Meet the principal : Sample Story

Time for a Change

Some people you always remember.  They leave an imprint on your mind.   Adeline was one of those people.  She was the school librarian when I became principal.  She had been there forever, was in her early seventies with closely cropped grey hair and always seemed to have a furrowed brow.   In my first meetings with each teacher one concern I heard repeatedly was about the librarian.  The teachers didn’t feel that Adeline liked the students and said that she was always worried about them messing up the books.

I came from working at a school where the library was an interactive place.  Kids pulled books off shelves, looked through them, and either put them back or decided to check them out.  Plastic placeholders told them where to return the books.  They might look through and read several before they decided which to check out.  But that didn’t happen in Adeline’s library, mostly because that’s exactly what it was: ‘Adeline’s Library’.  In her library the spines of the books had to be aligned in a straight row.  One book couldn’t stick out further than the one next to it.  Everything in the room needed to look nice and neat.  Consequently, students would take one book off the shelf and that would most likely be the one they checked out because, if they put it back and the spine wasn’t straight, they would hear from Adeline.

“Excuse me please, go back and straighten that book out.”

I remember the first staff meeting we held in the library.   It made sense to me to hold it there; it was much roomier and more comfortable than the faculty lounge.  At my former school we had held all staff meetings in the library.  I went to find Adeline to let her know the chosen date.

“Hmmm,” she exclaimed with a surprise look.  “Nobody checked with me to make sure that date was okay for a meeting.”

“Oh, was I supposed to?” I responded.  “I checked the master calendar in the office, and we had nothing going on in the library, so I just booked it for our staff meeting and came to let you know.”

“It’s just that I’ve always given approval for any meetings held in the library.”

Our conversation was a little crisp as I reminded her that the library belonged to the entire school and the staff meeting would be held after school, so it wouldn’t conflict with student use.

“You know I don’t allow any food to be eaten in the library?” she responded.

“Well, we do need to have some snacks and drinks.  You know how hungry teachers are at the end of the school day.  But don’t worry, we’ll be very careful.”

“I really don’t like to have food eaten in the library; it creates such a mess.”

“Adeline, I understand your concerns, but teachers need to have snacks.  Don’t worry. You’ll never know food was in here.”

“OK, but you won’t be moving any tables and chairs, will you?”

“I don’t know for sure, but we might have to.”

“If you do, I need you to move them back to their original places.”

“No problem.  We’ll take care of that.” I put my hand on her bony shoulder. “You’ll

never know we were in here.”

She pulled a chair away from the table. “You see that spot on the rug where the chair was.”

I looked down to see the small, round indentation from the chair leg.

“Please make sure all the tables and chairs are put back on those spots when you’re finished.”

I just looked at her and smiled.  I wanted to say more, but I didn’t.  We ended the conversation and I walked away.  I was shaking my head when I got back to my office.  This woman was unbelievable; Baxter had a dictator as school librarian.

I began to spend more time in the library.  I wanted to see first-hand Adeline’s interactions with the students.  I wanted to see what their experiences in the library were like.          One afternoon I was observing her work with a fourth-grade class.  She was calling roll and students were returning books to her as their names were called.

“I don’t have my book today.” Jose said with his head down.  “My mom was in a hurry to leave this morning and I left it on the kitchen table.”

“Well, you’ll need to go sit down and stay there until library period is over.”

So, Jose and a few other students who didn’t have their books had to sit and wait until the end of their class library time, while the other students checked out their new books.

On another day I observed a fifth-grade class as Adeline was taking roll and I was appalled as one by one she called out names and when she got to Jesus (Haysoos as it is pronounced in Spanish), she said “Geezus” (as it is pronounced in the Bible).  The young student offered, “My name is Jesus (Haysoos).”  Adeline replied, “Why can’t you pronounce it like it is supposed to be pronounced, like it is in the Bible?”  Jesus just looked at her and then looked down at the floor.  He didn’t say anything more.  After roll call I went over and spoke to him privately.  I was appalled and made a mental note to talk to her about it later.

As the year went on we tried to get Adeline to change her library procedures.  She made a few cursory changes, but it became obvious we needed a complete modernization.  She just couldn’t adjust to more inclusive ways of operation.  What were we going to do?  We needed a program that was inviting for students to explore literature and ideas.  Our answer came in a most unusual form: technology.

Some of the libraries in the district had moved to automated systems.  Ours had not made this leap and the staff and I felt it needed to be taken.  I was pretty sure this idea wouldn’t be well received by Adeline.  Nevertheless, I approached her.  As expected, she resisted, saying things were fine the way they were, she didn’t need to have the books entered into a computer, checking them out by hand worked just fine.  She admitted she didn’t know how to use a computer.  I assured her we would send her to training, purchase the equipment needed, and give her all the support necessary to have the system up and running as soon as possible.   Tears welled up behind her horn-rimmed glasses.  She was genuinely fearful of making this big change.  I felt badly for her.  She had worked many years in the library and took ownership of what she felt was an organized, well-run system.  Now it was being threatened.  But we had a school full of students who needed a library that was responsive to their needs.  We moved ahead with planning for the change to automation.

Midway through that year Adeline came to me and announced her retirement.  She told me she had been thinking for some time about this decision, had talked it over with her family, and felt it was time to spend more time with her grandchildren.  I felt badly for Adeline even though I knew it was best for our students.  It was clear she just needed that little extra budge of technology to help her make a decision she’d been thinking about for a long time.  I gave her a big hug.