Principal Politics: Favors and Blacklisting in Public Schools

When my son started at his new school, we found ourselves dealing with what we considered to be a terrible teacher. She would punish first graders for asking to go to the bathroom. She would show up to lessons with a hangover. And her teaching was riddled with spelling mistakes and bad information. We were very confused about her teaching style and were seriously questioning if this was the right school for our son.

Being new to the school, though, we had a lot of helpful parents trying to help us navigate our way. But when it came to the school’s administration, they would tell us “If you ever have a problem, better keep it to yourself, never go to the principal...You’ll be blacklisted!” and they had the stories to back up their claims.

Lie low, keep your head down, don’t make waves . . . was the mantra. It began to feel more like we were at military training than at a public school in a rather affluent neighborhood. We felt frustrated and confused about how we could help support our son’s education if we couldn’t have a simple conversation with the principal.

This was a far cry from the school we had just left. There, we had a very positive experience with all the teachers. The principal knew the students by their first names – all 900 or so of them – and you could grab the principal in the halls and quickly ask a question or make an appointment for a more detailed conversation without any threat of being blacklisted.

To make matters worse, the rumor on the street was that there wasn’t just a blacklist; there was also an inner circle. You had to spearhead a committee, under the principal’s direction, and then you were set. Your child would would have a bright future ahead with all the best teachers guaranteed. Your child would be top of mind when it came to doling out trophies and awards. They would get the best parts in plays and recommendations for life.

So here I was stuck with a dilemma: an unhappy child that I couldn’t discuss with the principal for fear of being blacklisted vs. the prospect of sucking up for years to come, in order to gain access to the best of favors.

On the one hand, I wasn’t comfortable with the idea that should I misspeak in a meeting, my child’s school days could become a nightmare. And on the other hand, while I would normally consider spearheading a committee if I had the time, the fact that it would supposedly award me favors was a big turn off. I’m not one to suck up and I would absolutely wouldn’t want my child to get favors because mommy was on a committee.

So we toughed it out for the year. My son stuck with the terrible teacher, learning along the way how to deal with less-than-perfect personalities while I spent pickup time with moms ready to dish on the latest school drama.

Once the school year was over, I had had enough. I felt like I needed to talk to the principal to get a better understanding of the school and determine whether it made sense for us to return. If that meant I would be blacklisted, so be it! If that was the school’s philosophy or their vision, then clearly this school wasn’t for us. I decided to meet with the principal and get it all squared away.

I have to admit, I had probably been rehearsing for this meeting for the entire year. I was extremely calm. I was all ears. And I just wanted to understand. I went through all of our experiences throughout the year – the rumors, the gossip, the newly-acquired ticks my stressed-out son had developed, and the details about the terrible teacher. But none of it was accusatory. I stated it all matter-of-factly and with the intent to inform and to learn.

Across the desk from me, I was thrilled to find not a despotic, blacklisting bully but a very kind-hearted man who took his job seriously. He was aware of the problems with the terrible teacher. He had a strong vision for the school and worked hard toward it – even when school district politics got in the way. He was passionate about education and about the children entrusted to him.

The rumors were rumors – just that. Sorry to disappoint! A year later, I haven’t been blacklisted. In fact, my son has had an incredible year two at the school with probably one of the most amazing teachers on the planet. The experience was so different, in fact, that I had to set up another meeting with the principal. This time, it was to express my gratitude.

Principal politics rife with favors and blacklisting seem to be a figment of a few people’s imagination at our school – what about yours? Is there a blacklist or an inner circle at your child’s school?

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