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.