Guest Column

Of Bushwhackers, Termites

by RICHARD W. SMELTER

retired as a school administrator a couple of years ago after having held positions as wide-ranging as principal, curriculum director, coordinator of special services, acting superintendent, unwilling toady, official critic and bearer of bad news, ad infinitum. Each post had its peculiar challenges, although common themes ran through all of them.

In every role, I regularly encountered some types of individuals with whom I was obliged to deal … if not avoid. You may recognize many of them. Taken as a whole, these folks account for the high sales of ulcer medication in the school administrator ranks.

Bushwhackers. These are people who wait until the last minute to tell you something, usually negative in nature. The head custodian informs the principal that the extra chairs weren’t sent over from the junior high five minutes before the parents arrive for an open house. A teacher tells a mother her child’s science fair project was misplaced the day before the county science fair. A principal waylays the superintendent in the parking lot at the district office to tell her about a teacher who used rude language when correcting the board president’s obnoxious son a full 24 hours ago.

Why do they do this? Simple. They don’t like you and don’t wish to see you succeed in solving whatever problem is at hand. Instead of helping by keeping you informed in a timely manner, they enjoy watching you stagger around like a lunatic while you look for your bottle of Maalox.

Termites. These are staff members who purposely volunteer for committees in order to sabotage the group’s efforts from within. A teacher who likes the old textbook joins the new textbook review committee to veto all of the proposed selections. Parents who dislike the annual Halloween parade get themselves ensconced on the planning committee to vote the parade into oblivion. Principals who dislike their superintendent will volunteer to be on virtually any districtwide committee their boss organizes, just to rabble-rouse the troops and destroy the project. Superintendents get even by identifying such principals and designating their building as the official testing ground for every frivolous pilot project proposed by a bevy of ivory tower consultants who haven’t set foot in a public school for 30 years.

CIA moles. These are moderately well-informed people who desperately need to increase their self-image by appearing to be thoroughly well-informed people. They do this by catching you alone and volunteering to share some “confidential” information with you. They sound like James Bond talking to an undercover operative in a darkened alley in some backwater country.

Chief among these are unprofessional board members who will begin by saying something like “You know, something highly unusual came up in the closed session of last night’s board meeting.” They then tell you something you shouldn’t be privy to, thereby compromising your integrity. If they don’t particularly like you, they’ll begin by saying, “You know, your name came up in closed session last night, but I can’t tell you what it’s about.” This is generally done to teachers and building-level administrators, but also can be used to upset a superintendent who missed the board meeting because she was home with the flu. This leaves you wondering whether you’re going to get a raise or be asked to pack your bags and have a nice day elsewhere.

• Rumor-mill addicts. You can spot these transparent types rather easily. If they’re principals, they encourage parents to call them immediately if their child is experiencing any difficulty in the classroom rather than taking the matter up directly with the teacher. If they’re superintendents or assistant superintendents for personnel, they advise parents to report straight to them if they have concerns about their school’s principal. Sometimes board of education presidents want complaints about their chief executive officer referred directly to them.

Folks who entertain this violation of the chain-of-command aren’t really trying to help those who are being attacked as much as they are trying to get the goods on them. If not that, they are at least extremely insecure types who measure their own importance by the number of calls they receive, much like some oaf who answers his cell phone in the middle of a wedding ceremony.

The most pathetic rumor mill addicts inform subordinates that “complaints have been received” and then don’t tell the accused who their accusers are or the precise nature of the complaint. As if to demonstrate their lack of fairness and objectivity, these managers then use the unsubstantiated rumors to downgrade the unfortunate subordinate at evaluation time. The thinly disguised goal is to hurt the subordinate, not to help.

The most ill-intended or off-the-wall members of the community soon learn the identity of those school managers willing to act on rumors alone and then zero in for the kill, filling them with the most outrageous nonsense they can dream up. Victims then must prove they’re not guilty rather than the accuser having to prove they are.

Sartorial slobs. You can spot these folks anywhere, but the greatest percentage of them can be found in the teacher’s lounge. These are people whose parents never taught them to dress properly for different occasions. Chief among these are males who wear dirty blue jeans to work and females who think baggy sweatshirts are the height of educational fashion (sometimes they’ll pair these with matching sweatpants). The males look like old hippies who fell into a time warp, while the females have the appearance of attendees at some silly, middle-aged slumber party.

Throw into this bunch school administrators (generally assistant principals) who don’t believe in wearing suits to work. The general impression perceived by parents and other school visitors is that the professional staff cares little what anyone thinks about them. I’ve never enjoyed having to deal with folks who are dressed better than I am, especially people who are angry and have stopped by to give me a piece of their mind. The job’s tough enough.

Genuine Distractions
I’m sure most veteran school leaders have encountered some of these types in their work. While I’ve attempted to portray them in a humorous light, in reality, there’s nothing funny about them. The wayward characters cited above only serve to distract truly caring educators from the main issue at hand—delivering a sound education.

Some of these personality types are simply ludicrous, while others would misdirect our attention to more sinister and patently unethical issues on the periphery, including power plays, ego aggrandizement, petty jealousies, professional evaluations based on innuendo and rumor, and plain, unadulterated fault-finding.

At all times and on every occasion, unprofessional educators, regardless of title, must be resisted. Many of us can show scars acquired by this resistance, but it must be undertaken nonetheless. It is the unwritten mandate of every caring community, and the very least we owe every child.

Richard Smelter, a retired Illinois principal, can be reached at 6066 N. Nassau Ave., Chicago, IL 60631.