What It's Like To Be...

A High School Principal

December 12, 2023 Dan Heath Season 1 Episode 7
What It's Like To Be...
A High School Principal
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Managing complaints from parents, handling the horrors of teenage social media, and serving as an emergency substitute teacher with Marcus Belin, a high school principal in Illinois. How does it feel for everyone in town to know him as The Principal? And what exactly is a “sandwich email”?

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Dan Heath: A day in the life of a high school principal is full of surprises. The afternoon that I spoke with Marcus Belin, he was running a bit late because he'd been drafted into duty as a replacement substitute teacher.

Marcus Belin: So in the life of a principal, you never know what's going to happen any given day, but I had to sub in a classroom. We needed a teacher, and sometimes just getting in and just making it happen. I love it.

Dan Heath:
So at what point did [00:00:30] you find out there's no teacher in the classroom?

Marcus Belin: Usually, you just watch the emails. Some emails are floating back and forth between our sub coordinator, who will put out an email that just says, "Hey, these classrooms are open during this time. Still looking for some subs," and then when somebody doesn't pick it up, I'm like, "Hey, I will never ask my staff to do anything that I won't do," so I'm like, "Cool. I got a free moment, so let me just hop in and do it."

Dan Heath: Wow. And so what class were you subbing for today?

Marcus Belin: It was math, Algebra 1, freshmen.

Dan Heath: [00:01:00] How did the students feel about having the principal be their substitute teacher?

We'll get back to that in just a second, but in the meantime, welcome to the show. I'm Dan Heath, and this is What It's Like To Be... In every episode, we profile someone from a different profession, a mystery novelist, a forensic accountant, a criminal defense attorney. Today, we'll meet Marcus Belin, a principal at Huntley High School in Huntley, Illinois, a school of 3000 students. We'll learn about the path blazed by Marcus' family that led him on this journey and what social media has done to the high school experience, and also what it's like dealing with all those parents and the weird emails they send. Stay with us, folks.

So Marcus, when you subbed this morning, were students freaked out to see the principal [00:02:00] teaching?

Marcus Belin: No, not at all. I've made it a common thing to be in classrooms all the time, especially in a building my size. I want people to be okay with me, just being in and out.

Dan Heath: My memory of being a sub years ago was it brought out the student's most malevolent instincts. It was like, "We're going to haze this person," but I imagine you get a different reaction as the principal, is the good news.

Marcus Belin: Yes. So my relationship with students [00:02:30] in this building is very different. I don't fit the mold of I walk around in a suit and a tie. Not to say that that's bad. Please don't take it as that. This is more of I come as my authentic self, and so wearing J's, some nice pants and a T-shirt that says, "You matter" on it is kind of normal attire for me, or a polo, and so I got a population of 3,000 kids. The unfortunate [00:03:00] ability about my job is that I don't get to learn the individual stories about the students that walk the halls, yet, I make decisions on their lives over the course of four years. And so being in the role that I'm in, I really try to spend as much as my time getting to know kids and know kids in different arenas, whether that's on the football field, or in the pool for swimming, or on the tennis courts, or in the choir room, on the stage, or in a classroom.

Dan Heath: It seems like I've known [00:03:30] some principals over the years, and it seems like this weird mixture of roles where on one level, you're the boss, on another level, it's like whatever doesn't fit into anybody else's job description and needs to be done urgently, it ends up on your desk.

Marcus Belin: Well, what people don't get to see is that when you sign that contract, there is a bullet point down at the list of duties and the roles of a principal. It's called other duties as assigned, [00:04:00] and that's just one bullet point that just lives on every contract. That's like a catchall.

Dan Heath: You had no idea what the full significance of that was, did you?

Marcus Belin: Yeah. It's three very small words, but very impactful to the life of a principal.

Dan Heath: So what are some of those extremes? If you were to look back on the last year, that I imagine there's a lot of duties that are normal, and visiting classrooms, and supervising teachers and so forth. What [00:04:30] are some of the extremes that fall under that last bullet point?

