George Lucas Educational Foundation

Walking in Their Shoes: What I Learned as Principal for a Day

Our executive director comes to understand just how tough it is to be a school leader.
Milton Chen
Senior Fellow
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Head of the Class:

Milton Chen, executive director of The George Lucas Educational Foundation, speaks to students at San Francisco's Chinese Education Center.

Credit: Courtesy of Marian Fong

In late January, I participated in the San Francisco Unified School District's Principal for a Day event, organized by the San Francisco School Volunteers. I shadowed Lisa Shek, principal of the Chinese Education Center (CEC), an elementary school for 175 newly arrived Chinese students, located under the shadow of the Transamerica Pyramid, on the edge of Chinatown.

I was interested to meet these students. I know that if political conditions in 1950s China had been different, I might have been one of them. My parents were fortunate to come to the United States from China to study shortly after World War II. But if they had stayed a few more years before coming to this country, until after I was born, I, too, might have been a student at this school for Chinese newcomers -- that is, if I had been lucky enough.

For forty years, the CEC has been assisting students and their families with the wrenching transition of moving to the United States. The school was founded in response to an urgent request from the community and is considered the first "newcomer school" of its kind in the country. Shek told me that the parents have often left the support of their larger families behind and arrived without much education or much English. They work in restaurants and hotels or pass out leaflets on the street, often working two jobs and living in cramped quarters with their children. The stress takes its toll, in domestic violence and fathers abandoning their families to return home.

A Family-Centered School

The CEC offers an oasis of hope. The staff speaks Cantonese and Mandarin and welcomes students and their parents to its modern, brightly colored hallways and classrooms decorated with student art and essays. I first met Shek in her office, where she told me that a key to her school's success is addressing the needs of the family unit by providing counseling and job-training classes for parents.

She then took me to a third-grade class. The students were bright, eager, and well behaved. It was the week of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, and the students had been learning about his "I Have a Dream" speech and writing down their own dreams. They dreamed of growing up to care for their families, of becoming doctors and scientists.

Dream Job:

Teacher Marian Fong looks over a student's assignment about Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

Credit: Milton Chen

When some of the students asked me, "What is your dream?" I replied, "That every child should have a great education." They asked me, "Where are you from?" I told them I was from Chicago, and we looked at a map and pointed to Chicago and San Francisco. I asked them the same question, and they responded, "China," "Hong Kong," "Guangzhou." Then I asked them, "What do your parents do?" One boy eagerly raised his hand and announced, "Sleep!" Kids do say the darndest things, especially when they're learning the literal meanings of new words in English.

CEC has one small computer lab, where students were using Global English, a Web-based program that offers appealing graphics and animation and has eleven instructional levels. The tasks involved in learning English -- gaining a broad range of vocabulary, repeating words for pronunciation, understanding the rules (and exceptions) of phonics -- are ideal for the kinds of drill-and-practice activities computers can provide. This program frees up the teacher so she can give individual attention to other students.

The Global English program uses headsets with microphones so students can practice correct pronunciation. Though students in the other classes seemed drawn to the novelty of a classroom visitor, those in the computer lab were more interested in playing the colorful games and reciting English sentences into their headsets. I took this to be an appropriate measure of the appeal of the computer versus this classroom visitor.

Guiding Principals

After a few hours visiting classrooms, Shek and I drove to AT&T Park for a luncheon hosted by the San Francisco Giants. We met the other people participating in Principal for a Day, along with their principal guides. Lively conversations sprouted around our table about how truly inspiring principals are and how complex the job of managing a school is, from hiring and motivating staff to reaching out to parents to coordinating with social service agencies to filling out forms, wiping noses, and dealing with those misbehaving students who've landed in their offices.

In his talk to the group, SFUSD superintendent Carlos Garcia noted that principals were multitasking long before the word was invented. Garcia, who had been a principal in San Francisco sixteen years ago before serving as superintendent in Fresno and Las Vegas, said people often ask him, "Since your start in education, what change has surprised you the most?" His reply: "How little things have changed." Garcia notes, for instance, that the district's phone system is the same today as it was then, and it didn't work all that well back then.

Garcia explained that the public has no idea how complex the job is or what kinds of challenges principals face. He recounted an event that happened while he was a principal in San Francisco: He was having a meeting with a business executive when his assistant interrupted them. Garcia told his staffer, "I'm having an important meeting." His assistant insisted, "You must come out here, right now!" Garcia walked out of his office, only to be greeted by the sight of a naked man standing in the hallway. To add insult to incident, the man refused to don any of the items from the school's lost-and-found box, stating firmly, "I don't like any of those clothes."

Shek told me she had to go on workers' compensation once for an injury sustained while breaking up a fight at a middle school. Every principal can tell similar stories. I doubt that any other profession in this country includes "breaks up fights" as part of the job description.

