A Story of Resilience
Crystal Murff Thorpe • Principal Leadership Article
“We do not ask that anyone of our people shall be put into a position because he is a colored person, but we do most emphatically ask that he shall not be kept out of a position because he is a colored person.”—Fanny Jackson Coppin
My administrative journey began more than 20 years ago as an assistant principal under the leadership of a Black woman, Ms. Jones. While interviewing, I remember thinking there was no way I was going to get the job. She already had a Black woman as the dean of students—would another Black administrator be too much? Would other people in the district question why there were so many of “us” in the same school in leadership positions? My white colleagues never give this a second thought, but this is a real question for Black people. To my surprise, she hired me. The school was in a mostly white suburb composed of working-class families under court-ordered desegregation. Black students were bussed from more than 20 minutes away in the inner-city.
During my year of working for Ms. Jones, I listened and learned. I remember sitting in meetings and observing her direct approach to working with teachers. She said what she meant and meant what she said. I also noticed Ms. Jones was very guarded and never got too close with her teachers. I later learned multiple grievances were filed against her for making decisions she deemed best for kids but made teachers unhappy. She was considered an outsider, which kept her emotionally distant. She was feared.
What Leadership Looks Like
The following year, I was named assistant principal in the school district where I previously taught and graduated from, which was also under court-ordered desegregation. This community had transitioned over time from a mostly white, upper-middle-class community to a mixed-race, middle-class to low-income community. My new principal, Mr. Smith, was a white male with a large physical presence—a former football coach. His leadership style was no-nonsense and direct, too. However, unlike Ms. Jones, his relationship with staff was more familial, almost paternal.
In this role, the difference in my job responsibilities, compared to the other assistant principal, was obvious from the start. I had two grade levels of discipline and she had one. When I questioned the division of duties, I was told, “You’re so good at it. Kids respond to you.” But being good at discipline did not stop my recurring stress headaches from parents threatening to “Whoop my butt” for holding their children accountable. I earned the reputation of being the “strong Black woman capable of kicking butt and taking names.”
In 2007, I became the principal of a junior high school in a mostly white, affluent suburban community. It had been named one of the country’s top cities in which to live. I was the first Black principal hired in the entire county, which consists of five separate school corporations. I will never forget the question one school board member asked me, “How will you relate to the white students?” I was caught off guard. Every school I had worked in had a majority white population. Why would this school be any different?
Through my research, I have learned there is a pervasive belief that Black school leaders are more capable of leading schools that enroll mostly students of color and students from low-income families where they are often placed. However, white school leaders are viewed as being capable of leading any school, regardless of its student demographics.
I was so excited to begin the next step in my career: the principalship. Being a school principal was once a highly regarded position in the Black community during times of segregation. As I settled into making last-minute hires and meeting staff and families, I also remember walking around the building to see what I could learn about my new school. Strolling through the library, I came across the Norman Rockwell painting, “The Problem We All Live With,” of Ruby Bridges. Ms. Bridges was the first Black student to integrate William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana in 1960. It depicts Ruby being escorted by armed guards due to threats of violence against her. What startled me was that in this picture the word N-I-G-G-E-R was featured prominently in the background. Now, I have seen this picture with the N-word and without, and I could not help but think about how this made my Black students feel. I immediately threw it away.
The previous principal, who had held the role since the school opened, would remain as a teacher in my building. No one thought his presence would be problematic for me. However, years later when my cafeteria manager retired and wanted to come back to work as a substitute cook, the district administration told her “No” because it would be a conflict of interest. No one saw the double standard of my situation and my cafeteria manager. No one seemed to think having the former principal, a well-respected leader, remain in the building with the new principal would be an issue. This taught me to be self-assured in my position as the new leader—I had to be. But sometimes my confidence gets misconstrued as arrogance.
One of my first days on the job, a teacher told me, “The only reason you got this job is because there is a growing Black population and more poor students coming to this school, so they needed a Black person to fix it.” She was not malicious, just matter of fact. I am sure others thought the same. Interestingly, the population of Black students in my school was 10% compared to 5% in the district, and our population of students receiving free and reduced-price lunch was 16%. I told her, “No, I obtained this job because I am highly qualified.” It seems like I must have more degrees, credentials, certifications than others just to prove my abilities. For some, there had to be a “real” reason why I was hired because what I had to offer wasn’t enough.
As a principal, I have been publicly humiliated, silenced, minimized, and ignored. I have served under more than six superintendents during my tenure. A superintendent once tossed peanut butter crackers at me during an administrative team meeting because my school raised the least amount of money for a fundraiser. Another principal received a cake for his “excellent job” of fundraising. A week later, the superintendent apologized, but the peanut butter crackers are still in my desk drawer.
Standing Up and Standing Out
People have commented on how articulate I am. This is not a compliment. Peers have been promoted with fewer years of experience and education due to the good old boys’ network. When my school recorded the highest academic growth percentages on our state standardized tests in our entire district, we were not celebrated—we were considered an anomaly, even though we incorporated reading and writing across the curriculum in all subject areas. A few parents will request to meet with my assistant principal rather than with me. When I remind them that he works for me, demeanors change—shock, dismissiveness, or pride—when people learn I am the principal. Microaggressions are real.
