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Berkeley High principal keeps cool, despite job’s high stress

By Ben LumpkinBerkeley Daily planet
Tuesday May 29, 2001

Although he professes to love his job, Berkeley High School Principal Frank Lynch happens to be something of an expert on why one should never become a high school principal. 

He’s spent the last four years interviewing principals and superintendents around Northern California, completing a doctoral dissertation at the University of Santa Barbara entitled: “The Shortage of Qualified Candidates for the Position of High School Principal.” 

He wanted to find out why the pool of applicants for high school principal jobs is drying up as precipitously as a southern California reservoir in a draught year.  

There’s talk of the looming principal shortage all over the country these days. Berkeley Unified School District Interim Superintendent Stephen Goldstone remembers competing against nearly 100 candidates when he applied for his first principal job in 1973. Today, he said, there might be total of 10 Berkeley High itself has burned through half a dozen principals in the last decade. The lack of leadership has left a power vacuum that Lynch walked into when he took the reins last August. 

As Berkeley High Parent, Teacher and Student Association President Kristin Shepherd put it: “Essentially, we’ve had a large business without supervision.” 

In other words, if being a high school principal is tough everywhere, there is reason to doubt whether being principal of Berkeley High is even in the realm of the possible. 

When he’s lucky, Lynch’s day will end at 6 p.m. But, with meetings, many days drag on to 8 p.m., or even to midnight. Throw in a five-hour commitment on Saturday – say, a community meeting on school reform, or the senior prom – and you’re up to roughly an 80-hour week. 

Wednesday last week was a fairly typical day. Lynch returned phone calls between 6 and 6:45 a.m., then met with teachers for the next hour or so. At 8 a.m. he was off to the weekly meeting of Berkeley High department heads. Here he heard one staff member after another describe the difficulties caused by the latest round of budget cuts and responded to each in crisp, efficient sentences. 

To the question of what would happen without an on-campus suspension program next year (Berkeley high has used the system for years as a way to take disruptive students out of the classroom without having to expel them from school), Lynch said: “It was either giving up two assistant principals or giving up something else. We’ll brainstorm. We’ll come up with a solution, because we are highly intelligent human beings.” 

Lynch has budgeted for three assistant principals, although he estimates it would take twice that number to really handle the daily workload. 

To worries that some department heads would lose the free periods they have had to evaluate teachers under the new budget cuts, Lynch responded: 

“There’s no other way to do it. I respect where you guys are coming from (but) when they made those budget cuts… those budget cuts are real budget cuts. And my job is to live with it.” 

Lynch spends the better part of every day listening to teachers, parents, students and others asking for things that in all likelihood he is unable to provide. In this highly political town where countless constituents believe they have a stake in how the high school is run, the flow of outside commentary is almost unending. 

“The larger the environment you work in, the more stressful it becomes,” Lynch said. “With more constituents, it goes up geometrically.” 

And yet, those who work with Lynch day to day say he has yet to lose his cool. 

“He’s accessible, nice, sane…he listens,” said Charna Ball, who teaches Adaptive Physical Education at Berkeley High. “I’ve been here a long time and that’s the first time I can say that about a principal.” 

Berkeley is “The most political place on earth,” said Vice Principal Mike Hassett. “Everybody’s got an issue. No one knows how to compromise.”  

But, said Hassett, Lynch makes navigating Berkeley’s turbulent political waters look like a walk in the park. “He’s a gentleman,” Hassett said. “He always maintains his demeanor.” 

Lynch said he came into the principal job “with his eyes open.” Through his dissertation research, he had known exactly what to expect, and he was ready. The job of a principal, he said, is to maintain “calm in the midst of chaos.” 

“People say, ‘Get emotional, get angry.’ But once you get in an emotional state you can no longer conduct business,” Lynch said. 

Instead of pleading with principals for emotion, people need to understand the incredible challenges principals are up against and find ways to give them more support, Lynch said. 

Shepherd, for one, said she is ready to do whatever she can to help Lynch. If political pressures mount uncontrollably, she said, Berkeley High runs the risk of losing yet another principal. And at a time when the school’s very certification as a secondary institution is in question, due to a number of highly publicized failings, Shepherd said that’s a risk the Berkeley community cannot afford to take. 

“He’ been listening to us all year,” Shepherd said. “Now it’s time for us to listen to him.”