Things I’ve learned as an Elementary Vice Principal

I have to admit, when I started this job 2 1/2 months ago, I hated it. Really hated it. I think the reasons for this were many.  I’d just spent the past year at the board office as a learning consultant.  The pace was different. I worked mostly with adults. My schedule was flexible, and  I tended to work largely at my level of expertise.  And when I wanted quiet, I could book office time, close my door & work.

Then I moved to an elementary school. In truth, I haven’t been in an elementary school since I was an undergrad, and there’s a good reason for that. Even though I taught in a K-12 school for 8 years, I rarely ventured down to the little end.  My domain was grade 10-12, and I worked hard for years to become proficient in my areas.  Now I had things to deal with like recess supervision, and 6 year-olds who are sent to my office because they’ve punched/kicked/hit/fill in something else, each other for no logical reason.  What in the world am I supposed to do about this situation?  My usual options when something like this occurs in my life are sending my children to their room, taking away their DS, or banning them from TV or speaking to each other.  None of these options were feasible. Or what about the grade 8 who decides it’s a good idea to put blue tack in his buddies hair?

On top of this, my teaching assignment was grade 6 & 8 math. I’ve never taught math or middle school in my life, and there’s a reason for that. Pretty sure I failed math in high school at least once.  Additionally, for me, it has to be the least interesting subject there is.  I love subjects that I can become passionately involved in — that change me, my students & hopefully some small part of the world. In math, the only thing we’re changing is our signs from positive to negative. Secondly, middle schoolers I avoided like the plague. They’re moody, emotional, hormonal.  Need I say more?

For the first couple months of this job, I struggled so much.  Partially because I’m an inquiry teacher, and I haven’t exactly figured out how to do that with math.  While I’ve had breakthroughs here and there, it’s far from what I want it to be. But through this process, I’ve come to realize that there are three things that really crucial to the success of a teacher, any teacher, regardless of experience:  classroom management, pedagogy & content knowledge. And because I moved so far outside of what I knew, I had none of these anymore.

I’d like to think I was a pretty decent high school teacher.  I didn’t have classroom management problems, and I hadn’t for years. My students, including the new ones coming into my classes each year, knew how high my expectations were for their behaviour & learning. I had no idea until leaving, how crucial this invisible influence was to my success as a teacher.

Additionally,  I knew my content well. I’d been teaching it for years.  Because of these two things, I was able to play with my pedagogy a lot. We could experiment with PBL & inquiry, problem based learning & student teaching.  We could succeed & fail because I had strength in the other two pillars.

However, I’ve learned it’s very difficult to figure out all three of these areas at the same time. It might even be impossible to do so and stay sane. Currently, my content knowledge is shallow, at best.  I don’t understand how all, or even some, of the concepts can be intertwined to create PBL units.  While my management has improved greatly, my younger students struggle with self-regulation to the point that it makes doing PBL projects difficult, if not impossible, at times.

I’ve learned that being a “good teacher” is relative.  As a high school teacher, I was a strong teacher, who could empower students to take responsibility for their own learning.  In all honesty, I’m a mediocre middle years math teacher at best. And this has been an incredibly humbling experience. Over the past two months, I have watched how hard elementary teachers work, some under extremely difficult circumstances. And they do it every day.

Over the past two weeks, I have come to deeply enjoy this job. I love watching the grade 1′s go through their morning routine, popping into classrooms to watch show & tell, reading stories to early elementary, hearing the stories of the Kindergarteners,teaching tech to grade 3′s, random hugs, & putting on bandages when kids are hurt.

While I still don’t “love” math. I enjoy figuring out the puzzle.  Last night, I finally understood for the first time why two negatives equal a positive. In school I had simply memorized the rule. Last night I realized they become a postive because it’s the same concept as English. A double negative cancels out and creates a positive.  These epiphany moments have been incredibly rewarding.

I’m also surprised how much I enjoy teaching middle years.  Today, while learning linear equations, I student looked at me and said, “Mrs. Wright. I got it. I really understand it.”  I looked back at her and said, “Isn’t that an amazing feeling?”  She smiled and agreed. That was an awesome moment.

