April 16, 2021 Message to Members
“When I grow up…”
“I want to be a Vice-Principal when I grow up,” said no six-year-old ever! In grade one, I wanted to be a pilot. Then, in junior high school, it was an architect. I had no idea what an architect did, but Mr. Brady was one. Because of this, he had a cool home office and took holidays at the Grand Canyon. And he didn’t have to get dirty. My own father was a welder, then a logger, then a paver, and he retired as a millwright. Dad is good with his hands, and was always dirty. He really liked getting in it up to his elbows, literally; me, not so much. Mr. Brady wore cool slacks to work and even a fringed vest one time. It was the ‘70s.
But very near the end of grade 12, my aspiration changed: I would be a teacher. I entered my first year of post-secondary and immediately declared my ultimate degree and my major; I was that certain of my choice. Good thing I didn’t fail in my practicum four years later – I don’t know what I would have done!
I don’t remember exactly when I decided to be a Vice-Principal. How did this evolution even come about, when my earliest experience with a Vice-Principal was rather traumatic? Mr. D. was both my Vice-Principal and my PE teacher in grade one. Apparently, one day after gym class, I was behaving irresponsibly around the water fountain. This behaviour earned me a little kick in the pants – literally – followed by a handshake to help stave off the tears. This was 1970, after all. Later, John Hughes’ film depictions of Vice-Principals offered caricatures, not inspirations.
When I think about it, my becoming a Vice-Principal was more an opportunity than an aspiration. After several years of teaching, I spent a year in an exchange with a teacher from the UK. Late in the Fall of the year when I returned to my school, the Vice-Principal position was posted. A few voices on staff, the Principal among them, encouraged me to apply – you know: the ‘shoulder tap’. During my year abroad, I had become accustomed to wearing a tie every day, so I figured that enhanced my qualifications. I had also spent five years as the high school counsellor, building timetables and working through many situations of conflict – more valuable experience, strengthening my candidacy. I had sponsored and led many clubs, teams, and groups. I had followers among staff and students, another qualification of leadership. And besides, I had just turned 30! It was probably time for this transition. Although I’d never aspired to formal school leadership, I submitted my application, flattered by the support, naïve to the reality of the job, and confident that the job would not change me.
The short list was short… actually, the long list was pretty short, too. Nonetheless, it was a competition, and I ‘won’. And it felt like a win. I was very proud of this accomplishment, and I didn’t take personally the friendly jibes about my move to the dark side. Yet, I wasn’t too long in the role before I discovered the truth of just how I had changed… or at least how the perception and expectations of me had changed. Two events, in particular, come to mind when I think about this transformation.
As I have mentioned, I was one of the counsellors at the school. In addition to the coaching and the clubs, this role established a rapport with students that was founded in trust and confidence. I truly believed I would carry this relationship with our students into my new office. It was on the first occasion, when I had to investigate an incident of theft, that I would discover otherwise.
Bear in mind this incident took place well before the days of security cameras in every corner. In short, someone had managed to enter a storage closet and help themselves to the pop supply (pre-vending-machine-ban)! Like a detective, I gathered my evidence which included potential witnesses. As a counsellor, I had gained experience in piecing events together, and I was pretty good at it. One of the witnesses was ‘Tim’; I had a great working relationship with Tim. He was a super kid with a great wit who always made me laugh. We weren’t laughing when I interviewed him, though. He took the whole process very seriously, and cooperated completely. When he assured me that he was telling me everything he knew, I believed him. It was Tim! Of course he would be forthcoming and honest with me. I’ll never forget how hurt his betrayal made me feel.
Through my investigations into ‘Crushgate’, I discovered that Tim had been less than truthful. I was compelled to follow up with him to share my disappointment. He was sheepish and apologetic, but he justified his lie with one line. When I asked him why he would lie to me when we had a history of trust, he said “Because you’re the Vice-Principal.” He said this as if it were an unwritten law, and it began to sink in for me.
The realization of how my role changed was cemented in the days to follow. One typical morning, as I travelled through the halls, I stepped into a classroom to say good morning to the teacher and the class. This was something I had done hundreds, if not thousands, of times as a teacher and counsellor. However, on this morning when I stepped into the room, a discernible shift passed through the class like a wave. I could swear the students suddenly sat up straighter, and did their voices really just drop to a hush? I was struck by this reception. I was still a teacher, and I still spent a lot of time in counselling students, but on a certain level, I wasn’t those things anymore: I was now a Vice-Principal. It would be many years before I learned the vocabulary to recognize positional authority.
In time, I learned to negotiate the change in my role within the whole of my school community. My relationships with our staff and our wider community would morph to a certain degree as well. In so many ways, my relationships with students, families, staff members, and communities grew to be more rich, more consequential, and more distributed than those I had forged as a teacher and counsellor.
Although I may have stepped into this role naïve and unschooled about the demands of leadership – and the challenges have been many, some painful – I can say with honesty that I look back without regrets. The rewards of school leadership have been profound. However, a little more preparation, insight, and learning about school leadership in BC would have been great at the start.
Well, the landscape has changed on that point and maybe, too, has the hiring pool! The BCPVPA will launch an introduction to school leadership this weekend, and it is clear that among the educators in BC, there are many who aspire to leadership positions in our schools. This Saturday, more than 100 of them will gather virtually for the first session of Essentials for Aspiring School Leaders. I have the honour of opening the session with a welcome and some wise words about leadership for this next generation of leaders. I’m excited to meet and assure them that John Hughes got it all wrong, and that this job is way more fun than being an architect!