School: A place you go to learn to live, not to die… Part 2.

We don’t serve the families of our imagination, or even the “perfect” families that nurtured us, rather we serve the families who send us their children everyday…


A philosophical cultural narrative of weakness rules the thinking of too many educators. It is the “If only…” factor. It asserts that we could successfully educate children: “If only parents taught them a list of prerequisite skills prior to their arriving to our schools!” “If only parents knew how to assist their children with homework and home study techniques!” “If only parents exposed their children to the many informal educational activities and institutional resources that exist outside of school!” “If only parents would insure that their children take school and learning seriously!” “If only parents taught their children to behave properly!” If only…

For sure our work would be much easier if parents were able and willing to engage and enforce the before mentioned best parental practices. And yet sadly, this faulty belief is sacredly held by many who have done the required educational readings in developmental psychology; and therefore should be fully aware that the adolescent stage is the internal psychological (and physiological) signal to the child to begin the natural and necessary: “resistance to parental control over my life” period. But if our work is truly a vocation, then we must serve people where they are, not where we wish they were, or where our work would be made easier; for as I read somewhere that:

“…It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”

The truth is that we don’t serve the “model” families of our imagination, or even the imagined “perfect” families that raised us; rather we serve the naturally imperfect families who send us their children every day, seeking what most parents seek for their children, a better life; and definitely they are not sent to school to lose their lives…

And so, in order to have a safe learning environment: The principal must be strategically proactive, preventative and investigative in the approach to student safety. A safe learning environment is your first priority. I don’t want to give any students all of the secrets of the Principal craft; but here are a few small things to get things started, that can make a large impactful difference:

1. Personally meet, greet and welcome students at the door each morning; with one of the objectives being to read “body language”. Many students are forced to travel from and through very stressful situations at home, or on the way to school. If required, initiate some preventive-counseling if the student arrives with the signs of “going to have a very difficult day”. Know what challenges your students are facing outside of school. Be a “nosey”, “inquisitive”, “pushy”, “in the business” type of building administrator— “intelligence gathering” from multiple sources is critical; the school family members must have access to you, in order to communicate with you. The age of the “ivory tower” principal (my 60’s high school days when we never saw the guy!) is over. The people who accuse you of “doing too much”; don’t share your responsibility for keeping your students and staff safe, and based on their comment, neither do they know how. There is a conspiracy to keep you in your office; fight it! Get out of your office and move around the school–Including at the start of school, lunch periods, and at the end of the school day! You especially need a relationship with students that would allow them to feel safe and comfortable to “put you on” to a present or possible conflict, particularly, in its early stages. As a superintendent I used, (as was the case with my Brooklyn H.S. superintendent with me) the “preventing an incident” statistic as an important measurement for determining effective school leadership. You need a plan in place to counteract various possible scenarios; for example: Alternate (change from time to time), your walking habits and the security petrol plan to make them less predictable. You need a safe integration and oversight plan for a “new” student transferring into the school in the middle of the year; a standard cause of conflict in H.S., because students have already started to “group-up”. Provide them with an initial good group of (your) selected friends. Don’t believe everything you hear about teenagers; I have always found that young people are honored, and take this assignment seriously, and are also flattered that the principal would ask for their help (which is how you should begin the request: “_________, I need your help”)

2. A clear and widely understood discipline code: A discipline plan must be proportional to the violation, equitable, just; and it must have consistency and act with predictable consequences. And the ultimate learning objective of the discipline program is not punitive, it is to be instructive. You are not solely in the discipline business; you are in the teaching of appropriate, positive and productive behavior business.

3. A student involved conflict resolution program, where the reward-weight is placed on seeking a resolution to a student to student conflict. The plan can’t just be based on prohibitions and penalties (as severe as they must be); students need positive incentives not to fight.

4. Good and rigorous instructional-learning practices invite good behavioral practices. A good and strong instructional plan/program will also cut down on the amount of time, for a large portions of the school time, when a student is out of class unsupervised. A “principal for a day” corporate executive once joked to me: “My goodness, these kids don’t ever go to the bathroom during classes!” (“Nope, they are high school students, they can be encouraged to manage that biological process efficiently!”)

5. Offer a rich survey of student clubs, activities and teams that cover a wide spectrum of student interest, gifts and talents. In this way you are connecting large numbers of students to an adult in the building, and to each other. The principal must enroll every adult in the building (including school aides, custodians, cafeteria staff, etc.) in the securing the school mission!

