As a child of the 1980s, I cheered on Ferris Bueller as he played hooky to hang out with his pals on his day off and rooted for John Bender as he snuck out of detention with the Breakfast Club. In both of these films, the school administrator served as the villain. Both Dean Edward Rooney and Assistant Principal Richard Vernon had the same goal: Take down the problem student and make his life miserable.
While I have to admit that these preposterous characterizations are often hilarious, they perpetuate a damaging stereotype that school administrators are ruthless disciplinarians who are out of touch with students. When I first became an associate principal, I found myself fighting against this stereotype. My office was a negative place where students only came to receive discipline. How could I redefine my role as an administrator and forge a new approach with students?
I realized that I had to change the perception of what a trip to the principal’s office meant for students. Instead of dreading the visit, students now come to my office to engage in school and with me in a positive way. Here are four strategies I used to disarm the administrator stereotype and use my office as a way to help students:
- Offer a Safe Place for Students
Students are constantly in search of acceptance and comfort, so why not find it in the most unlikely of places: the principal’s office. Let your office be a sanctuary to vent, expel negativity, and reset. When I see a student struggling, I invite him or her to my office. Sometimes that student wants to talk about what is going on, and sometimes that student just wants a quiet place to get away from the school drama.
- Allow Kids to Work
Instead of your office being a place where you have to react to bad student behavior, make it a place for students to share their ideas and abilities by letting them work from your office. I allow our school’s iCARE team to work from my office throughout the week. They plan events, make calls, create flyers, and more. This arrangement allows me ample opportunity to build relationships with students while advising them on their student initiatives.
- Invite Students to Eat Lunch
I’ve learned that the more I can connect with students, the better. Lunchtime is a great way to develop relationships and connect with kids on a personal level. In addition to our highly motivated, high-end achievers, I also invite our disenfranchised and marginalized students to lunch. I listen to them talk about school, learn about their unique talents, and offer ways for them to get involved. I see my office as a place to bring students together and help them learn and grow, not as a place of punishment. In these interactions, I place a large emphasis on listening, since children rarely have a real chance to talk with an adult who will listen without interruption and give unsolicited advice.
- Celebrate Students
Show students that they are the heart of the school by displaying their work in your office. I have pictures of students from their performances and sporting events lining the walls. I showcase artwork, classroom projects, and school activities. When students visit, they love to look at these artifacts; they serve as great conversation starters. Students feel proud to see their work on display.
Perhaps Ferris Bueller and John Bender could have survived the late 20th-century school blues with a touch of empathy and injection of self-worth from their school leader. As administrators, we must reshape our roles and find positive ways to work with students.
How have you worked to change school leader stereotypes? How do you make your office a positive place where students like to go?
Thomas Kachadurian is an associate principal at South Colonie Central High School in Albany, NY. He was the 2017 New York Assistant Principal of the Year.