On the Tragic Death of a Harlem Principal

“The principal, Jeanene Worrell-Breeden, 49, killed herself soon after the testing was completed at Teachers College Community School, adding a tragic note to the episode and raising questions about whether the allegations had factored into her death. She jumped in front of a B train near 135th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue on April 17, and was taken to Harlem Hospital Center, where she died on April 25, the police said…” NY Times.

Life is a dangerous place to live; sometimes a very sad place to live and work; and always a very difficult place to live and work. Despair, frustration, disappointment and death can come too easily, and so you must always have your spiritual directional guides in good working order. The principalship is a very lonely and stress filled day-to-day position. It can also wreak havoc (or at least put a lot of pressure) on your personal and family life. You are the only one of you in the school building (Even my AP’s had each other!). You can get 100 questions a day; and not one of them will be: “how are you doing?” (Teachers, try asking that question, and watch your principal’s face and reaction; I know because once a teacher ask me that question, and I know how good it made me feel!)

I am not casting blame here; but the Bloomberg era’s misinformed decision to in essence remove school district superintendents, had a devastating and deleterious effect on school based administrators. Principals need coaching and support! They need to be able to check in with someone they trust; and they also need someone who is invested in their success, to check in on them. I can remember many sad, disappointing and challenging days as a NYC principal; and the very positive and supportive role the Brooklyn H.S. superintendent (Joyce Coppin) played in helping me to remain positive, optimistic, and to see myself moving through the present difficult situation. It is also important (something I enjoyed) and of great help for principals to have a twice-a month social get together with other principal friends.

I am sure that the “anti-standardized testing crowd” are fully locked, loaded and ready to fire. But the sad truth, is that these suicide situations are very complex, and rarely caused by one single event. Further, the huge number of schools in this nation, that are identified as primarily serving Black, Latino and poor students; schools that perform dreadfully poor on standardized exams; would suggest that if “test results” was the primary cause of a principal’s suicide, we would be looking at suicide numbers in the tens of thousands! The truth is that as a national group, principal (as compared to other professionals) suicides are rare.

We could do more to help prevent these types of tragedies by not rushing so many principals into the position, before they are mentally and emotionally prepared (or we or they discover they are not a good professional match) to take on the job. We should also stop this current dangerous “reform” idea that professionalism and experience doesn’t matter; it does, particularly in those moments of extreme stress, when the Ed-Amin knowledge, professional preparation and experience are the only thing that will help; I know, I have been there! We must also deepened, expand and enhance our efforts in the ongoing professional development, and supervisory oversight of principals. Finally, a principal must have a strategic plan to put the students in the position of being able to perform well academically in class and on exams; and “after you have done all that you can, you just stand!”