Today I found out that I will not be returning to this position next year.  The permanent VP, who  was filling the Principal’s position, was not hired for it permanently, so he’ll be returning to the VP position in the fall. Leaving me, I’m not sure where. Even though I knew in the back of my mind this was a possibility, I’m shocked. I wasn’t prepared for how painful this is. The grief. Or the depth of loss I feel.  These kids are starting to become my kids & soon it’ll be time for me to leave.

Leave to what? I’m not sure. At this point, I’m not even sure I have a job for the fall.  Everything feels a bit precarious & raw at the moment


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About shelleywright

I love education & learning, which likely explains why I'm a teacher. My areas are ELA, Sr. sciences, and technology. My classroom is best described as a student-centred, tech embedded pbl/inquiry learning environment. I am currently a PhD student in the area of Curriculum and Instruction. My focus is play-based learning in high school, and it's impact on brain development.
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14 Responses to Things I’ve learned as an Elementary Vice Principal

  1. Wow Shelley; so many changes!

    I know it sounds trite, but “a door never closes without a window opening somewhere” has been true for me every time I’ve felt at loose ends as you must be feeling now. I remember one day, teaching stuff I knew little about, in my second language, when it was all just too much. I remember it so well; one of the lowest days of my career. The things I learned through those tough times turned into strengths that have lead me to a happier place today. It may not feel like it now, but somehow, I just know you’ll land on your feet.

  2. Kirsten Tschofen says:

    It takes courage to speak as honestly as you have in this post. I think it is this courage that will get you through whatever changes are coming for you. Thank you for voicing so honestly what many of us feel when we are placed in new situations that push us out of our comfort zones.

  3. Dear Shelly
    I have been reading your blogs for a while now and I’m always struck by their integrity and authenticity, honestly sharing life as a teacher with all its difficulties and joys. I am not a teacher myself but have chosen to focus much of work in recent years in schools with young people and teachers. I understand how frustrating this environment can be, but also how rewarding and unique. As a freelancer I’m also intimately acquainted with the issues of a peripatetic life and how unsettling it can be to move from job to job. For most teachers I know this is not the natural way of things. I have found that it has helped me to have a strong understanding of the underlying thread that connects all my projects – my USP if you like. This allows me to find continuity between all my various interests and businesses and then my work becomes less dependent on the people and places I happen to be working with/in and more about the type of contribution I am able to give. There is a flow between each job and each project and I can make sense of the shifts and changes, knowing that I am building on my life’s work and strengthening my contribution. What is your USP and what is the thread that connects all your work?

    I was also struck by your comment regarding difficulties in self regulation for younger children. Much of my work is now in the field of self regulation – through music and the arts and also therapy. I have been involved in self regulation projects using music and its impact on trauma and special needs here in the UK, in Bosnia and now in India. I am also a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, which is a body focused trauma therapy, looking at self regulation through the nervous system. Colleagues of mine have developed a very simple system of teaching this for all age groups. Once used it can really change a culture, giving a universal language for self regulation that everyone can use and understand. I know how important it is to get groups to a level playing field so that work can take place and I would be happy to share this with you if you would be interested. I have also developed some other educational programmes which may be of interest. My new website which talks about this aspect of my work is now under construction will be going live in a few weeks. Till then you can check me out at in my other incarnation as an opera singer.

    Wishing you the very best in your transition and thanks for your continued inspiration.
    Darren Abrahams

    • Thanks, Darren. For this past year it seems like I’ve learned a lot about what I don’t want to do, and what doesn’t inspire me and I think that’s the connecting thread. It’s much easier to learn what we like, rather than dislike, but I think, in some ways, these experiences have been much more valuable. They’ve helped reshape my identity in ways that I couldn’t have imagined. And while it’s been painful, it’s been a very good thing :)

      I’d love to hear more about what you & your colleagues are doing around self-regulation.

  4. Hi Shelley – I always look forward to reading your blog and continue to be amazed by your honesty and insight. Your thoughts about teaching math resonated with comments I’ve heard from many teachers in my role as a math consultant and with the work I’m doing with The Critical Thinking Consortium ( on ways we can frame math learning as critical inquiry.