Marcus Belin: I mean, everything from subbing to hopping in the cafeteria with the chefs to make ... And I say chefs, the kitchen cooks, our chefs to make sandwiches on the back line, setting up for different events, anything, maintenance, custodial. I clean the cafeteria from time to time when we're short custodians because we have 3,000 teenagers, and if you can only imagine what [00:05:00] it's like for one, you can only imagine what it's like bringing all 3,000 together. So that's the physical stuff. The other side of it is just being ever present for our kids.

I never know what our kids are going to need. There's a kid that could be literally having a breakdown in a bathroom, and I have to sit on the bathroom floor next to them and figure out how we get them to an office to get the support that they need. And so whatever the definition means for you to be present for every kid every day, that's [00:05:30] what it is. That's the job.

Dan Heath:
How much interaction do you have with parents?

Marcus Belin: What interactions don't I have? I have the most. I mean, it could be here in the school, or it can be in Walmart at 11:00 in the bread aisle, and you see a parent, they're like, "Oh, hey, Dr. Belin, it's so good to see you." In my community, I really, really, really tried to consider myself just a normal human being and [00:06:00] a normal citizen of Huntley, right? I'm a high school principal in a town of about 30,000 people with one high school, and people do see me as an influencers.

Dan Heath: I mean, you're a local celebrity.

Marcus Belin: Yes. That's what people describe. I was trying to figure out a different word other than local celebrity.

Dan Heath: No, I think that's true. I mean, that's the way it's been for the principals and the schools that I've gone to, and my kids have gone to. It's a big deal. I mean, does that come with a [00:06:30] cost? Do you sort of feel like you're being observed even when you go through your normal life?

Marcus Belin: All the time. All the time. My wife and I, we've talked about this a lot, especially when I started working in this community, is that ... Even our friend groups, and people that we hang around with, and people that our kids get to interact with ... Their kids and our kids interact with each other.

It doesn't matter where I am. It could be a Friday night, [00:07:00] sitting on the couch at someone's house. At the end of the day, I'm still a high school principal, so I'm always on, and that's why when you talk to some school leaders, they don't live in the communities in which they serve, simply because that's a lot. I'm going to be honest, there's times that I literally just want to shut it off and just wear some sweatpants, a hoodie, and just not care. And I do.

Not to say that I don't find myself relaxed, but I always have to be on my [00:07:30] own because kids are watching, parents are watching, community members who have no kids, but they're just taxpayers in the community, they're always watching, but that's the life I choose.

Dan Heath: So I've heard from a lot of teachers, especially over the years, that parents are kind of dramatically more involved these days than they were, certainly when I grew up. You're probably younger than me, but I can't imagine what would've had to happen for my parents to contact a teacher. That [00:08:00] would've been a freakish occurrence, and from what I understand now, it's an everyday thing. Have you found that to be true, and if so, how does it feel to kind of have a newly invested constituency involved in the work?

Marcus Belin: I'll start by saying yes, parents have become more involved, which is great, but I also want people to know that it's okay to also share the positive. While becoming [00:08:30] involved, I appreciate those random emails that I get from parents that it's like ... They always preface it. I'll describe it a couple of ways. One is they always preface it like, "I know you don't hear this enough," or, "I know you don't always hear the positive but," and then fill in the blank with a positive thought, or statement, or interaction.

We don't receive those enough. No one in education does. Not to say that we have to have that to keep going, but we kind of have to have that to keep going, right? [00:09:00] We don't always just want to deal with the negative or the constructive feedback. Sometimes hearing a positive and the validation of knowing that what we are doing is good work, right?

We may deem it to be good work, but when other people see it, there's that self-satisfaction. There's that validation that, I think everybody to some degree needs. The other part of this is the sandwich that people send to you. I call them sandwich emails. I know sandwich [00:09:30] emails where it's like, "Hey, just want to let you know how awesome things are going. Here's all of the negative stuff, and then thank you so much for what you do."

