04 August 2016

A Little of Vice Principals the Show a lot of Vice Principals the "People"

I have started watching an HBO show called Vice Principals created by and starring Danny McBride, a rising star in TV and film comedy. He plays one of the eponymous characters along with Lee Russell whose performance in Quentin Tarantino’s last two films I enjoyed. They both aspire to replace the school's principal after his sudden departure. But much to their mutual chagrin a hotshot African American woman is brought in for the job. The two bitter rivals conspire to dispose her. Hilarity does in fact ensue. The greatness of Vice Principals comes from it taking truths about the high school experience and stretching and stretching and stretching them until they brink into myriad delightfully funny pieces. There is no restraint in the show. Actions and words scenarios are taken to the extreme and beyond. It’s a risky way to present a story, but by gum it works. Broad comedy with an edge. Anyway the show got me thinking about some of the vice principals I encountered in my 25 years as a public school teacher. Said thinking has metastasized into the writing you will find below.

“And steeled and wakened by the challenge of her tone — that challenge which one meets so often in people who have let their whole life go to hell, and lacking stamina for life’s larger consequences insist on it for trivialities.” - From Of Time and River by Thomas Wolfe

You’ve got to wonder why someone wants to be a vice principal. It’s a bloody thankless job. The hours are brutal and a lot of the duties are unpleasant. Maybe some people consider it a path to being a principal but I worked with a lot of vice principals and I can only think of one who later became a principal. And it’s not like being a principal is so grand.

One of my first memories of a vice principal was a guy named Mr. Posey who was about as tough as his name implies. I’d given him a referral on a kid who called me a “motherfucker” in front of the whole class. Ole Posey moseyed over to me during a class and pointing to the referral he said “he denies saying this.” Really? I must be mistaken then. I could have sworn he called me a “motherfucker” but maybe he said brother trucker. Gee I feel awful about the misunderstanding. Then again maybe you can ask the 24 students who were in the classroom at the time what the lad said. Here’s another thought: you can believe the adult.

Mr. Posey had a very short tenure as a veep before being shuffled to some other administrative position where he doubtless made a hefty salary pushing papers around and attending meetings.

Vice principals are sticklers. Teachers can bend rules but vices have to toe the line. They have to know the ed code chapter and verse. There are laws they need to know and they have to be able to recite school policy by heart in their sleep on Christmas Eve. They have to know where everything is and who everyone is and what everyone does. That is, if they’re good at their job. There was a vice principal we had named Mrs. Wagner who didn’t seem to know diddly and didn’t seem to care. She didn’t even know the damned bell schedule and had to get directions to a specific teacher’s room. Mrs. Wagner made it a point to avoid unpleasant duties. If a kid who wasn’t under her purview misbehaved she didn’t want to know. Wags was good at inspiring quotes, shibboleths, maxims, and getting hoity toity. I don’t know for the life of me why she was a vice principal. She was an intelligent, well spoken woman who could have done any number of more worthwhile jobs quite well. Instead she let the school crumble around her.

While Wagner avoided situations Mrs. Davis welcomed them. This was a woman born to be a vice principal. She was a certified workaholic (although I don’t think the paperwork was ever done) who was the first to arrive at the school and the last to leave. She was everywhere all at once and did everything and would back a teacher even if he’d shot a student and the smoking gun was still in his hand. She was not a perfect person. She would lie to students. One came and complained to her about me and Mrs. Davis went off on the kid about how much I liked the child and how I’d spoken up for her any number of times. Completely false. I think she was guilty of entrapment a couple of times but was too slick to be caught. We had one veep who tried to entrap a kid and was caught. It was a career ending move. Mrs. Davis was tough with kids but she assiduously avoided confrontation with adults. (She punched down.) If she saw a teacher abuse the company machine she would say nothing to the teacher but would then make an announcement at the next staff meeting about proper copy machine use. So 35 people would hear a message that should have gone directly to one. I was never convinced that Davis liked students. In fact most vice principals give off the vibe that they barely tolerate them. I suppose some of it has to do with how many negative interactions they have with students but more to the point, if they really liked students they would have remained in the classroom.

But what compels someone to go from the classroom to administration? I reckon that some people might actually go into teaching as a prelude to becoming an administrator. It’s hard to conceive such a mind. Maybe they want to work “with kids” or in a school environment but don’t want to have to scrape by on a teacher’s salary. If pay is the issue why go into education at all? One of the benefits of being a teacher is that the workday is not too long — at least the part of it that one is required to be at the job site — and there are plenty of days off. Administrators lose both those perks. Is that worth the pay?

