As a mom of two kids, ages 8 and 9, I am frequently in and out of their elementary school. Last month, I was approached by School District U-46 about participating in their annual Principal for a Day program as one of the many business leaders and elected officials they typically ask to represent this program. Interested in finding out more about how our local schools are run, specifically early education schools, I jumped at the opportunity.
My school for the day was Timber Trails in Hoffman Estates, a newer elementary school in the district. U-46 has the distinction of being the 2nd largest district in the state, second to Chicago Public School District. Timber Trails happens to be a dual-language school where students Kindergarten through 6th grade learn in both English, and Spanish. Having taken courses in Spanish during college, I was interested in seeing just how proficient I would still be in the language, I considered comparing myself to the first and second graders skill level. It turns out that I have retained very little Spanish language skills, which I realized as I entered the building, headed to the principal’s office, and overheard tiny students interacting with each other in Spanish and communicating with a door mom in English.
My office for the day was the principal’s office, a place I never expected to inhabit (even for a day) and my counterpart was the real Principal, Dr. Elisa Biancalana. Her career path from teacher to principal was impressive, and it was evident she really has a passion for her job. She also puts a lot of miles on her shoes, as she showed me how her job largely encompasses interacting with the students and instructors inside and outside the 2-story school. She also seemed to know all the students’ names and interests, as she easily interacted with the students gathered in the office for the morning announcement and pledge of allegiance. Those students were members of the Communications Club, who come in to do morning announcements and say the pledge on a daily basis. I, too, was given a task of announcing an inspiring poem for Teacher Appreciation Week.
Post announcements, we bounded down the hall to the kindergarten room, which was our first stop for the day. The kindergarteners were already involved with their first lesson for the day, which was a music class taught by a volunteer, a mom who was a music teacher prior to having children. Because the kindergarten program at Timber Trails is only half of the day, the students wouldn’t typically have music instruction as the cost wouldn’t be covered. So, that volunteer-lead weekly class gives these students enrichment opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have. I joined in with the class and had a blast seeing their sweet smiles as we waived rhythm ribbons.
Next it was time for the annual Fourth Grade Parade of States, which was the culmination of a lesson series those fourth graders had been working on. The parade was perceived with the same anticipation as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, but with much more order and with each student sitting in crisscross-applesauce positions. Each fourth grader pulled their tiny state dioramas down the upper and lower hallways to applause.
My next duty was to reach out to the first and second graders who had gathered for a Mother’s Day story and I was handed a selection of books to choose from. I selected a story of a mother who works each day at a diner, saving tip change, to buy a cozy upholstered chair that the mother could read her daughter stories from. The story also included morals of neighborhood support, overcoming adversity and thriving in situations that are less than ideal. The students were excellent listeners who asked astute questions on the story and also about my life.
One third grade class invited me to help select the “brain break” activity from a program the school uses called Go Noodle, a curriculum-based web series for teachers to use when students need a break in the classroom. Our brain break was a Kids Bop follow along style dance video to the popular song “Cheerleader”. I left winded, and was relieved that our next stop was at the library for a story and Mother’s Day craft with the librarian.
Principal Biancalana took me to the upper level classrooms where the fifth grade classrooms were busy holding court, literally. The fifth graders were working on their persuasive writing stills by writing persuasive arguments in a mock trial of story book characters. This day’s trial was based on Peter Pan. We waked in as Tinkerbell was giving her testimony followed by a lost boy, Plaintiff Captain Hook, and finally the defendant, Peter. The teacher, serving as the judge, urged her jury to deliberate, not based on their presumptions or prior knowledge, but on the structured testimony. Through giggles, it was determined that Peter Pan was not guilty in the maiming of Captain Hooks arm, which lead to his need for his famous hook. Justice delivered!
Our last stop of the day was a question and answer session for the sixth grade, which at this point in the day was studying social studies. The day’s lesson was about Federal Government. The teacher, having read my bio, asked the principal if I would be a guest in his class to talk about my experience as a former congressional staff member and grass-roots lobbyist in DC. The kids had each prepared questions that I answered one by one. They were a charming group that clearly had an interest in our government beyond the text book lessons.
As the morning came to a close I learned two important lessons. First, if I ever shadow a principal again I will wear flats. Second, a principal’s job is incredibly challenging while tandemly rewarding, especially as the role was seen through the eyes of Dr. Elisa Biancalana. I observed her easily handle a playground injury, guide students to their lunch room in Spanish, treat her faculty to a PTO arranged Teacher Appreciation luncheon and answer all of my questions on running a crayon colored facility of hundreds of students and faculty. I don’t think I’ve missed my calling as a teacher or principal, but I now have a clearer picture into the day to day life of those who truly shape and foster young people and prepare us to become the professionals we choose to be.