This narrative of a critical incident relates to events I experienced during my fifth year as an elementary school principal in a small town in
The context of my narrative is as follows. I was a “teaching principal” in a JK-8 school located in a small town in rural central
My school was located at the extreme edge of a geographically large school district, so my supervisor, an “area superintendent” for the large school district, did not visit my little rural school often, preferring to rely on telephone conversations. In any case, after four years at the school as a principal, things were running pretty smoothly. I had developed a reputation as a young but effective school administrator. In retrospect I can see that I was perceived as an “instructional leader.” While I didn’t realize it at the time, I was very focused on curricular programs and school district initiatives as a way to build consensus among staff. No wonder the superintendents considered me a good little soldier! Specific curricular innovations tended to be adopted as our school improvement projects and my notion of protecting the best interests of students was through well run curricular programs, conscientious teaching, and good resources.
This was the early 80’s so Special Education legislation was a big priority at the district office. We educators were experiencing a shocking increase in paperwork and documentation related to identifying and accommodating the needs of students with special needs. Parents were now required by law to be members of committees and students identified as having special needs had to have individual learning plans. This was the beginning of the big accountability push that is still with us today. I recall keeping track for two weeks of how my admin time was being used as part of a master’s degree project and was shocked to discover that a full 50% of my admin time was now directed to special education related activities. But I didn’t mind because I intuitively sensed that I could used these newly identified students with special needs as a lever to procure additional resources and support for my school, my teachers and my students. Being a principal of a small school in those days meant you needed a strong entrepreneurial streak and the instincts of a used car salesman. If there was a grant or free resource available from the district, I was all over it. I even used to beg sample copies of reading texts and math textbooks from my colleagues in other schools. One advantage of small grade groupings is that one could quickly accumulate enough books for a “class set” that way.
At some point in the Fall semester of that year the superintendents and school district announced and “implemented” (a new word for us in those days) their new policy for special education procedures in the district. I studied it carefully, mostly with the intent of mining it as a source of additional resources for the school, but also because I was in the habit of using new policies and curricular innovations as a professional focus for the staff. One component of the new policy indicated that funding was available for hiring classroom assistants in support of children identified with learning disabilities. This really grabbed my attention because we really needed some help with of special needs kids.
In compliance with the requirements of this new policy, we as a staff formed an “IPRC” (need identification) committee and carefully documented the needs of students, most of whom we were already accommodating informally. By late in the Fall term, and as a result of some formalized testing, it became apparent that a little boy in particular, a grade five student, had a significant learning disability and, according to the terms of the policy, was a prime candidate for having a teaching assistant assigned to support him in the classroom. There were forms to fill out and protocols to be followed in order to get this kind of support. We complied to the policy protocols with the greatest care. I consulted regularly with the superintendent and district coordinator of special education, and by about mid-November all was submitted. I even had the names and resumes for several potentially good hires to fill the new teaching aide position we were expecting and I informed the staff that I was confident we have our new staff member in place by start of term in January. I should also mention that quite a few schools in our district, especially those located in the city where the district office is located, had managed to have teaching aides assigned to them throughout the first semester.
January came and there was no new aide. I contacted my superintendent and asked if we had failed to provide something he needed and when we could expect to have our new classroom aide. He was slow replying and, when he did, informed us that he needed to visit the school and see this child himself before he could make a judgment about allocating more resources. It took a few weeks to get him to the school. When he did come, I made sure the boy’s Mom, who was a member of the IPRC committee of course, was there. Our part time special education teacher had all the paperwork and test scores and minutes of meetings ready for the superintendent to examine. The superintendent visited the school and classroom and then left without making any commitment, although I certainly asked.
As more weeks went by, I became pretty frustrated. The policy was clear. We had done the paperwork. And to my mind it was a no-brainer, the boy needed the help and the policy said we were entitled to the additional support. Why was the superintendent delaying a decision that was so obvious? Indeed, many other schools in the district had received additional support in the classroom for very similar cases. I became more insistent with my phone calls. Finally the superintendent informed me that there was no more money for teachers aides, that the budget had been completely expended for the year. I refused to accept that answer. The policy was clear and there was no mention of budgetary limits. Why should my school be denied support so readily provided to other schools? Indeed, all the rhetoric up to now had been about our sacred and legally bound duty as educators to meet the needs of every identified special needs child. I was incensed and more than a little suspicious that our little rural school was once again getting stiffed for resources to which we were entitled. The difference this time is that we were backed by the law and a policy that seemed pretty ironclad. I insisted that the needs of this little boy be met through the appointment of classroom aide. I made it clear that the school community would accept nothing less, hinting broadly of dissatisfied parents calling to protest.
The superintendent visited my school again soon after that conversation. We met in my office. He informed me there would be no new classroom assistant, once again stating that there was no money left for new hires. He then informed me that, beginning the following Monday, my assignment would be altered. I would teach the grade 7 / 8 class 60% of the day. I could carry out my principal’s duties during the time in the afternoon. This was something less than two hours per day. The French teacher who had been my half-time administrative relief in the afternoon, was to work as an aide in the grade five class during the afternoon in support of the little boy needing the extra help. He further added that because I was so deeply committed to the needs of this little boy that I would surely be agreeable to this arrangement.
