Elementary School Principal

Moreno Elementary School (Moreno Valley, CA)
United States International University 
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Interview Date: 01/01/08

Interviewer: Kristin Aoun

How long have you been principal at the school where you currently work?

It is my fifth year at Moreno Elementary School.

What are your responsibilities as school principal?

I have many responsibilities. Since I do not have an assistant administrator, my responsibilities run the gamut from hiring personnel to supervising students to enforcing discipline when necessary. I also promote positive behavior, which is actually even more important. We have a lot of ways to do this through assemblies, incentives, rewards, and recognition. I have to supervise my staff even after I hire them in order to maintain effective instruction. I have to make sure the students in every classroom are learning.

I meet with teachers each week to monitor the students' achievements, see if they need help, and figure out what we can do to help them. We provide interventions in areas in which that students need extra assistance. We have all kinds of interventions, from after school programs to interventions that are mandatory during school. Part of my job is making sure that teachers know what they are supposed to teach, that they are teaching it, and that students are learning it. If students are learning the material, then the teachers have to challenge the students.

I evaluate teachers, too. I have conferences with teachers and visit the classrooms often. I monitor the kids and staff. I maintain the facility by making sure that facilities are clean and functioning. I have to write up work orders if things are not working, like the drinking fountains or the septic tanks. I check food services to make sure the kids are getting good food. I make sure the kids have books. I make sure the school is communicating with the parents and the community. We have phone communication, Internet, and a website I have to update. I make sure newsletters go out every month. I organize special events every month, from reading nights to singing nights and astronomy nights.

I also have to be a role model, so I tell my kids that I am reading and that I expect them to read too. I tell teachers and parents that they should read as often as possible, because telling kids to read is one thing, but modeling for them is even more powerful.

What do you mean by interventions?

Learning interventions are targeted towards students who are performing well below their grade level. We have different kinds of interventions. In one intervention, we have first, second and third graders coming in for extra reading. We have some teachers help with getting kids up to grade level. We have a math program in our computer lab that has created dramatic growth in some students over the last couple years.

We also have interventions geared towards social needs; I have one kid who lost his mom and brother in a car accident last year. Students do not just have academic needs; they have social and emotional needs. I have "big brother" and "big sister" program where high school students visit after school to build relationships and improve academics. Students have different kinds of needs, whether it is math or social and emotional needs. One of our mission statements is that we meet the learning needs of everybody, not just kids. We have parent classes that we offer and training for teachers, and I attend training, too.

Do you work mostly with teachers, students, parents, or other staff members?

It is pretty balanced. I deal with kids and teachers a lot. I talk with parents every day and meet with them in person often. I have a group of Spanish-speaking parents that meet with me to learn English. I have staff meetings every Monday, and I am dealing with kids all the time: supervising, disciplining, and rewarding. I have about 70 employees, and about half of them are non-teaching personnel such as instructional assistants, custodians, etc. I have to supervise them, too. It is pretty balanced; I work with everybody.

Who is your boss?

I have a few bosses. My main boss is the director of elementary education. I also have the assistant superintendent that I am accountable to, dealing with human resources. They interviewed and hired me, and I interview and hire my own staff. For curriculum issues, I report to an assistant superintendent of student services. For any financial budget issues, I have an assistant superintendent of business. And then of course, I have my superintendent, who I am accountable to for everything. She is in charge of all of the principles in the disctrict.

Could you please describe your formal education you have received?

I earned my high school diploma, a bachelors of arts from Westmont College in Santa Barbara, and a master's degree in educational administration though the United States International University, which was a satellite campus. In undergraduate, I studied diversified liberal arts. I am going to start work on getting my doctorate this year. I have narrowed it down to a couple schools so that I can teach at the university level eventually. I would really enjoy the opportunity to pass on my knowledge to future teachers.

Could you please describe the jobs you held leading up to school principal?

I was an elementary and middle school teacher for thirteen years. I taught every grade from first through eighth. I was also assistant principal for three years, which was an introduction to becoming principal. I worked at a district office for the summer. I was a summer-school principal. These were all things that helped prepare me.

Why did you decide to go into education?

I have always enjoyed working with kids, both in church and Boy Scouts. I remember working with younger kids as an older Boy Scout leader, and scouting was my first introduction to working with children. I thought I was good at it, so I figured I would go into education. Also, because I enjoy music and play the guitar, I wanted to help kids appreciate music and have fun.

Who most influenced this decision?

My mom most influenced me. She was a kindergarten teacher for a number of years, so she encouraged me to go into education.

Why did you decide to work with elementary students as opposed to junior high or high school students?

I think it has to do with my comfort level. I had worked with student of all ages through teaching and church. I felt that with my energy level and my love of music, I matched well with elementary-aged students. I taught middle school and had fun with that. However, because I have a liberal arts education, I felt I was better suited to teach elementary school.

Now that you are an administrator, do you miss being in the classroom everyday as a teacher?

Yes. If I were paid more, I would still be a teacher. It is a lot more rewarding to be a teacher, because you get the same kids throughout the whole year and can see their growth. As a principal, I have to deal with a lot of technical and disciplinary issues or upset parents. It is not quite as rewarding as being in the classroom. But, I get to see the fruits of my hard work throughout the whole school on a larger scale. I can have a greater impact. It is definitely rewarding, but I do not think that there is anything that can compare with teaching a group of kids and watching them grow throughout the whole year.

Could you please describe what you do on a typical workday?

I get in the office and I check my email. There are always things from the district that I have to handle. I have to be responsive to my bosses. As soon as I do that, I check on my staff. We have traffic problems like every school, so I help with traffic when I can. I make sure the kids get breakfast. Over half of our students eat breakfast at school. We also have to have supervision on the playground, so I have those three areas that I have to oversee in the mornings.

After that, I check with my secretary, and she lets me know if there are any substitutes and makes sure that substitutes are coming in. At a lot of schools, there are not enough substitutes or the substitutes do not show up, so I have to then be ready to ask teachers if they are willing to take some extra kids and get paid more for the day, or I have to get a staff member to take over the class for a while. Sometimes I have to teach the class myself, which I do not mind doing. I think a principal should try to teach in the classroom a few times per year. Sometimes I have to teach a class for the whole day. Once the school day gets going, I have to do observations. I do both formal and informal observations. Formal observations are a half an hour to forty-five minutes and I document them.

After observations in the classroom, I check recess supervision. Usually, at the same time I talk to teachers about training, concerns, and other things. Then there is the discipline aspect. Usually at lunch, I am making parent phone calls. Sometimes I have to translate for the office when parents come in because I speak Spanish. I help supervise at lunch. Sometimes I play football with the kids if I do not have to deal with discipline. After the kids eat lunch, I eat my lunch. Usually, I have more parent calls, discipline, or school business. I might write up the evaluations or other paper work for the district office. If there are announcements, once a week, I will make an announcement dealing with certain issues or what is happening in the evening. Then, of course, there is dismissal. I deal with dismissal traffic from 2:00-2:30 p.m.; there are always a lot of cars and about a dozen buses picking up kids so it gets a little crazy. I always have staff meetings after school, whether they are on site or at the district. Sometimes I also have meetings with parents after school. Then I usually do paperwork and tie up loose ends. About once or twice a month, we have evening programs that I attend as well. There is no typical day.

What hours do you normally work?

I usually get in at 7:00 a.m. and get out at 5:00 p.m. This is the average time, but sometimes I get in a little earlier or a little later, and sometimes I have other meetings in the morning.

Who sets these hours?

I have a responsibility to work eight hours per day, but I usually work more. You work more than the legal requirements, and that is the way it is. Principals, without exception, work more than is required. If you do not, you do not have a successful school. If you are doing minimal hours, you are going to get minimal results, which is true for teaching too. As a teacher, I was always bringing work home, coming home late, and working on the weekends.

How do you deal with children who misbehave?

Our district has sequential discipline guidelines. We have to follow that but not necessarily to the letter of the law. There is some discretion. On the first offense, we usually have warnings unless it is a major offense. If a student gets in a fight, he or she gets suspended on the first offense. The kids understand that because we have assemblies each trimester where we go over the school rules. We have a simple saying, which is "Think twice before you do anything." We try to focus on and celebrate the positive, which is why we have one of the lowest suspension rates in the district. The key is following through and communicating with parents. Whenever a kid gets sent to my office, I call the parents. If parents are made aware, at least they are in the loop.

What is the typical salary range for your job?

It has changed. When I started, it was $70,000 or $80,000, but now it is about $120,000. It is even higher for high school principals, because they have more responsibilities.

How does your salary compare to the salaries of school principals in other districts or states?

We have pretty high salaries, because we have a higher risk population in our district. Any time you go into a higher risk population, like downtown Los Angeles, you are going to get paid more than an area closer to the beach where there is perhaps less crime.

How has going into education affected your social and family life?

I have made a lot of friends at work. I play golf and racquetball with one of my principal buddies. There are a lot of social rewards. As far as family goes, it suffers from the long hours. Then again, it works that way too with my daughter Isabel (who is training to become a professional ballerina) because she is in ballet class late every day. The family always has commitments. We prioritize as a family; we have done a lot of family activities. I was involved in scouting with my son, Tim (who eventually got his Eagle Award, too). We still go backpacking almost every summer. It has not been that bad, but it could always be better.

As school principal, do you get the summers off like teachers do?

Yes, that is one of the things I like. Principals work more days than teachers, but I get the whole month of July off so that my family and I can travel. The nice thing about the last few years is that my whole family has been able to go to Hawaii and down to Texas.

Do you like having the extra time off, and why or why not?

Oh, yes. Some principals work summer school. When I was a new principal, I definitely did. But after a while, I began looking forward to summers off so I can get away from it all.

When are you planning on retiring?

