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Ms. Rappleyea, principal of Barrington Middle School, says principals must always expect the unexpected.

What exactly does a principal do all day?

February 12, 2019 - Employee Excellence

Laura Cross is a new employee of Hillsborough County Public Schools.

Thirty seconds before a school-wide fire drill, a student stumbled out onto the sidewalk, in front of one of the main exits of the school, and vomited all over the walkway.

I’ll get back to that.

I’m a parent, and also a new employee of Hillsborough County Public Schools, and I’m ashamed to admit I had no idea what a principal's duties are during the day.

I had a vision of a principal, sliding into work before the bell, kicking their feet up on their desk, and waiting for a teacher to bring a student into their office for a good “talking-to.”

So, I decided to see for myself. What exactly does a principal do all day?

I reached out to Amy Rappleyea, principal of Barrington Middle School in Lithia. To be honest, I reached out to a middle school principal because of their later start time. I figured I could sleep in a little bit and meet the principal at the school around 8:30 a.m., 8:45 a.m. tops.

Boy, was I wrong.

Ms. Rappleyea informed me she is at school at 7:30 a.m.

So, at 7:40 a.m., I ring the buzzer at the front office of Barrington Middle School.

A very welcoming school secretary makes sure I’m wearing my district ID badge and then asks what my purpose is at the school. I tell her I’m shadowing Ms. Rappleyea for the day. She looks me up and down and says, “I hope you can keep up with her.”

I start to get a little nervous.

It's chilly, so I’m in high-heeled boots.

Anyway, Ms. Rappleyea is in her office on her computer when I walk in. She says she HAS to arrive at 7:30 a.m. because that sacred half-hour between 7:30 a.m. and 8 a.m. is the only time she can answer all the emails from the evening before.

I start to get cozy in her office and settle in for eight hours of watching her give students a “talking-to.”

The second I sit down, she’s on her feet, headed to a leadership meeting with the teacher-leaders from each grade.

It’s an impressive meeting. I’m not sure what I expected. Maybe a bunch of teachers in a room chatting about students’ problems. But this is a fact-based, stat-based discussion. Each of the teachers presents data to Ms. Rappleyea about how their students are doing and what format seems to be the best to help them learn.

As a parent, I am fascinated.

This meeting is efficient and informative. But the moment 8:45 a.m. hits, Ms. Rappleyea is on her feet again.

Time for the students to arrive.

Ms. Rappleyea, along with one of her assistant principals, stands outside the front gate—greeting students, keeping the car line moving and, most importantly, watching the gates. Security is a top priority for Ms. Rappleyea, as I’m sure it is for ALL principals these days. But she keeps an eye on each gate, making sure only her students are walking inside.

At precisely 9:25 a.m. the school bell rings and Ms. Rappleyea closes the gates.

But, instead of heading back to her office, she grabs her walkie-talkie and leads me to one of the hallways in the center of her school.

It's time for a school lockdown drill.

Once a month, every school in our district practices a lockdown. It is serious stuff. Someone speaks over the walkie-talkie, asks if everyone is in position, and then announces over the intercom that the lockdown drill is on.

Immediately, I see lights turn off in classrooms, all windows are covered, and students are ushered out of sight.

Ms. Rappleyea immediately starts walking down the hallway, peering into classrooms, checking locked doors and making sure none of her students would be in harm’s way.

Barrington has this down to a science. It is executed perfectly.

After the drill, Ms. Rappleyea and the rest of her administration meet outside one of the hallways for a few minutes to discuss the drill and anything that could be done differently.

With that over, I'm SURE we’re going to be heading back to her office. I mean, I left my coffee in there.

I was wrong again.

It’s time for 6th grade lunches to begin.

With a school as large as Barrington, lunches must begin relatively early in order to get everyone fed.

Ms. Rappleyea tells me this is her favorite part of being principal. She says she likes mingling with the students, especially 6th graders. She feels it’s important to establish a relationship with the 6th graders early so they are comfortable with her throughout middle school.

