A first-person look at the challenges of running a school
As a young girl, I always coupled the idea of the principal with the feeling of being in trouble, and as a result, was terrified of whoever held the position. Despite his or her smile and cheerful demeanor, I knew the principal had the power to call my parents, so I kept my head down and was careful not to get too close.
But what I didn’t know then is that principals do more than just sit in their offices doling out detentions. As the face of the school, the principal is always on the go and constantly being pulled in different directions. He works behind-the-scenes to keep the school running and has a frequent presence in the classroom.
I got to experience that first-hand when I participated in the Principal for a Day program on Nov. 15, shadowing Antioch Elementary School principal Tom Childers.
I arrive at the school around 9:30 a.m. and Childers is already in principal mode. He’s been working since 6 a.m. and has already checked off a good chunk of his to-do list for the day, but then again, he’s no stranger to the responsibilities of public education. He’s been working for Union County Public Schools since 1991, back when he was a teacher and coach at Sun Valley High School.
Since then, he’s worked at a total of nine schools (four as principal) including Wesley Chapel Elementary, East Union Middle, Wingate Elementary, Marvin Ridge Elementary, Sandy Ridge Elementary, Marshville Elementary and Walter Bickett Elementary. He took over as Antioch’s principal in 2016.
“I liked being a teacher but wanted do something more, so I went back to school and got a degree in public school administration,” said Childers, who lives in Indian Trail. “I felt like I could have a bigger impact, that I could impact more kids, as a principal than being a teacher in a classroom.”
Nestled just inside the Union County border, Antioch Elementary houses 730 students in grades K-5, boasts 33 classrooms and employs 65 educators, as well as other staff. Childer’s day, however, begins long before anyone arrives. He checks the staff list to make sure all teacher absences are covered by substitutes and then tackles a few emails and other responsibilities in his office, like creating a weekly newsletter and maintaining the school’s website.
A self-described “list person,” Childers relies heavily on a to-do list to keep his tasks organized, but admitted it can be difficult to stick to.
“There’s always something not on the list that comes up that you have to deal with,” he said.
We spend the first half of the morning visiting classrooms and pop into a second-grade dual-language class reading books in Spanish, a math class learning about area, a class researching animals on their iPads and a Kindergarten class rolling dice to learn how to count. In each room, Childers walks around giving students an encouraging high-five, thumbs up, fist bump, pat on the back or light squeeze on the shoulder. This, he said, is his favorite part about being a principal.
“It’s really rewarding when kids have that aha moment, when they’ve really learned something,” Childers said. “When I visit classrooms, I’m looking to see if the kids are engaged. We want kids to come to school and love to be here because if they don’t, that makes our jobs a whole lot harder.”
As we’re walking through the halls, we happen upon a student having a rough day and I can see Childers mentally putting his to-do list away. He spends a few minutes trying to convince the student it’s not too late to turn his day around, but that doesn’t work, so he walks him to a designated quiet room to calm down.
We break for lunch and then it’s back to the classrooms – Childers wants to see how a new third-grade student is adjusting to the school. As we’re walking through the halls, we’re stopped by a teacher who says one of her first-graders has been disrespectful. Childers pulls the student aside to explain he may not always get to do what he wants, but when he doesn’t listen, it hurts people, and that has consequences.
“I learn more from my mistakes than my successes,” he tells the student, repeating one of the school’s treasured mantras.
“When a student has a problem, I view that as an opportunity for them to grow,” Childers says as we head back to his office.
We end the day at 2 p.m. after a meeting between a new fourth-grade teacher and two parents who opted for their child to move into her new classroom. Childers said his workdays can be tough and long depending on meetings or other events after school, and he often spends nights and weekends working to get ahead.
“Sometimes, it’s amazing I get paid to do this, then other days I don’t think I get paid enough because of the time commitment,” he said. “It’s fun and I’m never bored. I’m constantly switching tasks. No two days are the same and I like that.”