Probably in 15 years. Once I get my doctorate, I will be transitioning to teach at the university level.

How stable is your job?

My job is very stable because there are schools all over the place, and they all need principals. I went through a shaky period, but a lot of it depends on working through stuff. Now, I am very secure.

What are the best and worst parts of your job?

The best part is seeing kids grow and succeed in school and life, and watching them overcome obstacles. I like to see the students' little learning light bulbs go on; there is nothing else like it. Behavior-wise, I love to see kids turn around and understand that they can be good students and citizens. I love seeing the staff work together more. Then their light goes on and they say, "Wow, we can do more together." I have a lot of seasoned staff, and the history of education is that teachers work in isolation, but when they work together, they get a lot more done. It can be rewarding. The worst part of my job, other than some of the long hours that I have to put in, is seeing kids who have great potential and come into our school with obstacles that we work on. Then, because of family situations, they bounce back to their old ways, and I see the cycle of some of the family situations. It is not just a cycle; sometimes kids have things happen that are out of their control and we cannot do anything about it. I had one little girl whose mom just got arrested. The dad is already in jail, and there are six kids in the family. There are situations that hinder kids and give them a much tougher road to travel.

Do any of your former students come back to visit you?

I see students from a long time ago that are now in college, and they thank me for the impact and the influence I have had on their lives. Most of my students remember the music. It just tells me that I need to keep focusing on the fact that school needs to be fun, as well as difficult, because kids tell me that when they look back, they remember the opportunities they had to have some fun. This helps me reaffirm that music is an important part of the school.

What do you do with music?

I do assemblies every month and we sing during them. I have a big box of violins and am teaching a violin class. We have had choirs. Whenever we have holidays, we make sure we use music. At Christmas, every grade got up and sang a Christmas carol. We celebrate Cinco de Mayo with a huge dance and music. All the kids get involved with singing and dancing. Music is important.

Do you feel that a lot of schools miss giving students opportunities to explore music?

Oh, yes. Those schools are missing out. Music should be promoted, emphasized, and included. Obviously, you are not going to get it out of balance with academics. You must prioritize academic achievement. I had a fifth-grade boy who had been disciplined more than any other kid. Voluntarily, he came in at lunch, sacrificing recess time, of all things, to come play the violin. We just started last month, and this kid comes in to play violin every day. Students need that desire, that outlet. Who knows, maybe they are gifted? Students need that opportunity.

In general, do you feel that principals have less power within a school than they did 15 years ago?

It depends on what district you are in. We all have the same amount of power in my district, which is part of why I like my district. It depends on the hierarchy, because some districts are more micromanaging.

How have education budget cuts affected your school?

It affects our ability to provide a lot of the interventions that would help more kids. If I had more money, I would be able to provide more teachers to help students during school and after school. Again, it is a school-to-school and district-to-district thing. With my school, the budget cuts directly impact our ability to provide interventions to help students get the help they need.

How has the teacher's union affected your job?

That is a school-to-school thing. Every district has a different union, power base, and influence. With my school, it has not been a problem at all. At my previous school, it was a problem because we had more teachers in the union. I have not had any problems in five years, but for the previous seven years, there would be questions from the union as to why I was moving a certain teacher to a different grade level, and they would contest it. Sometimes I would lose some of the power I had, and things would happen that I did not feel were best for the school or for the kids.

As a principal, are you part of the California Teacher's Association?

No, it is only for teachers.

What advice would you give to someone going into education?

I would say be involved with kids in any capacity you can, and as much as you can, to make sure that working with them is something that you want to do and are comfortable with, as well as have the talent to do. Volunteer in classroom settings so that you can see how demanding and rewarding education is.

What qualities do you feel are necessary for an elementary school principal to possess?

There are so many different qualities we must possess. You have to be flexible. You cannot multitask, because you have to be able to focus on what you are doing at that time so that you can do it well and get it done. You have to be able to communicate and inspire. You have to be organized. You cannot do everything at once; you have to juggle. You have to be able to prioritize, discerning urgent versus important because you have to be able to think on the run and filter what is most important.

What level of education is required to become a principal?

You have to have a master's degree.

What is one thing you wish you knew 15 years ago?

If I could see myself 15 years ago, I would tell myself to keep things as simple as possible, and focus on being able to do a few things well, instead of spreading myself too thin. When you do too many things at once, you are not going to do anything well.

What has most contributed to your success?

Having a good attitude and being positive and energetic have most contributed to my success. Also, my ability to set goals and achieve them by remaining focused has contributed greatly.

Have you always had these qualities or did you learn them on the job?

Oh, jeepers, no! I did not always have these qualities. I think that was why I struggled sometimes in learning how to be better organized, because that was one of my weaknesses. I learned that some of the things I was taught in training do not always work in application. That was hard for me. I have learned to delegate so that I am not doing everything myself. One of the most important things about being a principal, or a leader of anything, is that your true leadership qualities will live on when you leave a place, and it keeps strong because you have created other leaders.

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