My Talk With the Principal

Thoughts on putting up walls — and tearing them down

By Anthony E. Iannone

Illustrator: Roxanna Bikadoroff

Illustration: Roxanna Bikadoroff

I tried to gather myself before the meeting with my principal, but I could feel the knot in my stomach begin to tighten. “What have I done wrong now? What could she possibly want to talk about?” Her email said she had “some serious concerns… about what is and is not going on in your classroom.”

I knew I had to speak to her. Halfway to her office I started to think, “This must be what students go through when they’re asked to go to the office for reasons they don’t quite understand.”

My arrival in her office seemed to jostle her. She was consumed by a mass of paperwork on her desk. She raised her head, bleary-eyed, and invited me in. The tension in the room was palpable.

We exchanged a few awkward pleasantries. She clearly had an agenda for the meeting but seemed unsure how to begin. I broke the silence by asking what her serious concerns were about what was going on (or not going on) in my classroom.

She looked nervously down at her notes and began to talk to me about how there were things in our school that were negotiable and things that were non-negotiable. I knew exactly where she was going, but I let her continue. She explained that everyone in the school was supposed to have a word wall up in their classroom.

A word wall, I thought. Is that her problem?

A word wall — that product from the prepackaged curriculum we’re supposed to use with our students when teaching them how to read. The product involves posting vocabulary from the literature anthology on the walls in our classroom. I resisted putting up the word wall because my students had no say in the words that were supposed to be there.

The words on a typical word wall are in alphabetical order, written on index cards. One of my colleagues has her word wall up only to keep our principal off her back. The only time her students use the wall is when she has them put the words on it. Under these circumstances, this word wall and the prepackaged curriculum it comes from have not only taken up precious space, but, more importantly, funds that could be used for quality literature.

I told my principal that I could not put up a word wall like this in my classroom. It goes against all that I believe about how children learn. I try to empower my students by teaching them how to choose what to read, providing them the opportunity to respond to the text and space to talk to others about the text. I explained to her that word walls assume that the only words worthy of our time and space in the classroom are the words from the anthology, which in turn places an artificial importance on the anthology as the source for learning to read.

At this point in the meeting, my principal looked frustrated, like she was holding something back. And, seeing her as the “enemy,” the person who wanted me to have this ridiculous word wall up in my room, I wasn’t prepared for the “wall” she was about to tear down.

She came clean with me. She told me that the real reason she needed me to have the word wall up was that whenever our school got “shopped” by district-level administrators with their “snapshot” observation forms, our school — and more directly my principal — was getting penalized whenever these administrators didn’t see things like a word wall up in everyone’s classroom. She told me that this was why she too was evaluating teachers with this “snapshot” evaluation form. She felt that by using the same form, she’d communicate to the staff exactly what was supposed to be going on (and in my case, what should be up on the walls) when others came in to observe instruction. This in turn would alleviate the extreme “heat” she was getting from district administrators. My noncompliance with the nonnegotiable items on the “snapshot” evaluation form was making my principal look weak and incapable of keeping her teachers in line.

At that moment, I began to see my principal as a human being caught in the same fight I find myself in each day, a fight that usually isolates teachers and principals from one another, a fight that makes teachers decide to just put the ridiculous word wall up and move on with their lives. It’s a fight between people who want the same things for children and the corporate system — which has an investment in uniformity and compliance.

Suddenly, I could hear her words differently. Strangely enough, I sensed the same thing beginning to happen with her. A new and more positive energy filled the room and as a result, I took the opportunity to talk to her about the “snapshot” evaluation form. I said that it limited her vision of what was really going on in classrooms. I told her that I thought it took away her voice and forced her to make judgments she knew were not accurate. I said that to me, as a teacher, the snapshot’s authoritative nature made her seem like an enforcer. Finally, I pointed out how there was no room on that form for a dialogue between teacher and administrator. How could either of us benefit from the use of such a form?

While she wasn’t quite ready to abandon the “snapshot” evaluation form — a battle for another day — she told me that the word wall I needed to have up in my room didn’t have to be the word wall from “the book.” I left that meeting feeling empowered to redefine what was expected of me.

Back in my classroom, I elicited the help of my students. I told them that our Great (Word) Wall of Empowerment is a wall for the people, made by the people.

“Let’s cut up multi-colored pieces of construction paper in the shape of bricks,” I said. “The words that go up on the wall will come from whatever you are currently reading — novels, picture books, any content area. The words can come from home, from your community, from your life.”

Recently, during a lesson on multiplication, my students and I were working with words like factor and product. One of my students raised his hand and asked if we could put these words on the wall. I asked him to get two “bricks” and write them down so we could place them up later in the day. Some students in my classroom know French, Spanish, and Korean. They write words for us in their home languages and teach their classmates how to read these words. We also have a class blog where friends and family members can recommend words for the wall. Words can also come from my students’ writing. At least once a week, we do something fun with the wall. I’ll come to class and challenge the students to come up with words that mean the same as cool. (“Sweet!”) The students write the words, color them in so they stand out on the wall and I staple them onto the wall. I’ve also cut up pieces of black construction paper to place in between the words to give it that wall look.

Now our wall fills up two sides of my classroom and is spilling down the corridor. My principal shows my wall to visitors and understands that the check-off sheet will show that she is “in control.” I think we’ve both begun to see each other differently, as co-workers engaged in the same struggle to provide our students with an education that empowers. My talk with my principal simultaneously resulted in the construction of one wall — The Great (Word) Wall of Empowerment — and the deconstruction of another.

Anthony E. Iannone is a 4th-grade teacher in Charlotte, N.C.