November 15, 2004: Headlines: COS - Malaysia: Secondary Education: Brattleboro Reformer: Malaysia RPCV Steven John and a typical day at Lincoln High School

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Malaysia: Peace Corps Malaysia : The Peace Corps in Malaysia: November 15, 2004: Headlines: COS - Malaysia: Secondary Education: Brattleboro Reformer: Malaysia RPCV Steven John and a typical day at Lincoln High School

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Malaysia RPCV Steven John and a typical day at Lincoln High School

Malaysia RPCV  Steven John and a typical day at Lincoln High School

Malaysia RPCV Steven John and a typical day at Lincoln High School

Doing the 'humanly impossible'

Reformer Staff

Leland & Gray Principal Steven John teaches a class as a substitute Friday. (Jason R. Henske/Reformer)

TOWNSHEND -- In preparation of the June retirement of high school principal Bill Lincoln, the board of Leland & Gray High School had education consultant Raymond Proulx study the current administrative structure.

The school now has one principal for the high school, Lincoln, and one for the middle school, Steven John.

One of the discoveries Proulx made was the expectations placed on the principals are too numerous and too varied.

"It would be humanly impossible for these administrators to meet this wide array of individual expectations," wrote Proulx in his final report.
Steven John, principal of the Leland & Gray Middle School, speaks in his office at the school Friday. (Jason R. Henske/Reformer)

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He also noted that the principals work, on average, more than 13 hours a day. He concluded that, at the very least, the roles and responsibilities of the administrators required clarification.

In an effort to demonstrate a "typical day," middle school principal Steven John agreed to be shadowed for a full day. (It should be noted, however, that it is not typical in that John gave up chunks of time to be interviewed.) What follows is account of John's day on Nov. 12.

7:40 a.m.

The sun rose an hour ago but the sky remains an unyielding gray. The air is raw, but it doesn't deter throngs of middle school -- and perhaps a smattering of high school -- students from lingering just outside the front entrance of Leland & Gray Union High School.

Standing a full foot above most of them is Steven John, middle school principal, wearing a white sweater and light khaki pants but no coat. He is making sure that teachers assigned to monitor the arriving pre--teens and teens are doing just that. They are.

He heads inside to check on the rest of the approximately 400 students -- 135 of whom are in 7th or 8th grade -- arriving for class today.

John stops in at "the store," the school's cafeteria that is operated by a local couple. Students sit in small groups gossiping and giggling.

John walks quickly, insuring he covers all the areas where students congregate before class. All looks well.

Shortly after the 7:45 a.m. homeroom bell rings, he checks out the back parking lot. A couple of late arriving high school students hastily park their pick up truck in a no--parking space. John tells them to move it.

Checking on the parking lot is not one of John's official responsibilities but the frequency of speeding worries him, so he includes it in his daily rounds.

7:50 a.m.

John is back in his office gathering up discipline referrals. This is among his official duties and it consumes a lot of time. The referrals are written by teachers, bus drivers or anyone else in direct contact with the students, to let John know about rule infractions. He looks them over quickly -- a pile of 10 -- and heads off to find the offending students.

The first three are boys, all of whom sport Boston Red Sox baseball hats and limit their speech to monosyllabic utterances. With each one, John asks the boy to step into the hallway, where he discusses the issue with him. He prefers this method to calling them to his office, which can be intimidating. John has a deep voice and speaks softly; he asks each student if they can think of a way to resolve the problem. He assigns them detention and then asks if they need help arranging a ride home.

Next on the list is a pretty 8th grader who showed up late for class without an excuse. She was upset, she explains politely, and stayed in the bathroom to calm herself. John is worried about her and reminds her that she can visit the school counselor if she feels the need.

"You may be trying to solve more problems on your own then you can," he says to her.

She seems appreciative but says little. He gives her detention. She accepts it without protest.

Next is a student almost as tall as John, and he is less receptive to the principal's efforts to talk things through. He doesn't believe that he did anything wrong and is more confrontational than his peers. John is patient but makes it clear that he's had enough and tells the student exactly what is expected of him. He never raises his voice. The encounter is a long one and already John is feeling behind on what he wanted to accomplish for the day.

"A lot of investment of time but probably necessary," he says afterward.

8:45 a.m.

With most of the discipline reports done, John heads for a meeting with high school principal Bill Lincoln and two representatives from the teacher's union. They discuss everything from the impact of Proulx's recent report to next year's budget.

They also discuss what's turning out to be a thorny issue: the possibility of the Windham County Sheriff's Department assigning an officer to Leland & Gray. The administration is for it but teachers, students and the community are resistant.

Sitting at a student's desk that he doesn't quite fit in, John explains to the two union members, math teacher Nancy Meinhard and librarian Barbara Marchand, that because of student confidentiality laws there are troubles that transpire at the school unbeknownst to all but a few people.

The administrators want to protect students from getting bad reputations and from being labeled as trouble makers, but at the same time struggle with how to present an honest picture of what's happening at the school to the faculty and community. On a youth-risk survey, 10 percent of students at Leland & Gray claim to have tried heroin. This might be an exaggeration, but even if the number is only 1 percent, there is still a problem and John is acutely aware of it. He just can't divulge the particulars, and therein lies the rub.