6. I don’t know what this particular fight was about; but my experience has been that girls will often fight over some type of real or imagined “boy issue”; the boy involved usually is neither sympathetic nor interested in the conflict (“Mr. Johnson, I did not tell them to fight, can I go back to class?”… No, you can’t!); even if he has purposely caused it. The key factor is that the adults in the building must take these kind of conflicts seriously; you can’t project your adult ideas onto the situation, and just dismiss it as: “silly”, “childish” or “puppy love”.

7. Once you have the two antagonist in your office (remember: the principal’s office is a classroom); you must spend all the time necessary to truly end the conflict. Shake hands and saying: “I’m sorry”, is not necessarily a teenager’s concept of “it’s over” (there’s that knowledge of developmental psychology thing again!). Ending a conflict between teenagers takes time and work, you must be willing to put in both. You must also be willing to do the necessary follow-up and “check-up” on the status of the situation. You must balance punishment with counseling (This is a palace where me and my late-great guidance counselor Mrs. Cammarata played our best good guy/bad guy routine; she would say: “You two better work with me, because if it’s all Mr. Johnson’s way, I can’t save you from what terrible and harsh ending that will befall you”

8. Have a friends and audience on notice plan (bring the key “potential candidates of instigation”, the “Paul Revere types”, into your office to receive their warning): Anybody “instigating” or “hyping up” the situation, verbally, online, written; engaging in rumor mongering: that is starting, carrying or delivering of same rumor or threat; you have been dully warned! Any incitement in the format of a rap, poem, song, or drawing; the facilitation of the conflict through “venue selection”, “audience informing”, or even offering to “hold a coat”; will lead to serious and very painful consequences. Any type of first, second or third hand involvement in promoting a conflict; if your name comes up in any way as encouraging the conflict, and it results in a fight; you get the same penalty as the combatants. Anybody watching (cheering or encouraging) will face sanctions. Don’t waste your (comments) time educators, I know none of this is “officially” legal; and since we are on the topic of not legal; yes I suspended two students for fighting on the weekend (nobody tried that move again!) And at another school I blocked another fight when I turned up at the “fight site” early, having been tipped off by students; and yes the potential combatants paid dearly for ruining my Saturday morning!

9. Engage and enroll students into the mission of the school; ultimately you will need them to manage their own behavior, as well as the behavior of their peers. The students need a political and moral philosophy that leads them away from physical conflict. Make “snitching” to prevent violence in the school a virtue (by changing the word and the concept); protect the identities, honor and reward those who inform you of threats to their own, or the school family’s safety (“But, how did you know Mr. Johnson?… “Never mind how I found out; now let’s talk about this “beef” between you and ____________!”) Make peace a practiced cultural imperative for the entire school family. The concept of: “why we are here”; and why we need each other to survive and succeed!

10. Finally, the principal must be able to take “the heat”. You could be designated as “too strict” by a parent; that is, until that parent’s child is a victim of violence, and then you are “not strict enough”! And so you might as well do what you need to do in the beginning, to make the school safe! The principal must also be prepared to take every push-back and criticism that the “liberal-do-gooder” community will throw at you; because trust me, none of them will be standing with you, when you lose your job for leading an “out-of-control” and/or dangerous school. And they will also be absent in the worst moment of the profession; and that is when you are forced to inform a parent that the child they sent to you alive and well that morning, is in the hospital, or worse is now dead.

In my 11 years as a principal I have experienced the full spectrum of “parenting skills”; some great, some not so great. I have worked with students from all types of living conditions; good housing, bad housing, group home housing, to no housing. One parent, two parents, no parents, grandparents, deployed parents, foster parents, parents living in another country, one parent in prison, or both parents in prison. In any event, I saw my job as principal was to serve as a counteracting force to what the external society wanted to bring into the school; that meant I had to think and plan on how to keep children and staff safe. I did this because as a high school principal I knew that re-raising teenagers was an impossibility; and asking only for perfectly raised children was a wasteful act of fantasy. The school environmental culture must offer an alternative peaceful and predictable reality; that would allow children a break from (read: a rest away from) the world.

An effective school culture of peace places the emphasis on prevention, “an early warning system”, clear and precise behavioral standards, the conditions and consequences that will occur for not meeting those standards; and the ultimate goals of: peaceful resolutions, having a peaceful environment, and the teaching of appropriate and productive human social interactions. Any principal with the title can suspend students after a fight, or after a staff person, or another student is seriously injured.
However, the principal who is effective, seeks to be a master incident preventer! And that requires thoughtful strategic planning skills. Build a school safety culture that responds to the present reality that exist both internal and external to your school. It must also be a safety cultural that effectively balances justice with compassion; punishment with rehabilitative-counseling-restoration; and the protection of individual student rights, along with the right of the majority of the school family to work and learn in peace.

Michael A. Johnson is a former school teacher, principal and superintendent.