Elementary School Principal in Low Income School Districts, Elementary School Teacher – Mentor, Gloria G.
This Mentor has forty years experience teaching and working as an administrator in public elementary schools. She first taught children from third to sixth grade for twenty years and then moved from teaching to administration. The transition was a dramatic career change taking her from teaching gifted students in a middle class school district to becoming the principal of a Title I (low income) inner city elementary school for four years before moving to yet another a Title I school – this time in a rural district.
As illustrated by Ms. G’s experiences, low-income school districts pose unique challenges. Addressing fundamental issues, such as nutrition and hunger were a critical part of providing a positive learning environment. This mentor’s experiences and insights are a recommended read for anyone interested in the issues and problems facing the public school system in the United States; and especially for those considering a career in public education.
From the time I was in grade school, I wanted to be a teacher. Upon graduating from high school, I attended a well-regarded state university, earning my Bachelor of Arts and then Master of Arts, in education, with a Reading Certification. As a new teacher with a Master’s degree I had an advantage over other applicants and was fortunate to be hired only weeks after graduation. It was a school that was to be my ‘home’ for the next 20 years.
This wonderful neighborhood school was sited in the midst of an upper middle-income neighborhood and I was privileged to teach GT, that is, Gifted and Talented children. After applying for entry into the program, GT students were required to score 97% or higher on an ability test. A student’s application (as opposed to simple selection) was required as part of the process of nurturing student motivation and desire, encouraging ownership in what was otherwise a challenging curriculum. Students could also qualify on multi-criteria.
Among the projects undertaken by GT students, was research on preparation for their future education as they moved though the public school system and into college. A significant part of this research involved undertaking a self-evaluation of their own strengths and weaknesses as they looked ahead. Interestingly, many children assessed a self-scoring lower than my evaluation of their abilities. This illustrates an interesting issue. While most GT students were strong academic performers, many possessed poor social skills with mixed self-esteem issues. Part of my job as the GT teacher was confidence building and nurturing a balanced self-image.
While teaching, I discovered an ability to work well with others, organizing a variety of school programs involving students, parents, teachers and school administrators. I also discovered the abiding test of every action that would stay with me and guide my every action as a teacher and later, administrator: Is this best for children?
After some reflection, I decided to make a change.
I completed the coursework necessary to take the examination for administrative certification and upon completion, sought an administrative appointment, ultimately to assume the role of school principal. My first assignment was as Assistant Principal to two schools, serving part-time in each. Both were Title I, low-income schools, and I split time between each school, encountering a diversity of issues uniquely different from those in the upper middle-income school where I had taught for 20 years.
Each of the two principals I worked with demonstrated different leadership styles, perhaps most evident in their respective hiring philosophies. One only hired teachers who recognized that his position as Principal was to be ‘in charge’ and make the day-to-day decisions running the school. The other sought to hire people with whom she could collaborate, making decisions and setting policy as part of a process of inclusion. In this way, this Principal sought not only inclusion, but nurtured ownership in the school. So acting, the Principal described herself as a ‘multiplier.’ An excellent work by Liz Wiseman, entitled, “Multipliers and Diminishers” describes a leadership such a leadership style. I soon learned that this was to be my approach as I formulated by own leadership style as an Assistant Principal.
After my inaugural year as an Assistant Principal, I was appointed as Principal of yet another inner city elementary school. At one time this school was one of best junior high schools in the city, now a victim of decaying surrounding neighborhoods. Nevertheless, the physical facility was a beautiful, three-story building with an indoor swimming pool and two large auditoriums. It stood as an oasis.
Unique Problems of Public Schools in Low Income Neighborhoods
The students in my new school were, like most young children, good kids with an abiding desire to learn. Still, they suffered the burden of their circumstances. Any number of incidents unique to the low- income environment mark my time over the next 19 years (with 4 years in the urban setting; and 15 years in the rural setting.)
Some of these were heartbreaking. In one, the electric bill had gone unpaid. After dark, the child went outside and did his homework under a streetlight.
The most significant challenge in both settings was hunger. In both the inner city and rural settings, free breakfasts and lunches were provided. In the rural setting, school buses even made rounds in the summer, when only summer school was in session, picking up any child, regardless of whether they were enrolled, transporting them to and from the school for breakfast and lunch. The problem was even more acute on weekends during the school year. Known as, “Back Pack Buddies,” the school provided food items from an on-site ‘food bank’ in a backpack on Fridays for children who would not have otherwise had food through the weekend.
Poverty was not simply a function of unemployment or drug addiction. Many working parents were also struggling. A mother approached me in tears, asking for help with food for the weekend. All, she said, she had was a jar of peanut butter until her husband’s check came. Her husband, in the armed forces, was stationed overseas.
The lessons are sobering. Nutrition is but one example of the type of problems that have an immediate effect on learning. These were not the lessons of the upper middle-income school.