Struggles around how to handle difficult issues arise on an almost daily basis and after more than 25 years in education John expects them.

"If you want things to be clear cut this is not a good line of work," he explains.

As a college student, John did initially aspire to do the clear-cut work of the scientist but then "got tired of doing math problems of that had no relationship to the real world." At Occidental College, in California where John grew up, he graduated with a bachelor's degree is psychology.

That was in 1969 and what was waiting for him next John didn't want to do. The Vietnam War was raging and the draft board of Orange County California wasn't interested in his bid to get conscientious objector status.

"I wanted to served the country," explains John, who is 56. "But I wanted to serve it in a peaceful way. I knew I was a pacifist."

John eventually succeeded in getting a deferment to join the Peace Corps. It was in Malaysia teaching math and science that John realized that he had found his calling.

10:50 a.m.

John finally files the copies of the discipline referrals he's been carrying around all morning. Copies are kept on hand, he explains, to follow patterns of behavior. If a child is consistently acting out,

John wants to be able help teachers figure out why and what can be done to support that student. He says he believes in accountability, but understands that life can be awkward, challenging, frustrating and confusing for 7th and 8th graders.

"Middle school kids are really trying to do the best they can, considering what they have to work with," he says. What they have to work with are surging hormones, social pressures and a sometimes scary world full of hard decisions.

John wants them to be prepared. Since arriving at Leland & Gray six years ago, he increased the amount of health education required. Students used to take one quarter of health in either 7th or 8th grade. Now they take one full semester both years.

"Kids need all the help they can get making decisions about nutrition, sexual development and addiction," he says.

11 a.m.

The next hour is devoted to answering the 35 to 50 e-mails he gets every day and checking his voicemail messages. John returns every phone call right away, often leaving his home phone number for the parents he isn't able to reach. The are endless demands on his time: parents requesting free lunch for their child; a 9th grade student claiming that she is now being home-schooled but the details sound dubious; a request to substitute for a health class after lunch; a frustrated parent wanting her child pulled from a particular class.

12:20 p.m.

A teacher called in sick and a substitute for her sixth period health class couldn't be found. The task falls to John. He doesn't mind as he loves to teach, no matter what the subject. Before coming to Leland & Gray, he spent 25 years teaching in Whitingham. John has a master's degree in elementary education and is working on a Ph.D. on education leadership. He taught everything from all subjects in grade school to physics and Spanish in high school.

While he has no objections to substituting for one class, it does mean that he now has to abandon his plan to observe in another teacher's class.

The health education room soon fills with eighth graders, who are talkative and restless. They will be watching the film "Killing us Softly" a documentary about the adverse effect of advertising on women.

John takes the time to explain what they are going to see and how it may contain suggestive images and very frank language. He also explains that they are expected to write one paragraph detailing their personal response to the film. This confuses some students and John rephrases the assignment until everyone gets it.

As he sits down on the floor next to a group of students, he warns: "Please don't be blurting out stuff and make this into a sit-com."

As the video plays, John works on his Friday Notes, a brief newsletter that gets sent home with students at the end of every week.

Leland & Gray middle school principal Steven John multitasks, working on a laptop while children in a health class he taught as a substitute watch a video Friday. (Jason R. Henske/Reformer)

1:15 p.m.

Back in his office, John returns to the computer and again attempts to read all his e-mail. While he does this he discusses some of the goals he'd like to meet as middle school principal. One is to create a student council that has real decision-making power, where students could conduct business in a manner similar to Town Meeting and tackle topics that are important to them. Teachers could vote but their votes wouldn't weigh anymore than their charges. The administration would have the authority to veto any decision, such as anything that negatively effects curriculum or safety.

2:30 p.m.

Students are streaming out of the front doors, headed for the line of school buses awaiting them. John jumps out of his chair, remembering that he has to pass out the Friday Notes, with Lincoln.

"Quick! Get 'em while they're hot," says John, handing the sheets of paper to passing students.

He crosses over to the town common and hands out more. On his way back to the school, he picks a crumpled copy of Friday Notes off the ground.

3 p.m.

More phone calls, more emails. Gobblefest, a school-wide music and dance party, has been cancelled, due to the weather forecast calling for snow. Because of this John says he will most likely leave by 4:30 p.m., instead of 10 p.m. When he arrived at school this morning at 7:15 a.m., he had already put in 48 hours of work for the week.

4:15 p.m.

John yawns for the first time all day.

4:17 p.m.

A stack of honor roll certificates are placed on his desk. John will take them home and sign each one over the weekend.

4:40 p.m.

The sky has shifted from gray to nearly black. The streetlights are on and the air is even sharper than it was this morning. All the students have long since left. As a man walks his golden retriever in front of the school, the lights in Steven John's office burn bright.

A few more e-mails and phone calls to answer and then maybe he'll go home.

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Story Source: Brattleboro Reformer

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Malaysia; Secondary Education



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