A day in the life of a principal


October was National Principals Month, and I hope you all took the time to celebrate your school leaders. Being a principal is tough — the hours are long, the work is challenging. Yet it is one of the most rewarding jobs, one where we can see the results that lead to impacts on young people’s futures. Three principals share what a typical school day looks like for them.

Sean Wong and Sonja Samsonas with Supt.

Supt. Kishimoto joined the The Hawaii Association of Secondary School Administrators in honoring principal of the year, Roosevelt High's Sean Wong, and vice principal of the year, Stevenson Middle's Sonja Samsonas.

October was National Principals Month, and I hope you all took the time to celebrate your school leaders in special ways.

Being a principal is tough — the hours are long, the work is challenging. And sometimes it feels nearly impossible to meet everyone’s needs, from students and families to teachers, staff and the broader community.

Yet it is one of the most rewarding jobs, one where we can see the results that lead to impacts on young people’s futures; where we can witness our staff and students reaching their goals because of the systems that we have helped to build.

Earlier this month, I had the honor of celebrating our 2019 Principal of the Year, Roosevelt High’s Sean Wong, and Assistant Principal of the Year, Stevenson Middle’s Sonja Samsonas, two exemplary school leaders who lead boldly with great passion for student success. It was great to hear their stories; each leader has a story.

A Day in the Life of a HIDOE Principal

Three principals were kind enough to take the time to share a glimpse into their day-to-day work. It’s eye-opening and encouraging to know what goes on “behind the scenes” to run our schools and design them in ways that best serve our students. A special mahalo to Shannon Goo, principal of Hahaione Elementary, Melissa Speetjens, principal of Waimea Canyon Middle, and Jon Henry Lee, principal of Campbell High for their honesty and humor. 

Principal Shannon Goo, Hahaione Elementary

A day begins. . . Eyes open in bed and I remember that I am in my dream career. I sneak in some exercise to keep up my energy levels and strive for balance in life. I then rush to get ready so I can walk the campus and ensure a safe learning environment, free of fallen branches and the dreaded dog poop. As our staff members arrive and we head into our day, I problem-solve with the school office staff about filling any positions that need to be covered due to early morning notification of illness. 

Students and teachers at Hahaione ElOften, weather permitting, I will take some time to play a couple downs of pick-up flag football with our before-school fitness club. Love it! I serve up knuckle explosions to as many students as possible walking around campus. Then, as students arrive in the 15 minutes before the start of classes, I join our JPO’s curbside and welcome students with a smile as I open their car doors and wish their parents a good day. Greeting students and parents and learning a bit about their lives lets them start their morning with a caring connection. It assures them that today (and every day) they are part of a loving learning community.

The bread-and-butter pedagogical leadership support is visiting each of our students’ classrooms where I will leave a card with quick observation and feedback for the teachers. This note will include my thoughts about a teaching strategy that I observed them use and the impact on learning.

Later, I jump into recess and play basketball with the 5th graders and then run around the kindergarten playground. There are times when a student’s exuberant play results in a blister or skinned knee, and I join them as we go to visit our wonderful school health aide who treats the wound with bandages and aloha.

Almost every day I will join one of our grade-level teachers’ meetings as they share with me their cool, real world, project-based lessons. This is the culture at our International Baccalaureate (IB) World School. Our teachers develop their own highly engaging units while ensuring the IB attributes are the centerpiece. The big Why of our job is to nurture students to be intrinsically motivated to positively impact the community. Our “whatever it takes” attitude doesn’t lead to a typical double math or language arts session with tons of worksheets. Instead, we enhance real world, engaging projects and spur wondering, discovery and innovation. I reflect with teachers to enhance their interdisciplinary units of inquiry and make learning exciting.

Throughout the day I usually make some calls, check some email.

Where’d the day go? It’s now afterschool and time for the faculty meeting the “Hahaione Way.” One day in October our desired outcome was team building, and we chose the activity of canoe paddling in Maunalua Bay and also incorporated some place-based learning. It was the best staff meeting ever.

Fueled by compassion, a principal’s day is filled with dozens of decisions — both big and small, impacting a single person or their entire community. Each day is different. It is exciting and rewarding. It is what I love doing and it keeps me coming back every day, every year because there is no other job like it. At the end of the day, we do what is best for all children under our care. They are our priority and focus. My heart runs deep for the students of Hahaione and there is little I won’t do to support their development as global citizens and leaders.