Our table conversation became intense as Garcia began to speak about the severity of the cuts Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed, which will amount to 10 percent of the budget for schools. Decades of previous cuts have already left California's schools without much more to take away. A fellow principal for a day from Charles Schwab stated that prison-facility planners now look at the number of fourth graders who are not passing reading to help them decide how many prisons to build. In California, it's a good time to be in the prison-building business but a bad time to be in education. I can't think of a worse indictment of our state.

Every day, principals hold the future of our children, and our society, in their hands. But they are keeping our schools together with bubble gum and bailing wire. They deserve much, much more.

Milton Chen is executive director of The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

Comments (9) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

O'Faolain's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Every word written about the complexities and challenges of being a principal can be multiplied by 10 and applied to the job of classroom teacher. There is no profession more complex, challenging, under funded and under appreciated than teaching.

I've long wondered why teachers are so under appreciated and believe I now know the answer: The vast majority of America's teachers are good at what they do. And like all competent, talented people they make doing the job look easy. Therefore, everyone who has been to school assumes teaching is easy. Since teaching is easy anyone who knows anything surely could teach. If anyone and everyone can teach it's a profession without value.

Anonymous (not verified)

As a 34-year veteran educator, I'm unsure if teaching is 10 times more difficult than administering, but it's no longer the fun it once was. When I was a first year teacher @ Corcoran High about 1965, California's Education Code was maybe an inch thick and fairly static. Now it's what? 6" think and growing? As if that didn't make things difficult enough, ever since Jarvis's Prop. 13, this state has provided education on the cheap and it shows. After being a teacher-librarian in Japan for 31 years, I returned to the States and subbed here for a couple years before landing a fulltime job. I was non-plussed to learn that all the temporary classrooms weren't due to poor planning but rather to traditional policies to plan for such when considering new school construction. Sounds like more of the death of common sense.

Schwarzenegger may be a terrific physical specimen and a superior action movie star, but like most actors turned politicos, he's sure not my choice for a leader. At the conclusion of my contract next summer, I'm permanently returning to my Midwest roots in Wis. and with the draconian educational budget cuts putting more jobs on the line, I think it's a good time to exit. Like neighbor Arizona, it's clear that California is in a fiscal race to the bottom. How sad.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Sometimes, I think as you do. I would move back to my roots, too, but my husband could not get a job in his field back there, and he loves his work, no matter how much less I love mine. I'm not naive enough to believe things are that much better elsehwhere, however. Society is as society is. We can't fix problems like we have in ANY schools, nationwide, with the few resources we're given, nor can we do miracles NCLB proponents expect when we have students coming to school with few to no basic skills in communication and no real parental attention or guidance. Our society is quickest to blame a school for failing a child who was truly failed by his parents long before he ever set foot on a school campus. No Child Left Behind starts with No Parent Left Behind... and we'll never have 100% in either category, will we?

Today, our school just pink slipped some brilliant, gifted teachers. And we must do more with fewer resources, both monetary AND HUMAN. I hope parents picket the governor's office. Ultimately, their voices are stronger than ours.

Peggy Bass's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

How is it that CEC has been in existence for forty years, is a success by addressing the needs of the family unit as well as the children it teaches, has one small computer lab that by using Global English is able to accomplish the first basic of learning, which is to be able to understand and speak the language in which you are learning, and none of these common sense basics have been spread to every other school in the country at what seems to me to be at a minimal cost, at least compared to so many other alternatives? Yet here we are, once again, allowing our government to cram every bill passed, whether it be federal or state with "earmarks" for every unfathomable and puny, selfish and greedy, insignificant project go on unfettered while something as valuable and significant as education is being cut once again in order to save each politicians job because they are being called out on balancing the budget when it is our taxes that they are using to pay back special interests for getting them into office in the first place. CEC must become the norm, with its assistance and help for the parents who need it and basic language lab for the children, not the exception. Once again Dr. Chen, I applaud you for finding and choosing such a school to highlight, no matter what the original intent.

Gary J. Stebbins's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks to Milton for this article. I heard it on NPR last week while traveling off to another school where I assist teacher teams with their graduate work. I have been a public school educator since the pre Prop 13 era. I have worked in classrooms as a teacher and principal, and I appreciate it greatly that a little glimpse of the world of the principal was clearly articulated by Milton. During these dark days, I believe it can be counter-productive to compare these most important roles and responsibilities of both principals and teachers. Good schools and excellent instruction resulting in student learning is the result of a concerted effort on the part of both principals and teachers. Those of us in education continue to choose the path in which we can be most productive and create the greatest opportunity for student success. Let us unite in our efforts to secure the necessary resources for our children. All too often the word "principal" is taken in a disciplinary light. The discipline needed here should be applied to the legislative body that continue to underfund and over regulate our schools. Both teachers and principals are deserving of more.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you Milton Chin for telling people a little bit about the job we principal's do every day of the week! It is appreciated when someone tells the truth about our days and how we do so much with so little. Gov. should come and be a principal for a week and he might change his mind about those budget cuts!

