I’ve had bad principals. In fact, it’s pretty hard to find a teacher who hasn’t. The job of a principal is almost aggressively impossible—to act as an instructional leader, head of discipline, event planner and the creator and communicator of a vision for the building. It’s too many things, and no one will be perfect at all of them. This isn’t that. Bad principals who work against their staffs and students give a bad name to those good principals who are really doing their best yet sometimes get stuff wrong. I’ve seen principals scream at staff members and ignore children in peril. I was in the room when an administrator told a student who admitted to trying meth that if they promised not to do it again, we wouldn’t call the student’s parents to tell them (don’t worry, I did). The same principal once talked about a student whose father was in prison and said, “It’s no wonder they’re violent, it’s in their blood.” More? OK. I have lots, lots more. I’ve seen a sixth-grader in handcuffs. I’ve seen a second-grader bring drugs to school from home and be suspended back to that home for five days. I’ve had a principal who pulled teachers out of class to ask them how seriously they took their marriages. I’ve had principals who spread rumors about teachers sleeping together, who showed up drunk to school events, principals who have chased teacher after teacher after teacher out of the profession. So, why don’t we talk more about bad principals? Teachers are scared. I put out a call for “bad boss” stories—one message on Twitter and Facebook. I knew I was going to get something, but was not ready for just how bad it would be. Emails and messages flooded in, some thanking me for the opportunity to tell their story and following with pages of disturbing behavior that would be unbelievable if it wasn’t recounted in story after story after story. Many people messaged me to say that they had many stories to share, but worried that, even printed anonymously, their principal might still find out, might still come after them. Here are some of those stories, the very worst and most regularly bad behavior of those we trust to run our schools, the sorts of stories teachers swap at happy hours and over email when we are researching new schools. In part, I want teachers in bad situations to know they aren’t alone. In part, I want to shine a spotlight on something broken, in hopes we can start working towards a fix. I’ve spent a week reading them. Stories that make me angry, that make me ill, stories that feel like I could have written them, that feel all too familiar. As I read, patterns emerged.
Sometimes, Being Bad Is Doing Poorly at an Important Job
Once, after my students had scored an average of 86 percent correct on a [practice state math test] shortly before the actual exam, my principal insisted they should be scoring 100 percent, because our goal was 100 percent passing. I told her that all of them had indeed passed, since the cut score was around 70. She reiterated her expectation that the goal should be 100 percent correct. On my first evaluation, he gave me low marks across the board, along with comments about “bad rapport with the faculty.” I was shocked by that and asked for examples of what he meant. He said, “I don’t have examples, it’s just the feeling I get.” It was edge-of-the-seat leadership. Nothing had any solid foundation to it. Any new information she heard she would make whipcrack decisions, no matter if it contradicted work we had been doing, or something she had formally decided with the staff at the beginning of the year. Teachers, and my other administrative colleagues, felt constant whiplash, and the constant changing environment of the school left students confused and adults not sure how to explain it. In my third year of teaching, my administrator called me a week into summer vacation. “Remember those times I observed in your classroom? Could you just send me the lesson plans from those visits and write up an evaluation?” No lie. The man had walked through my classroom twice that year. That was my tenure year. I was not the only one granted tenure from such incompetence.
Sometimes, Bad Principals Are Just Bad People With Power
I had an administrator throw a stapler at my head. She also parked her Jaguar lengthwise behind my car in the school parking lot and refused to move it so I could go home. I was stuck at school until 9 p.m., when she finally left. I could go on and on about administrators who roam the halls literally picking battles with Black boys over the pettiest stuff. In just the last month, one Black boy was suspended three days for “theft” which was drinking a juice from a girl's locker…and the girl didn't care! Another Black boy was called to the office for sharing a locker and berated for a good 10 minutes for lying about it until finally the boy said, “Get the fuck out of my face!” And boom, now they have a reason to suspend three days. A third Black boy was sent out by a sub for throwing juice (that someone had thrown at him first) and was frustrated that no one would listen to his side of the story. He was suspended three days for disrespect and literally put out of the building. This kid had no behavior record at school, had recently been jumped and gotten a concussion, and was forced to walk the neighborhood. I was physically attacked by a student: dragged down the stairs by my hair. I had never been assaulted before, and I also felt like the student trusted me, so I took two days off to process the incident. Upon my return, I was reprimanded for not taking my job seriously. A beloved principal passed away the week before school started. We had the funeral Labor Day and school started the next day. The first thing the new principal did was remove all pictures and memorials to the principal who had passed. She told us in the first meeting that the principal who passed represented the past and we have to move forward. She canceled plans for us to dedicate the library to our late principal.
Bad Principals Always Land Somewhere
She had to leave her last post, at a middle school, because the teachers did a vote of “no confidence” on her. I don’t even know really what that means, except she was on administrative leave for a while and then got shuffled to our school. He is now the principal of a small high school in a different part of my state, and I am both horrified that he was re-hired after his previous behavior and also saddened for the teachers who work for him. There was an admin at my school, an AP, who forged a letter of recommendation from our principal when applying to a nearby school. Like, same district kind of nearby. So then that principal called ours (them being close colleagues and all) to thank him for the letter and chat about her…She's currently a principal at a Catholic middle school. Somehow.
Let’s Stop Turning Our Backs on Bad BossesI’ve been a part of leadership meetings where principals targeted teachers, called them bad teachers and asked observers to give them bad reviews, because the principal didn’t like them for personal reasons. In that same room, in that same meeting, I saw administrators excuse patently racist remarks, referring to “African, Asian and other barbaric cultures” as “just the way that teacher is.” I spoke up. My fan club is a whole lot emptier because I’m not the guy who stays quiet about those things. I spoke up in meetings (oh, thank you for pushing our thinking on that), I spoke up to principals (you must have misunderstood me), and spoke up to their bosses and bosses’ bosses (thank you for sharing your concerns, we’ll be sure to address…). Nothing happened. It’s the most frustrating thing about bad bosses, about the stories about bad bosses. More often than not, nothing happens. And it really, really matters that nothing happens. For as much as we talk about bad teachers, we aren’t doing nearly enough to identify the leaders who are pushing good teachers out, who are making a hard job impossible and unhealthy, who are damaging the kids and culture of whole buildings. Time and again, bad principals are protected by a bubble of false professionalism. Moves are made to protect their career and standing, to protect their feelings, and bad principals are allowed to stay. Bad principals are often good politicians, owed favors or friendship by their own bosses. We shuffle them sometimes, or put them in a district job to get them away from a school, but we rarely—so rarely—hold them accountable for doing a bad job. The stories are everywhere. These are a small bit of just a piece of the tip of the iceberg. In a time when we are losing teachers, when we need good schools more and more, we need to stop turning our backs on bad bosses. We need to worry less about protecting someone because of their position, and get every last damaging adult out of schools.
Tom Rademacher (Mr. Rad to his students) is an English teacher in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 2014 he was named Minnesota Teacher of the Year. He teaches writing and writes about teaching on his blog. His book, published by University of Minnesota Press, is called "IT WON’T BE EASY: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching."