Guest Column

Always Know the Answer Before Asking the Question

by Michael Smith

When you become a school administrator, sooner or later (probably sooner) you will say something you may regret. The best you can hope for is that it is not caught on tape.

If it isn’t, you can always follow my three most important rules: deny, deny, deny. If that doesn’t work, fake a head injury.

I speak from experience. I have been involved in “incidents” twice — well, actually 417 times in the last five years. You may be asking yourself: Why is this man allowed around children?

Before I became a superintendent a year ago, I had the honor and pleasure of being a K-12 principal for four years. In my first year, I quickly noticed one thing. When a principal says something intelligent, it is quickly forgotten. But when a principal says something slightly ignorant, everyone remembers it.

Actually, you can be sure the story will be retold at your retirement party. And keep in mind everyone will be laughing at you, not with you.

You should also note that attendance at this retirement party will be in direct proportion to the number of dumb things you have said over the years. Personally, I am not anticipating a big crowd at mine.

An Urge to Speak
A job in school administration lends itself to falling in love with your own voice. When you are in charge (at least you think you are, though you may want to turn around and see if anyone is actually following), there is the tendency to believe you always need to say something.

This constant opportunity to speak can only lead to one thing — the opportunity to say something so dumb and so completely inappropriate that you want to cut your tongue off with a dull letter opener right then and there.

I won’t share all 417 of my moments with you, mainly because I don’t want to run out of material for the blog I maintain ( Lucky for me, I can do or say something foolish faster than I can write. At my present pace, there should be enough material for the blog through about 2030 (which coincidently is my retirement date).

One incident that sticks in my mind is when I was invited to Daddy/Daughter/Donut Day in the 1st-grade classroom. “What an honor,” I thought. A young lady needed a fill-in because her dad couldn’t make it, and they asked me. I thought it would be a great way to spend a few minutes on a Friday morning, a legitimate reason to get out of the office for a few moments, plus get a free donut (or seven).

It had all the makings of a win/win situation for both of us. I was patting myself on the back all the way down the hallway as I walked into the 1st-grade classroom. When I arrived, the teacher said the only thing I had to do was let this cute little blond, big-eyed, young lady, read me a book. Then I could have all of the donuts that a principal could eat.

At this point, I was trying to figure out which shelf in the office to put the Principal of the Year Award on, because seriously, what could go wrong?

Silence Isn’t Golden
It went like clockwork. Nice youngster, good book (lots of pictures), the way-too-small chairs that are fun to sit in for short periods of time, parents commenting on how nice it was for me to help this young lady out, and finally the free donut(s). I must admit I was feeling awfully good about myself.

The fact the whole situation felt so good should have been my first clue. As an administrator, I know if things are going this smoothly, they are bound to take a turn for the worse.

Nothing left to do, but stand up in front of the room and introduce my “daughter” for the day. We made our way up front. I could sense that everyone in the room was thinking what a good guy. I am not going to lie; at that moment I could not have been more proud of myself.

In her cute little 7-year-old voice the pupil introduced me. Then it was my turn. I announced her name. Everyone applauded.
Then it happened. I was finished, but I didn’t stop. I felt the need to speak some more. Evidently, I just had to hear more of my own voice. I wish I hadn’t.

As usual I thought I was being charming when I asked the girl, “So, why don’t you tell everyone where your daddy is today?”

In mid-sentence, I caught the teacher’s eye in the back of the room. She was frantically shaking her head. She did everything but scream, “Noooooooo!!!”

My brain said stop, my mouth didn’t listen. The girl replied, “He’s in prison.”

After that, all I remember is a complete silence coming over the entire room and the feeling that I needed to throw up 6 donuts.
At that moment I would have given a year’s salary for a good head injury.

Michael Smith is superintendent of Oakland Community Unit School District 5 in Oakland, Ill. E-mail: