Professor's advice to principals: Be a pal, but firm with students


An old classroom device for remembering the different spellings of principle and principal goes, "Our principal is our pal."

According to Joseph Procaccini, professor of education at Loyola College, that old memory device has come to sum up the current principal-student relationship.

"To be a good principal these days, you have to be close to the kids. You can't have the principal way over here on one side and the kids way over there on the other side. You can't be effective if you don't have the kids with you," says Procaccini.

The director of Loyola's Center for Family, Work and Education in Columbia, Procaccini recently completed a report on the personal beliefs and values of public elementary, middle and high school principals in Baltimore, and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties.

Many of today's principals, he found, were children of the 1960s. They listened to loud music way back when. They may have experimented with drugs and casual sex. They are less likely, then, to condemn the children of the 1990s for their own youthful indiscretions.

Procaccini, 49, has been studying the methods and values of school principals for nearly 20 years. He says principals were among the most conservative groups in American society until the past several years, as more of those '60s children began heading schools.

"What we see in the report is an evolution away from conservative thinking to more liberal thinking," explains Procaccini.

He randomly selected 280 names from the approximately 500 principals in the target area. Of those 280, 115 responded to the written survey, almost all of them anonymously.

The report includes the findings that:

* 92 percent of the surveyed principals believe in the existence of a God.

* 87 percent favor stricter gun-control laws.

* 67 percent believe euthanasia is justified for certain illnesses.

* 44 percent believe homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle.

* 45 percent favor the decriminalization of marijuana.

* 62 percent believe that abortion is not morally wrong.

In contrast, says Procaccini, principals of the past never would have been so accepting of euthanasia, homosexuality, marijuana decriminalization and abortion.

But, he warns, the ability to identify with the values of students is not necessarily a positive thing.

Sometimes, being the students' pal is a "survival mechanism that certain principals use to keep from being shut off from the kids," he says. "It's the idea that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. You see a lot of parents do the same thing. Those principals are chickening out because they don't want to fight 1,200 students. They need to ask themselves, 'Am I going along with these kids because they're enlightening me or because I'd rather roll over than fight?' "

Many principals, nonetheless, benefit from the insights of their young charges, particularly on such issues as the environment and health, Procaccini adds.

The public education departments in Baltimore and the five surrounding counties have instituted programs in which positive core" values -- such as honesty, compassion, courtesy and integrity -- are highlighted when they occur during classroom instruction or extracurricular activities. For example, an English teacher might stop to mention an instance of compassion in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

However, the public schools' curricula does not include separate courses in "values."

Procaccini points out that principals have played a relatively minor role in the formation of the values programs, news that may come as a relief to conservative-minded parents sent into a tizzy by the professor's report. The programs were created by boards consisting of parents, teachers, principals and other school officials, with the principals having about 20 percent of the final say.

"Those programs are pretty much puffery," Procaccini says. "It's nice that people are talking about values, but it's the principals who have to make it work by setting a good example. They have to be the ones who greet the students at the door in the morning. They have to show that they care, that they're decent people, because it's impossible to fool the kids. If you're faking it, the kids will see right through you."

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