For most of my years, I have been the token person of color where people look to me to represent all Black people and their experiences. If you have been a token, you understand what it is like to be in a room where no one else looks like you or understands your experiences. Your mistakes are amplified more than others. People notice when you are not in the room. A token is also ignored. I have been in meetings where racist jokes were shared, and I had to remind people why they were offensive. Once, in a district cultural competency meeting, teachers became angry with me when I questioned their slavery simulation unit of having fourth graders run from room to room to escape the slave catchers. Teachers shared, “It was their favorite lesson, and students enjoyed it.” I told them it was “hide and seek.” I reminded them that slavery was not a game. If I speak up, I am a know-it-all, but if I stay quiet, I am not sharing. When your voice (or skin color) does not mimic the masses, sometimes you shut up and shut down. You become silent whether you choose to or not. It is a lonely place, and I’ve sat at my desk in tears on several occasions.
I have been mischaracterized as the angry black woman when I disagree or advocate for what I strongly believe in. This serves to minimize my emotions and write me off as less than credible. I have never screamed, shouted, or even been disrespectful in any scenario. “It’s your tone,” they say when they do not like what I am saying. However, I suspect it is because of my brown skin. But it is interesting when a white male colleague can cuss and get loud in public meetings, and he isn’t labeled as angry. “That’s just Jake,” they say. His rage is acceptable, and he gets a pass. However, I cannot show emotions out of fear that I will be negatively labeled.
High Expectations for All
A new junior high school opened the year I was hired, and my school did, in fact, have the highest number of students of color and students receiving free and reduced-price lunch. Staff members said we were labeled the “ghetto” school where many families, including district employees, did not want to send their children. With this knowledge, my mission was to transform the community’s perception of our school. My principal “superpower” is cultivating relationships.
I met with all my teachers, listened to their concerns, and identified the leaders. A marketing director taught us how to share our stories. Newsletters contained information about the wonderful programs we offered and highlighted teachers’ accomplishments. A diversity consultant taught staff the importance of relationships and high expectations for ALL students, especially the ones who did not look like them or live in their neighborhoods. For the first several years, as our population of students of color and students receiving free and reduced-price lunch grew, our state standardized test scores continued to improve as well, and learning gaps decreased. My staff bought into the vision of “high expectations for all, no excuses!”
Our school has had many successes. My leadership philosophy is to “take care of my teachers first, so they can take care of who matters most, our students.” As a result, my staff takes great care of me. Together, we have created a school community of which I am extremely proud. We model collective efficacy, and our teacher turnover rate is extremely low. Together, we have transformed into a school where people want to send their children. Over the years, we have developed numerous clubs and activities to create a sense of belonging, such as the Robotics Club, Culture Club, Scrapbooking, Rook and Roll Chess Club, Girls Empowerment Group, K-Pop, Student Alliance for Equity, and the Gay/Straight Alliance Club. We offer many more.
My award-winning teachers have presented at local and national conferences on topics such as incorporating literacy in physical education classes, creating community in the classroom, integrating technology in performing arts, and effective co-teaching of English as a new language and science classes. As a staff, we genuinely like and respect each other. I am a fierce advocate of teachers pursuing their dreams and taking risks, and I provide the resources to ensure success.
Our school has won the national “We the People” competition five times and has been featured in The Washington Post for a cartoon editorial titled, “COVID Reflections From the Unmuted Middle!” Our yearbook won the national Key Award in its first year. We have implemented an “All School Day of Service” where all students learn the importance of community and making a difference for others. Our International Fair celebrates the more than 60 cultures representing our school and has become a communitywide event. We have designed engaging courses with real-life applications such as our Charger Magazine, our digital design class, and film theory class. We have been featured in Education Week twice due to one teacher’s efforts to combine social issues and math instruction. Algebra students studied circadian rhythms and their impact on student sleep patterns. They wrote letters and presented their findings to our school board as our district discussed changes to school start times. As a result of this teacher’s work, our school will be featured in an upcoming documentary on innovative math instruction. My school is a special place, and I love telling others about it!
A Tough but Rewarding Road
Despite the obstacles I have faced, I love serving my staff, students, and community. I am so thankful to the superintendent who saw beyond the color of my skin and gave me an opportunity to become a principal in a mostly white district. Over the years, I have amassed an amazing network of mentors and colleagues of all races who have supported me. I challenge my white colleagues to give leaders of color a chance. School leaders need to examine their own biases and reimagine what leadership looks like. Leading while Black has not been easy, but I am determined to be an example to others. As the Principal-in-Residence at the University of Indianapolis (UI), adjunct professor at UI and American College of Education, and guest speaker at UI and Ball State University, I continue spreading the message of diversity, equity, and inclusion in school leadership to anyone who will listen. As vice president of the Indiana Association of School Principals, my mission is to grow and nurture more Black leaders across our state by dispelling stereotypes and misperceptions.
Researchers say the average tenure of a principal is four years, and only 11% of principals in the United States are Black. I consider myself a unicorn among my peers. The intersectionality of race, gender, and culture in relation to school leadership needs to be examined and addressed. Fifteen years later, I am still the only Black principal in my county and my district. My toughest challenge has been navigating the perceptions of others due to implicit bias. It is exhausting, and sometimes I want to give up. But resiliency—the ability to overcome adversity and find inner strength to cope with hardship—has been my lifeline. Being named Principal of the Year for the State of Indiana has been an incredible experience. It lets me know that I am doing the work I was called to do and making a positive difference. I thank God for all of my experiences—each and every one of them!
Crystal Murff Thorpe, PhD, is the principal of Fishers Junior High School in Fishers, IN. She is also the 2021 Indiana Principal of the Year.