“How do you stand it?” he asked, shaking his head. “I mean how do you not just scream?”
I’d heard questions like his since I became an administrator. Being a principal takes a collection of skill sets, but no single ability matters more than being able to stay centered. Remaining calm when the world around you goes haywire, when good people are justifiably frustrated, and when those who enjoy taking potshots at what they perceive is going wrong are firing away, is fundamental to actually enjoying the job of being a site administrator.
“I mean that’s just petty,” he went on. “And not even correct.”
Reading helps me stay balanced and keep life in perspective, and early in Patrick O’Brian’s Post Captain, the book currently on my nightstand, I ran across a passage that resonated with me. Describing three sisters, O’Brian writes:
…although the three daughters had been brought up together, with the same people around them, in the same atmosphere of genteel money-worship, position-worship, and suffused indignation -an indignation that did not require any object for its existence, but that could always find one in a short space of time- …they were as different in their minds as they were in their looks.”
I didn’t mention Post Captain as answered my frustrated friend; the dense prose is better suited to a post than a conversation. Instead, I nodded to show him I was listening and half whispered a “yeah” as I tried to sneak in a word.
“That she would complain about that is nonsense. I mean nonsense.”
Indignation, I thought to myself. For some, indignation is a fundamental character trait. In and of itself, this isn’t a tragic flaw.
As a principal, part of my job is to separate the concerns that matter from that suffused indignation without valid object, while at the same time showing respect for each of the people sharing that point of view.
Sometimes the shrill shrieks prompt unexpected realizations that can be the catalyst for improvement; sometimes fist pounding indignation provides an outlet for folks to let off harmless steam; sometimes it’s just good for a laugh.
So instead of quoting O’Brian and saying something about our complainer and my concerned friend being “as different in their minds as they were in their looks,” when he told me “I just don’t know how you do it,” I simply said: “…with a smile.”
We’ll probably laugh about the incident a year from now, reminiscing like old men around a campfire. If we remember it at all.
The daily barrage of challenges, problems to solve, and decisions to make are like that: so immediate in their importance and so difficult to put in perspective as they’re happening. They’re also one of the parts of being an administrator that I like most.
My school is my ship, and my job as principal, not unlike that post captain, is to keep our bearings as we travel through rough water and smooth, gales and calms, and after a voyage of exploration, when mutinous grumblings are replaced by the glow of success, end up in that proverbial port, home.