Rock Star Principals

The following blog was contributed by Jill Annable, executive director of academic excellence at the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) in Arlington, Virginia.

I recently ran into an old friend, a fellow Catholic school alum, whose children attend a Catholic school. As we discussed the launch of the most unique school year to date, she candidly shared, “Our principal is a rock star.” I agreed. In her admiration, this parent did not know that her principal has not taken a day off since the pandemic hit; she serves with unwavering passion and is the core of vibrancy of the school.

When I became the assistant superintendent in the Diocese of Grand Rapids, I had never been a school principal. My background is in teaching and curriculum development, and I must admit: I was initially intimidated! I took the first weeks on the job to observe classrooms but also found myself observing principals. It was fascinating. My tunnel vision of classroom life was nothing compared to the scope of principal responsibilities; as a teacher, I had been completely ignorant of school budgets and operational vitality. Now in this seat, positioned to support schools as the assistant superintendent, my internal questioning mirrored what my own children wonder about their principal: “Does she run on coffee alone?” “How does she always know the right answer?” I quickly learned that my role had to be singularly focused: How can I help you?

I focused on this question in my time as assistant superintendent, attempting to lift the work of curriculum and instruction so principals could focus on operations and relationships. It was fulfilling, yet it paled in comparison to what principals were handling on a daily basis.

Not many realize the crises averted and conflicts resolved by Catholic school principals. Parents see how the principal supports their own children, but the sheer volume of personal encounters and supports is unimaginable. The launch of the 2020-2021 school year was no exception. Principals filled their summer with tense brainstorming sessions ranging from safety protocols to instructional practices. They worked late nights, on the phone with parents who were worried about their children’s health, the options our Catholic schools could offer, and concerns much beyond the scope of the school. But how did our principals respond? They delivered. They did not wait for the rest of the world to come up with solutions; they instead rolled up their sleeves and worked tirelessly to ensure Catholic education could continue in the safest ways possible.

When the old friend shared that her principal was a rock star, her next question was, “How can I help?” Reflecting on that moment, and in comparison to my own response years back, I am reminded of the beauty of Catholic school communities. This parent, who already sacrifices financially for her children’s education, seeks to give more. The prayer of St. Francis reminds us “It is in giving that we receive.” We are certainly seeing this in one another during 2020.

The most amazing part of watching principals at work is that I expect, by all laws of nature, to see signs of exhaustion, but it never comes. Instead, they are energized by the ministry. When I explained this to my friend, I encouraged her to pray that God continues to grant grace to those in Catholic school leadership and to perhaps send the principal a note of gratitude.

It is with great admiration that we celebrate this year’s Catholic Principal Appreciation Day on November 19. They are not only rock stars, but also headed to sainthood.