Principal Melissa Speetjens, Waimea Canyon Middle 

Welcome to middle school. First of all, in order to succeed as an educator in this environment, you better love middle school and the ever-changing profiles of these young learners. I do! To say the least, a middle school principal’s daily routine is never routine. While I enjoy this aspect of my job as Principal of Waimea Canyon Middle School (WCMS), the best aspect is working with middle level students.

Waimea Middle officeI always try to be the first on my campus and the last to leave. Checking emails as well as the morning news, any texts or phone calls, and my Egoscue exercises precedes this.

7:00-7:45 am — On campus to open the school. I check to see if we have any open substitute jobs, check in with security, head custodian, Vice Principal, and SASA. I walk the campus to greet students and get a general feel for the day or meet with a teacher(s) about their EES observation or a concern/opportunity. Basically, just be there for what needs to be done, even if it means just “high-fiving” a new teacher who just needs a little confidence boost.

7:45am-3:30 pm — Routines in Middle School are not routine for administrators. We flex with the needs of the day. Throughout my day, I try to remember and be guided by advice that was given to me by my colleagues:

  • Keep your door open — be there.
  • Tell me more = my mantra.
  • Treat every child as if they were your own child.
  • And a difficult lesson: Learn to eat crow.

There could be 504s and IEPs today, phone calls to get the water bottle fill stations installed, or last minute edits on a pending grant. Parents could walk in with a request or concern, we could be implementing a safety drill, or co-planning faculty meetings.

Throughout the day there are emails, phone calls, and general check-ins from staff. If open, I could cover an Advisory class and meet with coaches to discuss mentoring needs, upcoming professional development, or planning. I could have an amazing guest speaker on campus so I need to drop in that class, professional development for my teachers, which I need to attend as well, or be notified that the an aide called in sick with no coverage.

Snapshots of classrooms and the teaching environments are very important to me as well as providing immediate feedback. I meet with students that are having a difficult day, requesting a change, or just needing someone to listen; I am available for recess and lunch breaks, as it is time to talk to my students.

3:30-4:30 pm — Most students are off-campus and this becomes the time for checking all emails, responding to all phone messages, and most importantly, debriefing with my invaluable Vice Principal about the day. Options are discussed and calibration is reinforced, as our team is truly a cooperative team. I feel strongly about building strong systems, sustainability, and capacity.

4:30-5:30 pm — The quiet time on campus when I can prioritize needs, complete paperwork, make “to do” lists, and just breathe, think, and reflect.

I am always learning from my students; they are my inspiration and energizers. These wonderful children are our future and as long as we teach and guide them with what they will need in their present/future — 21st century learning skills to include community and culture, how to empathize, how to advocate for themselves, and the resiliency to accept their failures as steps towards success — we as middle level educators should be proud. It is simply about what is best for our learners — our students.

Principal Jon Henry Lee, Campbell High 

“Mister, you need a futon in your office.” That was my morning greeting and suggestion from one of our students who is a frequent flyer in the office. 

Campbell High classroomShe wanted a few more hours of sleep but still had enough energy to educate me on the differences between a futon and a bed and how it could fit perfectly in the corner of my office. She struggles at times interacting with some of her teachers and fellow classmates but has found a comfortable space with us. We welcome her and recognize the opportunity to turnaround her perspectives on what school can be. It is always good to start the day interacting positively with students, because after that, anything and everything can happen.

This was the first week back after fall break and this student was not the only one who was tired. Many of our teachers had a similar sleepy demeanor as they started the somewhat rough transition after enjoying a week away from campus. In essence, the campus itself was waking up from its brief hibernation and I was happy to have our people back to help breathe life back into it. 

Meetings, meetings, meetings and then more meetings. 

The meeting could be with one person or it could be with several hundred people (our Faculty Meeting consists of 215 teachers/counselors and the only place we can fit is in the cafeteria).

The meeting could be on our campus or all the way on the other side of the island. Some are scheduled and others are impromptu, but they are all valuable. It is your opportunity to build relationships and become informed of anything and everything that impacts or potentially impacts our school because in the end you are responsible for it all. 

It is also your opportunity to share the vision for the school and be a constant advocate for needed resources and partnerships. You need to be instantly ready to go into the next conversation with the person who is at the door and prepared for it or not, they are looking for a particular answer that they expect you to deliver on.

Exhausting and nerve wracking at times but you have to love the challenge of getting your school to where you know it can be. Hmm, maybe that futon can fit in in my office after all.

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