A Year in the Life of a High School Principal

We shadowed Whitman's Alan Goodwin for a year to find out what it's like to head one of the nation's top public schools

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Alan Goodwin stood under the portico in front of Walt Whitman High School on a sultry evening in early September 2015, shaking the hands of dozens of parents as they arrived for the annual Back to School Night. It was the 12th year he’d greeted parents as the head of the Bethesda school, and he recognized many of those passing by.

One mother introduced herself and said her daughter was a junior. “You know the ropes,” he said. “You could give my welcoming speech tonight.” To another, he quipped: “Now that’s a striking dress. You win the contest.” When asked about his summer, the 62-year-old principal smiled. “Always good to see the kids again,” he said. “Working with adults all summer is taxing.”

The banter was vintage Goodwin: a mix of warmth, humor and familiarity that made returning families feel like they had a connection with the principal, and new parents feel welcome. When the crowd grew too large, he switched to offering a quick hello instead of a handshake. Still, one parent stopped in front of him. “I got back in line so I could shake your hand,” she said.  

At 7 p.m., he welcomed parents over the school’s public address system. Soon the mother of a student who’d just been diagnosed with leukemia arrived and they huddled on an office bench to talk about her son’s class assignments. After she left, he went into the lobby to help direct lost parents to the right classroom.  

It would be another two hours before Goodwin headed home, finally ending a workday that had begun 14 hours earlier.

* * *

Longtime high school principals like Goodwin have no illusions about the grandeur of their jobs. They know they could work less and make more money—Goodwin’s salary is $162,000—by moving into higher administrative posts, but that’s not what motivates them.

They begin work before students arrive for the 7:45 a.m. bell and usually leave long after the last class ends. Evenings and weekends are often spent attending PTSA meetings, games, musical performances, plays and other school events.

“It’s absolutely a calling. You don’t do it for the money,” says Debra Munk, a former Rockville High School principal who now oversees Goodwin and nine other high school principals as Montgomery County Public Schools’ (MCPS) director of school support and improvement for high schools.  

Successful high school principals wear many hats—serving as administrators, disciplinarians, diplomats, politicians and even building superintendents—as they manage the day-to-day running of their schools while trying to satisfy both parents and their broader school communities. “Basically, I’m running a small town,” Goodwin often tells people when describing his job.

The third person to lead Whitman since it opened in 1962, Goodwin is now in his 13th year as principal. He has worked for MCPS for more than 40 years, including 25 as a middle school and high school English teacher. A former assistant principal at Whitman, he took over from Jerome Marco, who retired in 2004 due to illness after leading the school for 29 years. Though Goodwin hadn’t planned on becoming an educator when he headed off to college years ago, he says he can’t imagine doing anything else.

Goodwin spends much of each school day talking with students and staff. On a day in October, he met with a student in his office (above), visited a classroom, consulted with students before a Homecoming pep rally (below) and answered emails at his desk.

Parents, students and colleagues frequently mention Goodwin’s willingness to empower others and his innate sense of fairness. Other principals often look to him for advice. “He can read the situation. He can calm people down when they’re upset,” says Munk, who once helped Goodwin lead a high school principals professional learning group.

Renay Johnson, principal of Silver Spring’s Montgomery Blair High School, has known Goodwin for years as each rose from the classroom into administration. When she took over the county’s largest high school five years ago, Goodwin gave her his home and cellphone numbers and told her to call if she needed help. “When you’re really challenged with some decisions, you want to talk to Alan,” she says.

As Back to School Night wound down, Goodwin leaned back in his black swivel desk chair and talked about the year ahead. He knew he’d soon be dealing with the usual smorgasbord of issues that confront a principal, from overcrowded classrooms and building maintenance to implementing academic directives from school headquarters. What he could not have known on that September evening was how underage drinking would take center stage and that he would face a principal’s worst nightmares—the death of one student and a threat against others.

“No one day is the same,” Goodwin said that night. “A principal can make a hundred decisions during the day, and five can come back and bite him.”  

* * *

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