Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.
What can be the most challenging part of teaching? Is it the students or the curriculum? Try something else -- such as the fickle relationship between teachers and administrators. Whether it’s a principal, vice-principal, program coordinator or a district office administrator, all or most teachers have had to deal with the best and worst of this lot.
The best can make working in a school environment fun, challenging and rewarding. The bad ones can chase the good teachers away or create an extremely hostile environment.
In my years as a substitute teacher and special educator, I’ve had to deal with a lot of administrators. In most cases the experience was positive; on the other hand, the bad ones had profound impacts on my life, as well as on my teaching career.
The bad ones stand out in many ways. Unfortunately, they are the memorable ones. Even my parents (who were teachers for more than 30 years) tell stories about their “bad administrator” encounters.
There are many forms of incompetence that define the bad administrators. One can label them with such titles as “Too-Sweet Principal”, “Lackey” or “Bully”. The following are identifications and accounts of these bad administrators. Most of them were (or still are) principals, but there were a few vice-principals. Their real names are not given, considering that many still hold some form of power in various school districts throughout Southern California.
The Too-Sweet Principal
Some administrators try too hard to be nice and sweet. They believe a little TLC will go a long way. But, unfortunately, these friendly happy-go-lucky – and very trusting -- administrators lack the ability to see danger approaching. Or worst yet, they are naive about human nature.
One very nice principal who took over a very troubled high school comes to mind. That year, racial tension among the student body was high. Also, fear of budget cuts and layoffs were making teachers very edgy. It was a powder keg ready to explode.
At the start, many of these problems were restrained. The principal kept a serene façade and all seemed well. She talked to teachers and students, but never really dug deep to find out what was really going on with them. She strode down hallways, not really stepping into classes. Also, she never attempted to take on tardy students she spotted. She smiled and politely told them to get to class and then walked away. Most didn’t bother to head to class until a security or a vice-principal spotted them.
If the first month was serene, the second one was its antithesis. In one department, teachers started bickering with one another. She heard about it and came to a collaboration meeting to state passively: “We are here and we need to work with one another.” The bickering continued after that speech. She never returned after that.
Finally, by the third and fourth month, the tension between the students exploded. Within a short span three riots broke out. In each case, the local police in riot gear were called in to break up the fights. Also, the school went into lock-down in which teachers, staff and students were forced to stay in classrooms until police officers released them.
The final incident was the biggest. There were twenty police cars in the parking lot and streets surrounding the school. Close to forty police officers spread out across the campus arresting any student they could get their hands on.
Obviously, the event didn’t sit well with the district office. The principal was reassigned to a DO position after the first semester there.
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The Talking Principal
There was another principal that lasted a semester. This one was not necessarily embraced by the teachers. For starters, he was replacing a very effective and popular principal.
Secondly, he had been reassigned from his previous position as principal at another school in the district. Rumor had it that he supposedly had a relationship with another administrator at the school. In truth, he couldn’t get along with the previous school’s administrators and with the district office officials. He was accused of being extremely rude to teachers and staff, too.
Still, he will be remembered as the “talking principal”. He had a long-winded way of getting to his point during collaboration meetings. He managed to talk nonsense until the allotted time given for these meetings had run its course. By that time, nobody had any inkling as what the meeting was about.
As for his duty as a principal, you ask? Well, let’s just say we had a few very talented, dedicated assistant principals that ran the school. There was no doubt that the four individuals were the leaders the school needed at the time.
By Winter Break, however, he stopped talking; he resigned and was never seen (or heard from) again.
He had no real experience and admitted this to a handful of teachers he talked to. At least he was honest.
A mentor teacher told the story of a middle school principal. During his tenure, he made a few announcements at the beginning of the year, met a few teachers, and then “vanished” for an entire year. He spent that time in the principal’s office with only the PA to communicate with the school.
How can a principal operate a school from the office? Obviously you can’t. He was gone within a year and no one at the campus really noticed. Luckily, this was an isolated matter, right?
Unfortunately my father related another story. A principal had been appointed to his middle school campus. He had no real experience and admitted this to a handful of teachers he talked to. At least he was honest.
My father reported that during this principal’s tenure, he’d briefly walk around the campus in the morning and then return to his office, close the door, and start chain-smoking for the rest of the day.
The Diploma Mill Principal
Speaking of bad principals my mother and father had to endure, one always seems to come up. One particular administrator was definitely not equipped for the job, educationally or mentally. However, his incompetence was lost on him. According to my father, he believed he was the greatest thing to ever happen to education. Well, too bad, he didn’t get his credentials the proper way in order to continue his delusion.
Problems with his abilities were quickly spotted early in his tenure. His math skills were lousy as was his language skills. He often barked orders and believed in punitive actions against anyone that spoke up against him.
District officials got wind of his action (often they are last to know or react) and someone had the fortitude to investigate him. Immediately, red flags were raised when it was discovered that he received his “doctorate” through a notorious mail-in diploma-mill. That was enough to get him removed from the school (although rumors persisted that he was merely moved to the district office).
Several years later, my father went to a lecture held by a psychologist. His topic was on the functionally insane (those that are considered insane, but are able to function in a job). As part of his way to illustrate his point, the psychologist mentioned the The Diploma Mill Principal as a prime example.