"You always have our support," but the reality of your email really is just focusing on the middle section, right? You didn't want to come off as-

Dan Heath: And it's like a quadruple meat sandwich, right? It's like they're-

Marcus Belin: Yeah, man. Yeah. I'm just like, "This is not Subway, and you can't have it your way. Just give it to me." That's Burger King, but it's not like Subway where you're building [00:10:00] all of these layers of the sandwich.
 
As a school administrator, if you have an issue, come to me with an issue, give it to me straight, let's figure out how we get to a solution because we have to figure it out, and then let's move on.

Dan Heath: Are there particular kids that you look back on and you think, "My relationship with that kid really made a difference for them"?

Marcus Belin: All the time. All the time. I have kids from previous schools that I've worked at, and I've only worked at two previous schools in [00:10:30] different roles. This school here is my first as a principal. I've been here six years now, and I have had kids who have gotten to college, and I changed my major because of the impact that you had.

Dan Heath: Do you remember a conversation you've had with a student recently that kind of stuck in your mind?

Marcus Belin: I do, actually. It wasn't really a conversation. Actually, she came to me and she said, "Hey, Dr. B., I finished my college essay." I was like, "Okay, cool," and she was like, "It was about you. I need you to [00:11:00] read it."

I was like, "Okay, cool. Share it with me." She was like, "It's in your email." "Oh, okay, perfect. When I get back to my office, I'm going to check it out."

That letter brought a tear, that I was almost crying like a baby, and I was only mentioned in it once along with two other people, but the level of impact that that college essay had. In synopsis, it talked about 52 walls, and I was like, "Okay, 52 [00:11:30] walls," and it starts out like it really builds. I mean, for a senior to ... If I were an English teacher, I'd be like, "Yo, you got me hooked," but it talked about 52 walls, and it talked about the number of foster homes that this child has been in.

Dan Heath: Oh, wow.

Marcus Belin: If you take 52 and if it's four walls that make a house or four walls that make a building, that's 13 different locations, and this child [00:12:00] is 17 years old.

Dan Heath: Whoa.

Marcus Belin: So for four years of their life, so far, they've been in a solid, stable place
maybe, right? But they talk specifically about the 13 different locations in which they've been, and they never had someone that they can call mom, they never had someone that they could call dad, they never had anyone. And they did. I mean, ultimately, they're here because they have a mother and a father, but for whatever reason, and I'll [00:12:30] leave that piece out of the story, they are not in their life in the current moment. And so when kids come to school for eight hours a day, and they spend most of their waking hours, they spend 170 days out of the year, eight hours of the day in a school building, that's a lot of time.
 
When she talked about what she gets when she's in this building, she says, "Unless I am deathly sick or contagiously sick, I'm [00:13:00] coming here every single day." She talks about the time that she's been in here and the interactions that we've had, and little did I know that all of the conversations that I was having with her and all of the interactions that I would have, seeing her in classes and seeing her in a counselor's office, or our social worker's office, getting help that she needs, or the moments that I would see her crying and I'm like, "I don't know what's going on, but can I just sit here with you? We don't have to talk. I just want to sit here with you."

That little [00:13:30] interaction alone, those buildups of moments helped change her perspective of what she believed a father would be, and so she sees me as a father figure in her life, and now, she's going into education because she believes that this is, she feels is her calling because she feels that she can share this impact and be a beacon of light for those who have that same story or similar story, because they exist in schools [00:14:00] everywhere.

Dan Heath: Was there a teacher or an administrator who played a big role in your life?

Marcus Belin: Both. I think the teacher that played a big role in my life was my grandmother. She was 97 when she passed away in April of 2020, but she was a special education teacher for 40 years in Chicago Public Schools. She also taught in the Archdiocese of Chicago. She [00:14:30] taught in the same school that I went to elementary school in, so kindergarten through eighth grade.