I felt deeply betrayed, but really had no choice. I started teaching the grade 7 / 8 students history and geography in the afternoon, in addition to the language arts and math I taught in the morning. My relief teacher worked with the little boy as a support teacher for about 1.5 hours each day. I actually found that I enjoyed teaching history and I’m sure my grade 7 / 8 students were beneficiaries of this arrangement, but I was still very offended that I was being punished personally for the district’s failure to provide resources they had guaranteed and were by law required to provide. In what I now understand to be a naïve view of what “policy” means. I believed that if the policy that I dutifully honored and complied with in all respects called for providing support to my students, then that support would be provided. Otherwise, why have the policy?
By the end of that year I had completed my fifth years as a principal. I have always been one for five year cycles and my disenchantment with what I perceived as the superintendent’s unethical actions became the tipping point for a decision –it was time for a change. I began to make plans for leaving education to do something else. I considered law school –something I had seriously looked at as an undergrad in university. I also applied to medical schools at 33 years of age. Most medical schools would not consider me because of my age, but there was a medical school in
Step 1: Interpretation of the Problem (ethic of critique)
I can see now that I had failed to properly understand the perspectives of key stakeholders in this situation. I naively thought the superintendent and the school district were focused by the same in-school, student-oriented agendas I had. I did not realize the extent to which broader organizational and political agendas might exist. I thought we were in accord on objectives and means, and that the policy accurately and literally conveyed the ends and means of meeting the needs of special education students. As a relatively new principal I was aware that some of the larger urban schools often seemed to get more than their due share of resources from the district, but I did not fully appreciate that many of the principals of those schools were every bit as good as me in chasing down those resources.
The conflict or tensions that developed over this situation spilled over a number of arenas of practice. My personal and professional belief systems both gave me the drive and energy to assertively pursue what I interpreted as the best interests of the school. I had also become accustomed to the good will and benevolence of senior district administrators, accorded to a relatively new principal who seemed to be going out of his way to champion their initiatives and policies. I was used to winning. Also, compared to the situation today, the parents were not strong players in this process. There were no strong advocacy groups. The teachers and I were the main advocates for the parents and student.
My personal and professional efforts to bring this matter to a head apparently created tensions for the superintendent and for the school district. I now understand how the new demands for accountability emanating from intensified social expectations for schools created a lot of pressure on the district. This was a relatively turbulent time for educators and school administrators. The demands associated with identifying and documenting the needs of students with special needs was rebalancing the allocation of professional time in schools, and straining the finances of the school district in ways that had not been encountered before, but certainly have become common since that time. The district special education policy was created in response to this pressure and promised to meet the needs of all students as the law demanded. I as a school principal made the mistake of interpreting that policy literally –resources were promised if particular conditions were met. I did not realize that this policy was as much a political response to pressure from the community as it was document to guide the professional actions of educators in the system.
Step 2: Towards a Humane Response (ethic of care)
Although I was typical of principals of that era in the sense that my instructional leadership was focused by programs, curriculum documents, and district initiatives, I was also very conscious that it was my professional duty to protect the best interests of my students. This seemed to come naturally to me as a principal with teaching responsibilities. In many respects that was my professional meta-value – the best interests of students. Plus, at a personal level, I have always had a competitive streak as well as an entrepreneurial bent. In my role as principal of this small rural school, I easily saw myself as its champion.
With the benefit of hindsight, I believe the superintendent was also well intentioned in terms of the needs of students, at least for the first part of the year. When the budgeted money was all expended and it became obvious that the distribution of resources across the district was uneven and that a whole lot more funds were needed, he was increasingly backed into a corner. And I was raising the stakes by insistently pointing out that he was required by law to provide the support I was requesting to the school according to the terms of a policy of which he was primary author.
I should add that there was no history of interpersonal conflict between us. To the contrary, he had always been supportive of me, and I of him until that time. I would say that we trusted each other. The circumstance that ultimately made this issue so pressing was the fact that there was a little boy whose educational needs hung in the balance. It started off as a professional matter, deteriorated to a fiscal matter that became stalemated, and ultimately was resolved by direct administrative action. The student’s needs were ultimately met, but that came out of my hide and, in my perception, to the detriment of the school culture, staff morale and overall effectiveness of the school’s operations.
Step 3: Ethical Action (ethic of justice)
In hindsight, the school district obviously became ensnared by the terms of a special education policy that it had developed for itself. Nobody anticipated the high number of students that would ultimately be identified as having special needs –something like 20% of the district enrollment. On the other hand, the superintendent allowed resources to be distributed unevenly across the district. Some schools, like mine, got nothing. Other schools, typically the larger urban ones, received large amounts of support. Not only were resources and benefits not maximized, the special needs of small rural schools were ignored.
While the student from my school ultimately had his needs met, at least partially, my rights to a reasonable amount of administrative relief time were compromised. In effect I was hoisted on my own petard. After spending most of the year championing this student’s needs, I was invited to provide the solution for meeting them myself. Everybody was in agreement on the “ends” of this policy –meeting the needs of students with special needs. But when the “means” got scarce and I kept pushing the matter, as a subordinate in the organization I became vulnerable to having responsibility for the whole problem downloaded on me. I felt personally betrayed in that my “good intentions” and conscientiousness were being punished, but organizationally I now realize that I had left my superintendent with no other recourse; if indeed there was no more funding available.