Principal’s perspective on the SDA student walk out

As a child of the ’80s, the notion that I’m the guy in the tie is still an odd one. I grew up knowing that as an adult I didn’t want a job where I bought anything, sold anything, or processed anything, I didn’t want to buy anything sold or processed, or sell anything … you get the idea. As an educator, I don’t.

Mine is a job of service, of working hard to try to make a difference, of looking forward, and working toward a future better than our present.

Those goals don’t exactly fit the stereotypes of a principal from my own high school years. Sometimes, however, the day-to-day duties do.

Just a couple of weeks ago, some of our students took to social media to organize a walkout to express their frustration with the outcome of an election that only a few were old enough to vote in. It’s a challenge teenagers have been facing since long before the ’80s — too young to vote, but old enough to have passionate and informed opinions.

I got an email heads-up that morning, and spent the day working with my administrative team to ensure that we followed district protocol, informed parents and teachers, cooperated with partners in law enforcement and at another high school, and came up with a plan that honored our students’ rights while at the same time kept them safe.

Our students handled themselves well, with voices from all political stripes finding a polite and passionate audience. Signs and flags for both sides of the political spectrum dotted the lawn by the amphitheater, and students sat or stood respectfully as my administrative team and I kept a perimeter to make sure no uninvited guests crashed the unsanctioned but peaceful protest. Thirty minutes later the bell rang for fourth period and the crowd thanked each other for coming out and headed off to class.

Did I just describe a ruckus?

It wasn’t really much of one; the angriest voices I heard were from community members who phoned me to offer chastisement for “allowing students to believe they had a voice,” “letting kids think that when they graduate they will be able to protest,” and, as one angry gentleman scolded me, “educating a generation of wusses.”

But not all of being a principal, in this decade or any other, is responding to situations. At its best the job is about maintaining a vision for the future and working toward that picture of your school’s best self. It’s not chasing Ferris or telling the kids they can’t dance, but being a good steward to an institution that puts students in positions where they can succeed.

If some of those students dress all in black or like to wear buttons on their jackets, if they want to sport neon legwarmers or Guns ‘n Roses T-shirts, then more power to them. It’s the principal’s job to welcome them all, help them all see the value of listening to each other’s voices, and maybe even see that students, and principals too, transcend the stereotypes people have of them.

The world often looks at educators and students with suspicion and writes them off as agitators or cardboard cutouts. Put more eloquently: “You see us as you want to see us … in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain … and an athlete … a basket case … a princess … and a criminal.”

Am I every principal from every 1980s movie? Trust me, I’ve been called worse.

— Bjorn Paige is the principal at San Dieguito High School Academy

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