She didn't teach the entire time I was there, but she taught for the majority of time in the kindergarten classroom. And it was, I'll never forget, I was at a little mom and pops grocery store on the south side of Chicago. Most people call them the corner stores, but it was a very well-run establishment. It was a Black-owned establishment on the south side of Chicago, and I actually [00:15:00] worked there for some years as a bagger. I used to bag groceries and run groceries out to the cars for the, I don't want to say old folks, I'll say seasoned people. The seasoned grocery shoppers.

But I'll never forget, we were standing in the aisle, and a lady walks up, and she has a tear in her eye, and she was like, "Ms. Armor, you don't know who I am," and she was like, "Oh, I know who you are." She said her first and her last name. She asked how her kids were doing. She asked how her job was [00:15:30] going. She asked what's she doing with her life pretty much, and you would've thought that you told this lady she was winning like a million bucks, because her jaw dropped of like, "How do you remember all of this?"

And here comes her kid, running around the corner. She tells her kids to stop running, and my grandmother says the kid's name by their first name. What this lady did not say was, " [00:16:00] You were my child's kindergarten teacher," because my grandmother knew, because she taught the kindergartner, she also taught the mom, and she was also very closely tied as a friend to the mom's or, yes, the mom's parents. So this is generational. That, in that moment, my jaw was to the ground of like, "How do you remember [00:16:30] all of this?," and she was like ...

She always told me. She said, "When you are in a situation where you have such an impact and can leave a legacy for people, that's what you do. It's not about how much you make, it's not about how much it can benefit you, it's about the legacy that you can leave and the spaces in which you are ultimately." So for me, it's always been about legacy, and I was like, "I want to do that." And so her influence on me being an educator was amazing, [00:17:00] outside of the fact that I am a fifth-generation educator in my family. So it was-

Dan Heath: It's the family trade.

Marcus Belin: It is, but when we talk about the impact of a teacher, while there were a lot of teachers who have impacted my life, my grandmother was that, because she taught me every single day.

Dan Heath: Hey, everyone, it's Dan, and for once, I'm not going to bug you about reviews or whatever. This episode is debuting in December. It's charitable giving time, and I wanted to [00:17:30] plug one of my favorite organizations called GiveWell. It's sort of like a consumer reports for charity. So if you want your donation dollars to go as far as possible in helping other human beings, they've done the research, they've got the picks.

So if you're looking for last-minute places to send your charitable dollars, go to givewell.org and check out their picks. I've been using them for years. Honestly, can't say enough good things about them. Givewell. [00:18:00] org. Now, back to the show.

Just hearing you talk, I mean, it's making me think about my own high school principal and just how different your approach was. I mean, this was a guy ... I'll leave his name out of it, but he had, just to give you a feel for where he was coming from, he had a big framed painting of John Wayne on his office, and I think if it had been legal to have like a gun rack in [00:18:30] his office, there would've been one. He came out to make the obligatory remarks at assemblies from time to time, but mainly, he was just sort of an authority figure who loomed in the background. Then, to hear your approach, and it's kind of student first, and you're finding as many ways as you can to be involved in their life, I mean, that's powerful. Where do you think your inspiration for that approach came from?

Marcus Belin: [00:19:00] In 2018, when I took on a role as principal ... This was my first principal job. I remember walking in July 1, so my contract started. I walked in the office on July the 2nd, and I looked around, and I was like, "Man, this is my office." I got my keys, I was waiting to kind of see what was going to happen, and it's this buildup of like, "I got the job, I signed a contract, I [00:19:30] knocked it out of the park in the interview, got approved at the board meeting, now what?"

No one gives you a folder when you start a job that says, "Here's how to be a principal." Right? No one gives you that, but what people expect is because you signed up and you signed your contract to be a principal, this is what you want to do, you should be trained and be skilled enough to be able to just get started. You shouldn't know what [00:20:00] to do, right? So I quickly realized like, "Man, I got to get some knowledge in my belt to figure out, what next?"

