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The Reluctant Adventurer: Learning New Lessons as Principal for Almost a Day

Friday, October 31, 2014


Photo credit: iStock

Last week a local nonprofit, All Hands Raised, asked me to attend a Portland public school and be “Principal for Almost a Day.” 

What this entailed was shadowing Principal Sara Gandarilla from 8 a.m. to noon at Northeast Portland’s Rigler Elementary School. 

I arrived at exactly 8 a.m., which was kind of a miracle. There was something about going back to school that ingrained a desire for promptness in me that I hadn’t had since the glorious invention of the “OMW” text message.

The two-story building is literally old-school, built in 1931, with an ominous brick edifice that gave me flashbacks to the time I threw up a bologna-and-cheese sandwich onto the shiny linoleum floor at Lomond Elementary in Shaker Heights, Ohio. 

These are the moments when I wish I could choose which memories hit me, like sifting through Netflix titles. But unfortunately, it seems like my brain is more of an old TV with crappy reception and my angry drunk uncle has the remote.

The bell rang and I felt like a kid again as I joined a line of students who were all carry “notes” to class. I remembered that powerful feeling of holding a note from my mom and knowing I could be exonerated from any sin, and thought about how great it would be to be able to bring in notes when we screw up as adults. 

“Sorry Jim didn’t finish all his sales calls. I thought it would be funny to jump on his crotch while he was napping, and we spent the night in the emergency room. Signed, Jim’s 3 year-old son Tyler.”

Waxing nostalgic in the front office had made me a few minutes late, but I finally found the principal’s office and Sara and I began our day. 

While Sara was exceedingly friendly, she was also all business. She told me she’d been told not to do anything differently than she normally does, so she and I immediately went up to talk to Becky, Rigler’s Literacy Coordinator.

I don’t want to reveal too much about the conversation since they probably had an expectation of privacy, but it really doesn’t matter much because there was so little of it that I actually understood. Here’s approximately how I remember it:

“Let’s look at BSC or DRA to prepare for the RTI. Are you GPSing the RNC for TMI? Because OMG.”


The number of acronyms these people need to remember is daunting.

After Sara talked to Becky about eight different subjects, she and I started visiting classrooms.

Rigler is a K-5 two-way Spanish Immersion school, meaning that the kids are taught literacy and content 90 percent in Spanish and 10 percent in English (the percentages can vary greatly in schools like these from at least 50 percent, all the way up to 90 percent). 

I made the unbelievably non-utilitarian choice to study French in high school, so walking around Rigler gave me the tiniest sense of what it must be like for a Spanish-speaking kid to attend an elementary school without an ESL program. 

We went into the kindergarten class first. The only words I understood were the ones I’d learned on Sesame Street.

TEACHER: I am something something something dog something something you something!


TEACHER: Good! Something something something where something’s friend is something something happy?


Only about 45 percent of the kids at Rigler are Hispanic, and an even lower percentage are ESL students, so that meant that most of the kids in this kindergarten class had only been learning Spanish for the past seven weeks or so. It was amazing to see them understand and respond to rapid-fire conversational Spanish. 

Photo credit: iStock

It was a testament to the dedication of these teachers (most of whom don’t speak Spanish as a first language), but also to our wildly pliable brains at five years old. Remember when you welcomed a new idea instead of fighting it? That was lovely.

I knew nothing about bilingual education before my visit there, but since have learned that bilingual education has been shown to boost brain power, improve academic performance and give kids a better understanding of the structure of language overall. Just seeing these kids easily jump between Spanish and English as they talked to me (oftentimes translating something they’d written) gave me more hope for their ability to empathize with different cultures and recognize the benefits of thinking differently. 

The last room we visited was a second-grade class for which Ms. Gandarilla was performing a formal evaluation. We sat down in the teeny tiny chairs and about five minutes into the class, an inch-long furry jumping spider decided to hang out at my teeny tiny desk. I’d attempted to pay attention throughout most of the class, but the spider kept coming toward me. I’d blow on it to get it to change direction and it would just return a few minutes later.

I didn’t want to disrupt the class, who were all sitting on the floor at the front of the room, so I finally just stood up and backed away from the desk. 

Then the teacher said, “Something something escritorio,” and now there were three second-graders moving toward the Spider Desk. Um. This won’t end well. I should be brave and just kill i---

“SPIDER!!!!,” yelled one of the girls and ran away as the rest of the class ran toward the desk to see it.

I felt an odd sense of relief that she’d gotten to do the thing I’d wanted to do for 45 minutes. 


As we left the class, Ms. Gandarilla described to me the complicated evaluation program that took into account what the kids were doing minute-by-minute, and laughed that the teacher hadn’t counted on having to compete for the kids’ attention with a spider for five minutes. I thought of how much time I’d spent blowing on the spider and realized I probably had more in common with the 2nd graders than I did with Ms. Gandarilla.

The day left me with a renewed respect for teachers as they struggle to keep the attention of hundreds of kids whose minds are increasingly addled by technology. 

Well, hundreds of kids, and one 40-something writer.


All over Portland


NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: Adults, middle schoolers, high schoolers, arachnophobes.

For more information on All Hands Raised and the Principal for Almost a Day Program, visit allhandsraised.org 

Courtenay Hameister is the Head Writer and Co-Producer of Live Wire Radio, a syndicated radio variety show distributed by Public Radio International. She is currently working on a book that will be released through Audible.com in 2015. Follow Courtenay on Twitter at @wisenheimer. 

Banner Photo Credit: iStock 


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