Those who have worked with Dr. Rebecca Wheat would have to say she embodies the title of her new book “The Spirited Principal.” Becky Wheat’s spirit is indomitable.
Wheat began her career in Berkeley in 1968 as an Early Childhood teacher. Each foggy morning, she performed lively puppet shows on the asphalt yard of the West Berkeley Children’s Center. When she moved on to classroom teaching, she was a much beloved first grade teacher at LeConte School. Upon completing her doctorate at UC Berkeley in Educational Psychology, Wheat was tapped to be principal at Arts Magnet School. And from there she went on to become principal for the entire Early Childhood Program.
Her next appointment was as principal at Rosa Parks School, the rebuilt and renamed “Columbus” on Allston Way and Seventh Street, where her colleagues said she took on the job with vigor and competence.
Since she’s a woman who rarely slows down, she visited classrooms daily and quickly learned the names of all the families. She was adept at delegating responsibility and made staff and parents see that necessary things could get done, and with consensus. Wheat helped the K-5 school create a cohesive school community.
She retired from Berkeley Unified Schools a little more than year ago, but she has already been hired back to work as a support coach and mentor for new principals.
By observing support programs offered to new teachers, it became obvious that ample support retains new teachers in the profession. Getting and keeping competent principals is a difficult task, Wheat said. Principals, she added, need the same kind of support new teachers need. The principal not only must bring a deep understanding of how children learn to do the job, but also must set the tone for the entire school.
In the past, when the principal’s word was “the word,” teachers often moved from their low-salaried positions into principal jobs. But as the discrepancy between teacher salaries and principal salaries diminished, and the responsibilities of the principal’s job increased, fewer teachers have been interested in stepping up to this particular challenge.
Wheat’s coaching model provides practical ideas and on-the-job training to principals drowning in the daily flood of requests and demands.
A principal is a middle person, a real “heart attack” position, Wheat said. They must respond to the parents and staff at their site and to the directives from the administration. They must also stay mindful of the children’s needs. At the same time, a principal must be conversant with laws, policies, procedures, must be a grant writer and a fund-raiser and must often take responsibility for additional programs at her site beyond the school day.
Staying involved in the classroom, Wheat asserts, is one of the saving graces for a principal. It is the exciting part of the day, watching teachers and children work together. There is a tendency for principals to become isolated in their offices responding to piles of paper work, but stepping out of the office and into the classroom renews a principal’s spirit.
Wheat’s book is full of practical advice and strategies for today’s principals. She begins her analysis of the job by stressing the importance of building and maintaining trust with staff, children and parents. Even the slightest grumbling in front of staff or parents can undermine this trust, she points out. Principals should have a sounding board of friends off site to share concerns with and therefore keep trust lines open at work.
A strategy Wheat calls Mega Tuesdays handles the numerous committee meetings mandated by funding sources. One Tuesday a month all the committees meet at different hours throughout the afternoon and evening. There is a reporting out period and all the requirements are fulfilled with just one night out. This keeps parents and staff home with their families the rest of the evenings. Setting boundaries though easily said, is hard to do. Mega Tuesdays helps with the exhaustion generated by seemingly unending hours at work.
Wheat’s book is an easy read and refreshing. There’s an edge of humor and a depth of experience that any new principal could learn from. It’s the kind of book that could even bring new recruits into principal training programs.
Her coaching and mentoring will do the same. Because Berkeley schools are “full of creative, energetic people who are committed to looking at the needs of all the children,” Wheat enjoys working here.
It’s no surprise that, in retirement, Becky Wheat has several other jobs she attends to including supervising principals for UC Berkeley Principal’s Institute and teaching at San Francisco State University. She and her husband Solomon Wheat, an Oakland teacher, have two grown children, Derek and Caitlyn, and one grandchild, Sean who has inherited the family’s energy and enormous appeal. Wheat delights in the time she spends with her family now that she “is retired.”
Dr. Rebecca Wheat’s book The Spirited Principal: Strategies that Work is published by Pro-Active Publications of Lancaster, Pa and is available through the publisher at 717-290-1660 and www.proactivepublications.com
Mary Barrett is a Berkeley teacher and freelance writer.