The Bully was demolished by the opinions of the teachers. He received a vote of no-confidence from teacher and staff members at the school
The Un-Dynamic Duo
I saved these two for last. In part, one person, a principal, has been mentioned in minute details in another article (see link below). However, what wasn’t mentioned was that he had a nickname among the teacher, staff, and other administrators. And, he had an accomplice, who happened to be an assistant principal.
They were known as the Bully and the Lackey. The Bully used to threaten teachers through e-mails and ridiculous punitive actions against anyone that questioned his authority. The Lackey supported his actions and was, herself, attempting to act like him.
This un-dynamic duo had another thing in common; they made horrible administrative decisions that may have had ulterior motives. In one example, the Bully managed to expel or transfer several students for minor infractions. In many cases, it had to do with absences; however, those that were targeted came from the same group of students: English Language Development (ELD).
Teachers and staff speculated on the move. Many believed the action was meant to remove students who often under-performed on state exams. As a result, his move was to improve the school’s overall state test scores and made him look like an effective school reformer.
The Lackey also made bizarre administrative moves. Many of them affected one of three departments she overlooked. The department most negatively impacted by her moves was the special education department.
In one case, she reassigned instructional assistants for each special education teacher. This occurred in the middle of the first semester. In some cases, the teacher and instructional assistant had been working together for years. This move created a lot of havoc in the classroom (mine included). In the previous nine years, I had only one instructional assistant. During this particular year, the instructional assistant assigned to me changed hands three times.
The Lackey also messed with the teachers’ teaching assignments. In the two years she was in charge of special education, nearly every teacher in that department was teaching outside their subject areas. Those who taught social studies were teaching English or Math. Those that traditionally taught English were given social studies or science courses. In some cases, the teacher was given two or more subjects to teach.
Many special education teachers (including me) pleaded to have this corrected – an act in which those that want to teach one subject can do so by swapping with somebody who wanted the teach something else. Teachers were willing and the swap would have been clean and efficient.
The Lackey didn’t budge. Her reason: “We just don’t have enough students to do that.”
Eventually, there were open confrontations on campus and on the Internet. Some teachers openly denounced the Lackey. She managed to enrage parents too, near the end of her tenure she was battling them and their children.
The Bully was demolished by the opinions of the teachers. He received a vote of no-confidence from teacher and staff members at the school. However, this action didn’t lead to his demise. He happened to be good friends with the assistant superintendent at the time.
Finally, after rumors circulated that the Bully was being investigated by the district’s Special Education Director for placing their students in Honor courses (without the required assessments), he gleefully quit (in part, the assistant superintendent had resigned the previous month) and found work elsewhere (thanks to that “friend” of his).
The Lackey, on the other hand, had her contract terminated for the following year. She would eventually become a principal at an elementary school in a nearby district.
The impact of the un-dynamic duo didn’t last long. In the years following their departure, the school staff and faculty trudged along and eventually united behind some competent principals. Still, the job wasn’t easy. Trust had to be built and some disastrous policies had to be rectified.
As mentioned, good administrators can propel schools in the right direction. That person will have leadership skills, in which he/she can balance firm but fair rules with a dash of flexibility to meet any needs. Also, most importantly, they respect, listen and adhere (when needed) to the faculty, staff, and students under his/her directions.
Sometimes, this process takes months or years to build and to affect the school in a positive way. Bad administrators, on the other hand, can take mere days or weeks to destroy a school’s delicate infrastructure and morale.
Many of these bad administrators mentioned have moved on or were let go from their position. Some may have learned their lesson while others continue their follies in new settings. It’s best to identify them and do everything in your power to fight them (through union or legal means, of course) or to avoid them, all together. Or better yet, grow professionally and become an administrator because you’ll know the difference between good and bad leadership –which I plan to do.
© 2016 Dean Traylor
Steve Baxter on January 30, 2020:
Most principals nowadays are in their late thirties. They were horrible teachers, so they became administrators. Sadly, none of these opportunistic climbers are actual managers. Thus, they sucked as teacher, and suck even worse as a principal, and we all have to live with it because in the world of education, in British Columbia anyways, there is ABSOLUTELY no accountability.
Joe silva on January 12, 2020:
Tularosa NM school districts. Middle school principle 2019 told all the students she had more power in school then the local police department. Went to the police dept. To file a complaint they said to call the superindented, I did,
The police are called at the principles convience. The principle blamed our son of stealing keys from her, she filed a complaint against our son and had the police come to our home at night even. The keys were in her pocket the whole time. No apology for falsey accusing our son of stealing. The chief of police is a good man, but, his hands are tied. We need ice agents here, this school and town are full of illegal aliens drugs gangs, while indigenous children lose on their education because the illegals get everything and screw the indigenous students. This princple is abusing her powers as a educator. dull knife
Eireann on August 05, 2018:
I believe education is rife with incompetent administrators and yet in the conversations about improving schools, the focus is always on bad teachers. I would like some of the focus to move to incompetent administrators and the administrators who hired them—also probably incompetent. It’s not always the teachers fault. Let’s shift some accountability to the people at the top for a change.
Jeanette on June 04, 2016:
I had mostly good teacher, and one lets's just say there are better ones. I was bullied on the bus