How My Students Came to Know Me As "Daddy of the School"
By Allan Shedlin
Founder, DADvocacy Consulting Group
It was four-year-old Billy who provided the best definition of how I saw the essence of my job as an elementary school principal.
The social studies curriculum for the pre-kindergarten students began with a study of “community helpers.” But rather than begin with the more traditional look at policemen, firemen, postal workers, sanitation workers, etc., we began by looking at the community helpers within the school building – the people our students interacted with on an almost daily basis. These included the kitchen staff, the custodial staff, the secretaries, and various administrators. And me, the principal.
Those educators who take a personal, loving interest in their students tend to make the best connections and, ultimately, make the biggest difference in their students' lives.
Systematically, the pre-kindergarteners interviewed the in-school community helpers to find out what their job was, what they did. When Billy’s class of 19 bright-eyed four-year-olds came in to interview me we sat in a circle on the floor of my office and they asked, “What do you do?” (I know a lot of people wonder what a principal actually does…) I told them I would be happy to answer their question if they would first answer mine: “What do you think a principal does?”
As we went around the circle, I noticed that Billy seemed to be thinking intently. When his turn came, stroking his chin like he was a wise, old man, he said, “The principal is kind of like the daddy of the school.”
Bingo! That was exactly the main way I carried out my role! Of course, I wondered why none of my professors ever included this idea/role during my graduate studies in school administration.
”What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children.” – John Dewey
I enjoyed a career of more than four decades in education. I taught from graduate school up to nursery school (I make a point of saying "up to" because I've always considered the earliest school years as the most important. It's where foundations are laid, habits are formed, and where children's desperation to learn is either encouraged or extinguished). And I've served as an administrator at various levels and as a local, state, and federal policy advisor. Not once during that time had anybody else ever thought to articulate the role of a principal in such nurturing, compassionate terms. As a matter of fact, it probably would have been deemed “unprofessional.”
That said, my broad experience has taught me that those educators who take a personal, loving interest in their students tend to make the best connections and, ultimately, make the biggest difference in their lives.
Progressive educator John Dewey believed, ”What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children.” I learned that this also applied to all who have chosen various roles as educators – especially those with the most direct contact with students.
During my daddying work over the past quarter-century, I’ve realized the thread that has been a constant in my long and ongoing career is the importance of making a caring, loving connection with those you are in a position to help and serve.
Emerging from the crescendo of our pandemic, many parents have been thrust into a role of a “school daddy/mommy.” But "school daddy" or "school mommy" are titles much different than "the daddy of the school." Let me explain: School daddies play a role that has primarily been thrust upon them, with little or no preparation or training. The role tends to narrowly focus on particular assignments and is complicated by the variety of other roles dads play as well as other home-related demands. It's added onto all the other things he is expected to do and, thus, may be accompanied by resentment and frustration.
On the other hand, as the daddy (or mommy) of the school, the principal has prepared and been trained for the job. They have chosen it. They are present for 6-8 hours a day and their exclusive task is the well-being of everybody in their school, regardless of what other demands may occur throughout the day. So, once again, we are reminded of the various other people in a child's life, who often play invaluable fatherly roles. And such individuals can and do make a positive, lifelong impact on a child's development. And if open to it, the children can make a positive, lifelong impact on theirs.
Allan Shedlin has devoted his life’s work to improving the odds for children and families. He has three daughters, a “bonus” son, five grandchildren, and three “bonus” grandchildren. Trained as an educator, Allan has alternated between classroom service, policy development, and advising. After eight years as an elementary school principal, Allan founded and headed the National Elementary School Center for 10 years. In the 1980s, he began writing about education and parenting for major news outlets and education trade publications, as well as appearing on radio and TV. In 2008, he was honored as a "Living Treasure" by Mothering Magazine and founded REEL Fathers in Santa Fe, NM, where he now serves as president emeritus. In 2017, he founded the DADvocacy Consulting Group. In 2018, he launched the DADDY Wishes Fund and Daddy Appleseed Fund. In 2019 he co-created and began co-facilitating the Armor Down/Daddy Up! and Mommy Up! programs. He earned his elementary and high school diplomas from NYC’s Ethical Culture Schools, BA at Colgate University, MA at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and an ABD at Fordham University. But he considers his D-A-D the most important “degree” of all.