unshrouded the darkness with the power of hand-held lamps fueled by kerosene, a refined product of oil. The earth was perforated with thousands of wells with the intention of drawing millions of barrels of oil to create light in homes during a time when most of humankind was still living by a solar clock. Kerosene was king during the reign of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil.
For years, Rockefeller dominated the industry … eventually, a magnate on the world stage. However, much to Rockefeller’s chagrin, an Edison invention, paired with Tesla’s alternating current power, created inexpensive, stable and seemingly permanent light throughout a home or city. Ultimately, these inventions would supplant the kerosene lamp. Realizing his empire was in peril, Rockefeller turned again to his rivers of petroleum, extracting from the earth in the midst of his own personal crisis, a new byproduct, gasoline.
We served as principals in two different decades, yet our experiences with the byproducts of our profession found similarity in their evolutionary development, albeit through tragedy.
One of us served as principal on December 14, 2012, when one of most horrific events in American history occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. The loss of innocent lives was incomprehensible, and the reverberations of the tragedy are still felt today. The aftermath was sadly reminiscent of the school shooting at Columbine High School, in Columbine, Colorado, on April 20, 1999, when another of us served in a similar capacity. Through the ripple effects of both experiences, a reevaluation and reconfiguration of school security and the principalship took place across every school district in the United States. Both Sandy Hook and Columbine, as well as the hundreds of tragedies that did not garner national headlines, created professional byproducts that we experience in the principalship today.
One of the many changes expected in schools across our nation was the limitation of public access to school buildings, particularly as it pertained to traffic through student entrances in the morning and afternoon, as well as during the school day. Principals were charged with ensuring that without fail, entrances were better supervised; staff member were stationed at schoolhouse doors not only to welcome students as they entered into school, but also to visibly scan for those who could pose a threat. During the days, doors were locked.
This came as an intrusion into many of our routines. Some of us at the secondary level disliked the job at the beginning, as standing by a door for 70 minutes each morning seemed “oddly elementary.” Others candidly shared it was a waste of “our valuable time.”
What about families who needed our return calls?
What about parents needing our time before rushing to work?
What about the hallways or commons areas that needed patrolling?
What about supervision for morning detention?
What about ..?
Prior to such national events, it seemed that for principals, our mornings were “ours.” We would arrive at school early to plan for the day, to return correspondence, to push paper and pencil, and to review the building for cleanliness. With our changing circumstances, the principalship became more scripted from without. We embraced our new responsibilities as best we could for the safety of our children. Some of us thought, especially in the wake of the first tragedy, What the heck, eventually the dust will settle, and with some good fortune, we can get back to normal.
We know now that this probably will not be the case.
As with both Columbine and Newtown, the first week or so had profound relevance to all involved in the “new normal.” Even though these towns were thousands of miles away from us, many in our care were shaken. Some students were fearful to attend school; many families were afraid to send them. Thus, a principal’s presence at the front door had a calming effect on most everyone. A principal standing by a door communicated security; it represented the notion, “Not on my watch!”
In both circumstances, with the first couple weeks of each tragedy in the rearview mirror, students segued into their developmentally appropriate, catatonic states in the morning. As a result, it seemed that our newfound morning jobs lost their luster.
Front door duty became a bit boring for the principal.
A new game was needed; new byproducts needed manufacture.
We needed Gasoline.
In both of our leadership circumstances, a decade apart, a similar byproduct seemed to emerge within us. It involved using our time at the front door as a teachable moment – one in which we would teach ourselves a thing or two; one in which we would teach others. One in which all would learn as a result.
Whether through greeting everyone who entered with a robust “Good morning” or through challenging ourselves to manufacture something positive from each day’s better-than-yesterday’s door challenge, it was GAME ON! Not only did we find that our new game resulted in more positive connections with students and the families, we found that it also had a positive effect upon the acuity with which we could serve as diagnosticians of learning.
A school-readiness check-up presented itself to our principalships each day.
Students, over time, learned to expect our daily greetings; many even depended on them. Little would they know we were teaching, learning, gauging, and referring. On days we could not be by the door, students would share that they missed our morning banter. One student even told her mom that she had to be dropped off at Door Two because that is “where [her principal] was,” and it was her ritual to say “Hello” in the morning.
Byproducts such as these have allowed leadership to perform exploratory surgery into lives of students, establishing authentic connections that have allowed for higher levels of understanding and trust. These byproducts also have given us an opportunity to demonstrate the caring spirit that we have for all of our students. They have invited us into deepened leadership efficacy through better ways of knowing.
Principals at the door certainly enhance security, but with our new game, we can also enhance acuity as well. Each morning, we are better able to see our students who are dropped off in Escalades, as well as those deposited in Chrysler K’s. We now better see the warm embrace between child and parent, or conversely the slammed door that stomps to the schoolhouse. Either way, as principals, our new byproduct now allows us to be the first to influence “what happens next” in a child’s life.
The merits of gasoline are, at times, debated, but couldn't we say that it is much more useful in society today than our original use of kerosene? Would this be similar in evolutionary circumstance to the fact that our new byproduct in K-12 leadership is now much more rich, rewarding, and results-driven, than that which we led with prior?
Tom Balitewicz and Ryan Donlan welcome the opportunity to learn more about the ways in which you connect with your students for deepened abilities as diagnosticians of learning. Will you please consider contacting them at firstname.lastname@example.org or at email@example.com. They would definitely enjoy the conversation!