Administrators and vice principals in particular are bureaucrats. They are the middle men and women. Just following orders, don’t blame them, any decision they make is predicated by what will please higher ups. Thinking for oneself may be a boon to a teacher but it is a detriment to vice principals. They spend a lot of time dealing with paperwork. Well with the advent of computers not so much with paper as with excel sheets, emails and the like. The number of emails any administrator gets is staggering.

I worked for one vice principal who in many ways epitomized the position as he was a born bureaucrat with the imagination of a tsetse fly. But he wasn't cut out for all the work. This chump would constantly complain about how much work he had to do. You come into his office with a referral and he’d point to the stack of papers in front of him and grumble about how long it would take him to get through it all. Who does that? Who complains to the people below them about their workload? How the hell were we supposed to respond? I never knew what the hell to say to the joker though I thought a lot of things like: maybe you’re not very good at your job, or maybe you’re just pathetically slow. He eventually left for a similar position at the adult school were he wouldn’t have one fiftieth of the issues to deal with. I also recall having an evaluation meeting with him and he spent half the time talking about what a great guy Ulysses Grant was. Some people….

We had one doozy of vice principal who — and this is true — actually was afraid of some students. In a middle school! He would hide from them. Other than that he was a total incompetent, so there’s that. He lasted one year and then returned to the classroom I think in a school full of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm types.

Another vice principal was — and this is true and I can’t believe I’m typing these words — lazy. Lazy as all get out. She took every sick day she could find. Your typical vice principal is a whirling dervish of activity, Ms. Dean was like a snake sunning on a rock. Here’s something else that is also true: on duty she would carry around the novel she was reading. I swear to god. I personally never saw her reading but it was one helluva bad look. Ms. Dean observed my class once. A student came into the class from lunch after an incident and was angry and fussing at people and it was all I could do to settle the kid down as he was making a mess of the start of class. Plus he was making me look bad in front of an administrator. When I met with Dean for the evaluation report she said not one word positive or negative about the situation. Nothing. But she did claim to have seen a student taking a sip of drink and recommended I call the parent about this gross violation. (Imagine how many calls a teacher would have to make a day if they contacted parents about matters as small as that.) There’s one thing that Ms. Dean said that sticks in my mind because she seemed to say at least once every staff meeting. “It’s a liability issue.” She knew her laws, codes and rules and like a good administrator (which she was not) was careful about keeping all activities, actions and pronouncements within the letter of the law. But her effect on the school was to frustrate the other vice principal --  a prince of a fellow -- to skedaddle to another school.

I liked a few of the veeps I worked with and respected some of them as well. The one I liked and respected the most -- a Ms. Bennett -- was ushered out of our school within a year. She landed safely at the high school where she served admirably and to universal praise for many years until retirement. Why the quick exit from our school? Interesting story. Ms. B made the mistake of calling a teacher out for certain offenses that everyone knew damn well she was guilty of. The problem was that said teacher was living with our school’s principal. Such a relationship was considered a no-no. One life partner should not have supervisory role over their mate.  But they "got away with it" because they were lesbians and not officially out. There relationship was known by everybody in the district but they couldn’t be called on it if they were technically in the closet. So because Ms. B had the temerity to try and censure a guilty teacher, the principal arranged a transfer. And in case you’re wondering what the teacher’s offense was try this on for size:  being drunk on the job. Yeah, seriously.

After leaving my permanent position and working on a TESL certificate, I subbed throughout the Oakland School District. This experience was akin to taking up residence in No Man’s Land during World War I. Only noisier and with more vulgar language. There I saw the same type of VPs. Harried, on edge, petty, blustery, supercilious, pedantic, banal and often of barely average intelligence. I close with an anecdote about one of them. I was subbing a 6th grade class at the nicest of Oakland’s middle schools. The class in my charge was a group of sweethearts, a rarity within Oakland’s borders. As the tardy bell rang a few young men scrambled into the classroom variously arriving late or just in the nick of time. A vice principal happened to be passing the room and noticed the commotion of the boys entrance. Really the incident didn’t even qualify as shenanigans, horseplay or even hijinks. But the VP was not amused. So what she did was she came into the room and started to speechify. Yes she did. It started innocently enough with a reminder about the importance of being on time and proper comportment. But it did not stop there. She then proceeded into a lengthy dissertation on the value of an education and even discussed the current economic state. I’m guessing she spoke for five or more minutes but to me it felt like 15 and to the students it must have felt an eternity. Bless them, the young uns hung in there with her and pretended to listen. Frankly a lot of what she said went soaring over the heads. But I’ve no doubt the vice principal felt she was providing pearls of wisdom to these young folk who would thus be inspired to achieve great things in life.  Ahh delusions.

Faithfully dedicated to my daughters in hopes they never become vice principals.

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