The one thing I think all of us woul agree on though is it is worth every minute when a child talks about getting 100 % on a test or when they come and visit you years laterand you see what a success they have become (I just hired two of my 7th grade students to teach for me!- how old I feel!).

Richard Moore's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

[CALIBK12] 4th grade reading and prison facilities

As usual, Bracey has the authoritative word:

from: The 16th Bracey Report on The Condition of Public Education, By Gerald W. Bracey:

Finally, there is the curious case of the mutant second-grade test-score statistics. My website (at received a query from someone in Buffalo about how states use the number of kids who read below grade level in second grade to project future prison construction needs.

The first reaction among members of my Education Disinformation Detection and Reporting Agency (EDDRA) was that this was an "urban legend," especially because Google searches turned up a variety of statements and grades. But the searches also turned up three legitimate, albeit secondary, sources. A 2004 Washington Post story by Andrew Block of the Just Children Program in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Virginia Weisz of the Children's Rights Project in Los Angeles contained this: "In California, correctional officials reportedly look to the percentage of children who never make it past fourth-grade reading level to help them gauge the number of future prison beds to fund." (57)

That immediately struck me as improbable. Knowing how many kids "never make it past fourth-grade reading level" would be a logistical and record-keeping nightmare. I decided the operative word was "reportedly," and when I contacted Block, he agreed, saying the Corrections Department in California had vehemently denied the practice. (58)

Consultant Mike Schmoker had written in a 1999 Education Week article that the state of Indiana found it useful to base projections for future prison construction on the number of second-graders who weren't reading on grade level. (59)

Similarly, Linda Katz of the Children's Literacy Initiative had written, "Indiana's former governor has stated that determining the number of new prisons to build is based, in part, on the number of second-graders not reading at second-grade level." (60)

The "number of second-graders" is an example of "mutant statistics" - statistics that begin as legitimate numbers but then get transformed into something false.

The source of the test scores/prison building statistic that mutated proved to be Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), formerly governor of Indiana. In a book and in articles and speeches, Sen. Bayh expressed his belief in the need for early intervention to keep kids out of jail later: "I remember meeting with Jim [Corrections Chief Jim Aiken] one afternoon in my office. I asked him to explain to me how he could predict the number of criminals we'd be incarcerating in the future. 'We've got this equation,' he said. 'And it's got a lot of variables in it. But the single most reliable predictor is the number of at-risk children in second grade today.'" (61)

One presumes that by "reliable" Aiken probably meant "powerful."

Bayh's interest was in destroying the power of that statistic: "In other words, we look at the circumstances currently facing eight-year-olds in order to gauge how full our jails will be six or seven years down the road. If ever there was a powerful argument for early intervention, for ensuring that kids grow up in the best possible circumstances, this is it." He went on to talk about those circumstances, especially the importance of having a father around.

57. Andrew Block and Virginia Weisz, "Choosing Prisoners over Pupils," Washington Post, 6 July 2004, p. A-19.

58. Andrew Block, personal communication, e-mail, 17 July 2006.

59. Mike Schmoker, "The Quiet Revolution in Achievement," Education Week, 3 November 1999, p. 32.

60. Linda Katz, "The Importance of Investing in Literacy," 2000, www.

61. Evan Bayh, Father to Son: A Private Life in the Public Eye (Carmel, Ind.: Guild Press of Indiana, 2003).

Gerald W. Bracey, The 16th Bracey Report on the Condition of the Public Education, Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 88, No. 02, October 2006, pp. 151-166.

Richard K. Moore, InfoSherpa
Huntington Beach, CA
To be educated in any true sense of the word, one must use the library, and master the experiences of mankind. -- William T. Harris, 1893

A's picture

"the vast majority of teachers are good at what they do..." Is this true? What explains the vastly under-performing students in so many of our urban schools? Teaching is an unquestionably demanding, complex profession. A teacher's skill is the strongest correlating factor to a student's success. We have much work to do in our field to make sure that all kids do in fact have teachers who are as good as they must be. And it's the job of school leaders to ensure this level of quality is the priority in the school.

Dave Meister's picture
Dave Meister
Director at Paris Cooperative High School

A teacher's skill is the strongest correlating factor to a student's success. Really? Show me the research. I keep hearing this but I am not sure I have ever read a study that backs this up and isolates teacher skill as a variable and controls for student socio-economic background, parental involvement, and aptitude. Those variables have to factor in somewhere, right?

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