Safety is equally important. In the inner city school it was unfortunately not outside the norm to find people passed out near the school or even with injuries. Walking the school grounds was necessary to ensure students a safe ingress and egress to and from school. Several instances required moving people from the premises, sometimes calling the police or the nearby fire department. At times I escorted children, forestalling bullies and ensuring student safety. In one sad instance, I took a can of beer away from a mother as she entered school grounds, walking her daughter to school in the morning.
Even more tragic were in-home visits. In some homes, the sanitary conditions were appalling, breeding ongoing problems with lice.
After five years as an inner-city elementary Principal my ‘trial by fire’ prepared me to handle anything. In succeeding despite the difficulties, I learned much about myself -- who I was, and who I wanted to be as a Principal.
Recommendations to Parents and Legislators
- Children in impoverished neighborhoods are often ignored by their parents and sometimes abused by older siblings. One significant remedy is placement of younger children in early childhood learning programs. The school should be a safe place, a nurturing environment. It has to be for children in such circumstances. Learning cannot occur otherwise. Too often summer break is not hoped for or anticipated.
- The basics are necessarily fundamental. Nutrition, healthcare, clothing, school supplies. None of it can be taken for granted. Burdened by basic needs, children cannot easily learn. Their ability to succeed and ultimately to become contributing members of society stands in jeopardy. While state legislatures and even the federal government seem to be withdrawing funding for such programs, the need remains great. When parents cannot meet these needs, someone needs to help.
- While “No Child Left Behind” or “Common Core” efforts were designed to ensure minimum educational proficiency, there is no ready ‘fix.’ It takes years for a teaching staff to adopt and implement a curriculum which is amenable to successful testing – a further challenge when basic necessities cannot be assumed. Despite this timeline, program goals and state standards seemingly change without regard to requirements for successful implementation. A staff that prepares for years to transition to “Common Core” finds itself at odds when the curriculum suddenly, because of politics, takes a different turn. And still, test scores are expected to rise.
- I was sometimes able to help the older children as well. The rural school was privileged to be part of a federal after-school program – the 21st Century Community Learning Centers or CCLC. High school students were integrated into the program, paying them to work after school as tutors, coaches or working on or about the school building and grounds. In doing so we hoped to teach a work ethic, important for all children, and especially so for those from disadvantaged backgrounds where such opportunities are often limited for lack of parental support. Such programs are worthy of funding, teaching, as they do, hands-on responsibility. Such funding, breaking the patterns of poverty, may ultimately be less costly than dealing later with young adults gone astray.
A “principal” or “head of school” must have an earned bachelor’s degree, usually in “Education,” with a Master’s degree in an education-related discipline, including a Master of Education (M.Ed.); a Master of Arts in Education (M.A.Ed.), Master of Science in Education (M.S.Ed.); or Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.). Qualifications to serve as a school administrator vary from state to state, but generally include certification as a teacher; and then, upon attainment of the Master’s or higher degree, certification as an administrator. Administrative certification is generally found across at least two levels: K thru 8th Grade; and 9th thru 12th Grade; though some states may require further, separate certification specifically for elementary, middle and high school. Continuing or professional education continues whether one is a teacher or an administrator.
Becoming a Public School Teacher or Principal
Salaries for teachers and Principals are improving in many states. But these jobs are not about the money. The prospective educator should love children, seeking to make a difference in a child’s life. It is in many respects a calling, just as are the other historic professions of law, medicine and ministry.
The best rewards are often non-monetary. I still receive e-mails from students I taught over twenty years ago in grade school. They tell me, even today, of life-changing events of which they say I was a part. The satisfaction from such stories is beyond words. Teaching children is much like a pebble tossed into the pond, not knowing where the many ripples will lead, but knowing they are there nonetheless.
In many states, Teachers and Principals benefit from good retirement benefits. Some states allow teachers to opt out of the Social Security system, foregoing payment of Social Security (FICA) taxes while working. In part, the School Board may endorse this because they then do not have to pay employment taxes. While this may sound tempting, you should consider that Social Security could be a way to automatically set aside additional funds, which will be of a great benefit when you retire.
Salaries and benefits vary a lot by state. Do your homework if your goal is to try and maximize your income.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for Teachers and Principals
Pay for High School and Elementary School Teachers
The median annual wage for high school teachers was $55,050 in May 2012. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $36,930, and the top 10 percent earned more than $85,690. The pay scale for kindergarten and elementary school teachers was only about 5% lower. The pay for teachers and principals does vary a lot by state and by school district. Look at the average pay scale in the states where you think you might want to teach to get a more precise idea of the salary and benefit you can expect from a job in that state as well as in particular school districts.
Employment of high school teachers is projected to grow 6 percent from 2012 to 2022, slower than the average for all occupations. Overall growth is expected due to declines in student-to-teacher ratios and increases in enrollment. However, employment growth will vary by region.
Pay for High School and Elementary School Principals
The median annual wage for elementary, middle, and high school principals was $87,760 in May 2012. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $58,530, and the top 10 percent earned more than $130,810. There are strong regional differences.
Employment of elementary, middle, and high school principals is projected to grow 6 percent from 2012 to 2022, slower than the average for all occupations. Employment growth will be driven by increases in school enrollments.