And so I literally got lost in my building. I had 750,000 square feet of space, and I literally walked, and everybody I came in contact with, I introduced myself, I learned their name, and then I just started. I said, "Hey, you got a couple minutes. Can you just tell me what's it like here? [00:20:30] What are the people like? What are the kids like?"
"What do you do? What is your job like? What are the things that are successful? What are things that if you could change today, before the school year starts, what would you change?" I mean, it was like, "Ask me a million questions. I'm putting you on interview," because as I'm doing that, I become the sponge to start soaking up all of that knowledge that they're giving me.

Of course, the only people that you have in the building over the summer are, guess who? Your custodians or your secretaries, [00:21:00] the people who really have a pulse on what's going on. That sounds so cliche, but it's true. They know-

Dan Heath: Was there anything that you learned from those early conversations where you were like, "Oh, we can do that immediately?" What was the lowest hanging fruit of what you learned?

Marcus Belin: I think the lowest hanging fruit was just recognizing as a school, we do a lot because of how large ... When I started here, we were almost 3,100 students. It was large, and there's so many things that happened, but [00:21:30] kids, they were seen, but they were seen as like almost ID numbers. The first question you ask a kid, when they come to your desk, it's like, "Hey, can I get a temporary ID?" "Yeah. What's your ID number?"

It's not, "Hey, Marcus. Hey, Paul. Hey, Karen. Hey ..." It's, "Hey, what's your ID number?," and then I have to look them up in PowerSchool, and then it's like, "Oh, hey, Marcus, how are you?"

I have to look them up in our student information system [00:22:00] first before I can actually engage in a conversation. To me, I'm like, "We got to figure this out," and so when I first started, that was it. That was a small win. It was starting to learn people's names, it was starting to let people know genuinely that they are seen, heard, and valued.

Dan Heath: So I made up this cheesy multiple-choice question for you, given the high school education theme, so here we go. If you are [00:22:30] coming home after having experienced some negative emotions, frustration, anger, disappointment, whatever, is it most likely because of A, a teacher, B, a student, C, a parent, or D, someone above you on the org chart?

Marcus Belin: Oh. I don't know. It could be all of the above. Maybe it's kids because of just some of the decisions, the bad decisions that they've made, and ultimately, because [00:23:00] of their decisions, there's other things that just dominoes tend to fall. If a kid does something bad, they have to go see a dean.
 
Well, when they have to go see a dean, we have to contact their parent, or when we contact their parent, their parent may be upset and frustrated because they believe that the school is at fault and trying to figure out, and then it spirals, right? All of those can happen in one day.

Dan Heath: How would you say the high school experience for students today is different from the high school experience [00:23:30] that you had or that I had?

Marcus Belin: Two words, social media. That's it. If I had to redo high school over, it would be horrible because social media is literally the demise of our education system, if you will.

Dan Heath: Oh, unpack that.

Marcus Belin: Let me unpack that. So much of what happens amongst our kids is usually [00:24:00] derived from some form of social media. Kids get into arguments and fights verbally in the school, or things happen in the school is because of something that happened on social media. Anecdotally, and almost statistically, we can go back and look at our data to see, "What initiated this?" A social media post or a Snapchat.

Snapchat is the worst. I have nothing against the company. I have nothing against the people who have developed these platforms. It is what it is. You're smart. Hey, [00:24:30] you got people who are using your stuff, great, awesome, but digital citizenship when it comes to social media sometimes is very lacking in our kids because they do things that they think like, "Oh, no one will ever find out," or "I can take these pictures and send them, and no one will ever know it's me," and it's like, "No." You've created such a digital footprint for yourself, that kids just, they don't understand, and so some of what we battle, some of the stuff that's happened in the trends, the news, [00:25:00] the positive stuff, the negative stuff, the false information, all is transmitted through some form of social media.