So for the next hour, we are walking through the cafeteria, answering students’ questions, monitoring their cell phone activity (Ms. Rappleyea says if a student immediately hides their phone when she walks up, she makes them turn it off and they lose their phone privileges) and just chatting with them about their day.

Finally, Ms. Rappleyea grabs a salad from the cafeteria and we’re headed back to her office for a few minutes to eat.

But not so fast.

The moment Ms. Rappleyea picks up her fork, a teacher comes to her and requests a minute of her time. Behind closed doors.

So, I sit in a conference room eating, looking at Ms. Rappleyea’s untouched food for a solid 15 minutes.

When she returns to the conference room, I simply ask if everything is okay.

She looks at me pensively for a moment, like she's deciding whether she wants to say what she's about to say. Then she tells me she wishes parents knew how often a teacher comes to her in tears. The frustrations of the day, or the challenge of working with a particular student becomes too much.

Then she quickly eats her lunch.

After lunch, Ms. Rappleyea is again called away into a closed-door meeting by one of her teachers, so I lurk around the reception area of the school. A parent comes in to pick up her child unexpectedly but does not have a valid driver’s license or ID, which is a requirement to get onto the school campus or to pick up a child. I listen to the very calm but persistent school secretary tell this woman that it is for the safety of the student they cannot allow her to pick up a child. This goes on for about 10 minutes. The school would not back down. I'm impressed.

After Ms. Rappleyea is through meeting with the teacher, she quickly grabs me and we hustle into the middle of the school’s courtyard.

Oh my gosh, what now?

It's time for the monthly fire drill. Simple enough, right?

But as Ms. Rappleyea told me repeatedly—"expect the unexpected." So, with 30 seconds to go before the fire drill, when a child stumbles out of a classroom in front of one of the main exits of the school and vomits, not once, but twice, all over the sidewalk, I shouldn’t be surprised.

Ms. Rappleyea and I watch it happen. She quickly brings the walkie-talkie to her mouth while rushing TOWARD the student and his vomit, and calls immediately for a custodian. Then, as the drill starts and kids pours out of their classrooms, she points the sick student toward the clinic while forming a human chain with the choir teacher to direct students AWAY from the vomit and toward the other exit of the school.

I just stand back (far back) and watch it all happen. Ms. Rappleyea tells students to look away, cover their noses, and continue with the fire drill.

Despite the detour, the kids listen to every word, and another perfect drill goes into the books.

Have I mentioned how badly my high-heeled feet are ACHING at this point?

We walk back into administration, where Ms. Rappleyea checks on the sick student, and then she stops quickly into her office to glance at her inbox and voicemail. Both of which are packed.

But there’s no time for that now.

It’s finally time for dismissal.

She unlocks the gates, takes her position in front of the school, and stands tall amid the sea of controlled chaos as 1,500 middle school students rush excitedly by her.

I look at my watch.

It’s 4:35 p.m.

I… am… exhausted!

I cannot WAIT to grab my bag, head home and have a glass of wine.

As we walk back to her office, I start gathering up my things. Ms. Rappleyea does not. She sits down at her desk and opens her computer.

I want to cry.

She smiles at me in pity and says she has a bunch of paperwork to do now and that I should head home.

I’d love to tell you I sat there with her for another hour as she returned calls and put out fires, but I did not. I went home while making a mental note to spoil my kids’ teachers, staff and principals SILLY during the next Teacher Appreciation Week.

Looking back over my day, there are three BIG things I learned while following Ms. Rappleyea:

1) A good principal is always visible. She gets to know her students and, while they respect her and her authority, they also feel comfortable and safe knowing she is around.

2) A school is like a family. Everyone had each other’s backs. There were moments everyone was laughing and having fun—but there were also the moments that looked really, really emotionally difficult. And the span of time between the highs and lows happened in a flash.

3) If you’re ever going to follow a principal around for the day, wear comfortable shoes!

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