    Also, I thought you might be interested in a book called Math that Matters: A teacher resource for linking math and social justice by David Stocker, a Toronto teacher. It’s published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives:

    Here’s a comment from one of David’s students that tells more than I can about the importance of mathematics for making the world a better place:

    “Actually, I have never understood math better. Not only do I understand the general skill, I can also begin to understand the world better. And if I understand the world better I can change things. And knowing that is one of the best things in the entire world. There is no way to describe that feeling.” – Xochil, student

    I look forward to reading more about your experiences in the tough but rewarding world of education.

  5. Jim Rowley says:

    I am confident in your ability and who you are as a professional. I have enjoyed reading about your journeys in ed. Know that times of struggle, sorrow, joy and hardship are all meant to grow you and make you become more than you currently are. I look forward to reading about your next chapter. Your future is bright.


  6. Hi Shelley- Thanks for always sharing your experiences so openly and honestly. I am sorry for the uncertainty of your situation for next year, but I know that you will continue to impact students positively somewhere. I would be amazed if your current division did not find a place to utilize your talents!

    I look forward to continuing to follow your learning journey!

  7. David Wees says:

    Hi Shelley,

    I have another reason why a negative times a negative is a positive – it allows for consistency with other rules and patterns.

    Look at the following patterns:

    3 x 4 = 12
    3 x 3 = 9
    3 x 2 = 6
    3 x 1 = 3
    3 x 0 = 0

    If you look at this list of examples, you probably notice that as the second number being multiplied decreases by 1, the answer decreases by three. What would happen if we continued this pattern? We might see the following:

    3 x -1 = -3 (since -1 is one less than 0, and -3 is 3 less than 0).
    3 x -2 = -6
    3 x -3 = -9

    How could we then generalize this observation to any multiplication of a positive number times a negative number?

    Now here’s another set of number calculations.

    3 x -3 = -9
    2 x -3 = -6
    1 x -3 = -3
    0 x -3 = 0
    -1 x -3 = ?
    -2 x -3 = ?

    What should we fill into -1 x -3 and -2 x -3 to make the pattern continue? The right-hand side of the pattern keeps increasing by 3 (you can see this more easily if you put these numbers on a number line), and so we want that property to continue, hence -1 x -3 should be positive 3, since this is 3 more than 0, and -2 x -3 should be positive 6, since this is 3 more than 3.

    Now, we could generalize this pattern (and perhaps by trying it out with some other numbers) see that regardless of what two negative numbers we start with, the only way to make these patterns consistent is to define that a negative times a negative number should be positive.

  8. Jim Cordery says:

    Hi, Shelley.
    I thoroughly enjoy teaching middle school math. I have been teaching this for about 10 years, but I honestly have not felt like I really understood how the concepts connected until the last 5. I am sorry you may not get to have that experience next year. I do think middle schoolers get a bad rap…they are really just looking for someone you loves their job and can relate to them. Not too different from how teachers feel about their leaders.
    Thanks for sharing…I always look forward to your blogs.

  9. lisamnoble says:

    As ever, thanks for sharing, and for being honest. Thanks for digging down and really looking at why you were feeling the way you were feeling (I need to do that more, instead of just putting up with the angst). And I particularly loved the part where you talk about how hard elementary teachers work, some under incredibly difficult circumstances – it’s true, and yes, you (and we) do it every day. That’s a big acknowledgement for me, and one we sometimes don’t make enough.

    The words of Julian of Norwich are good ones to leave you with, as you’re faced with uncertainty (but knowing that you’re learning on the journey). All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. You’ll land on your feet, as ever, and give whichever kids are yours next the same amazing effort and energy you always do.

  10. Wow, what a change for you! You are brave! I agree with you, it is easy to be a great teacher when you have control of the 3 important parts, classroom management, pedagogy & content knowledge. I think that is why we see that new teachers are not as creative as we had thought they would be, in the field of technology and inquiry teaching when they start out teaching. They need time to master the first two important parts, classroom management and pedagogy. Good luck with getting a new job in the fall. Schools in your district should fight to get you!

  11. Pingback: Reflection Week 11: Wright’s Room | My road less traveled

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