Dan Heath: So Marcus, we always end our episodes with a quick lightning round of questions. Let me fire away here. Number one, what's a word or phrase that only someone from your profession would be likely to know, and what does it mean?
Marcus Belin: Ooh, that's a good one. I think a word, if it has three letters in it. So when you say [00:25:30] IEP, or 504, or MTSS, right? You could put a whole bunch of letters together. They mean something in the educational world.

Dan Heath: What's an IEP?

Marcus Belin: An IEP is an Individualized Education Plan.

Dan Heath: Okay, and what does that mean?

Marcus Belin: An Individualized Education Plan is typically students who have some sort of a disability that inhibits their ability to perform at their maximum level, students who have ADHD, or [00:26:00] students who have a physical impairment or are nonverbal or something. They get an individualized education plan that allows the teachers, allows the parents, allows them to be able to access resources that will assist them in being able to perform despite the challenges in which they face.

Dan Heath: Who's the most famous principal, whether real or fictional?

Marcus Belin: I would say Principal Belding from Saved by the Bell, yeah. He was just such a gullible guy. I look back at some of those episodes, and I'm just like ... Because I used to watch all of Saved by the Bell. I look back at some of those episodes like, "Man, you ... Come on, man." "They got you. You work with teenagers. They got you."

Dan Heath: You've got kids that aren't too many years away from high school, and you have an up-close view of thousands of high school students. What will you tell your kids? What advice will you [00:27:00] give them to prepare them to have a better high school experience?

Marcus Belin: Always be honest, even if you make a mistake, even if you mess up horribly, right? Just always be honest. I used a parallel where I tell my kids, "If I worried about everything that everybody thought about me and the decisions that I made, I would never get anything done. I wouldn't have the brain space [00:27:30] to do everything." So if I just focus on who I am and knowing that everything that I'm doing is the best that I can, and that it's all part of the legacy that I want to leave, I should be unapologetic in the decisions that I make when I have kids at the center of all of my decision-making, I should be unapologetic in the decisions that I make and who I am as long as I can say that ...

Every day I walk out of this building, I can look back at the doors and say, "Today was a job well-done." Even if it was a horrible day, or [00:28:00] even if it was the best of the best, if you can just say, "Today was a job well-done and I gave 100% of what I could to my staff and to my kids," tomorrow's another one.

Dan Heath: Marcus Belin is the principal of Huntley High School in Huntley, Illinois. What stuck with me from my conversation with Marcus was that moment [00:28:30] he described where he got what he wanted, he was named principal, and then he wanders into his office in the summer, and he's walking around this mostly empty 750,000 square foot building, and he's thinking, "Oh, man, what now? I'm the one in charge of this place," but there's no instruction manual to rely on, and I liked his approach, how he chose to listen and lean on his staff, [00:29:00] talking to custodians, talking to secretaries, asking questions, learning the rhythms of the job, because if you're the principal, you've got to understand how the cafeteria runs, how the bus schedule works. If a substitute teacher doesn't show up, guess what? You're the substitute teacher, and you don't get to clock out at the end of the day either.

You're still the principal at church and in the grocery store, and at the pizza place. You're the boss [00:29:30] and a utility player, and a community icon all rolled into one. 

And folks, that's what it's like to be a high school principal. Speaking of high school, a shout-out to a couple of listeners who are teachers and counselors who wrote to say they were sharing this podcast with their high school students as a way of learning about different careers. I did not see that coming, to be honest, but I think it's great. Welcome to the show, students, and sorry, this isn't quite [00:30:00] as entertaining as TikTok. 

I'm Dan Heath. This show is produced by Matt Purdy. Take care.

Introduction to Marcus Belin
How a principal becomes a substitute teacher
The wide-ranging duties of a high school principal
Interaction with parents a principal's public profile
Connection with students
Inspirational teachers
Inspiration for a different approach as principal
Who is most likely to be the cause of a principal's frustration?
The impact of social media on high school
Lightning round!
Thoughts on the conversation