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The Principal and the Professor: A Story for Our Time

The Principal and the Professor: A Story for Our Time

Douglas Fuchs

Turning his chair so that it was perpendicular to mine, the principal informed me that the previously unmentioned LD classes were self-contained… he preferred to think of them as “readiness rooms,” rather than special education rooms.

The following account is true in its essentials. However, because I have disguised the characters and setting, created dialogue out of whole cloth, and based many attributions on guesswork, I am more comfortable describing this story as fiction based on fact.


This is a story about a principal and a professor who live in a land of towering mountains and sandy beaches. The principal is a large bear of a man who walks with a rolling gait and speaks with a megaphone voice. He speaks knowledgeably and often about standards and high stakes tests, vouchers and the Christian right, and other big ideas. His school, Buena Vista Elementary, serves 850 children in Grades K through 6. It takes up a city block in a neighborhood once middle class but now inhabited by low income African Americans, Guatemalans, Mexicans, and Vietnamese. Neighborhood gangs with names like Red Rockets occasionally cause mayhem among the once-attractive bungalows now in serious need of repair.

Despite the violence and sagging infrastructure surrounding it, Buena Vista Elementary is for many in the community an anchor of stability, a beacon of hope. With blessings from the district office, the principal practices “site-based management,” which means he has control over virtually all educational programming. He recruited a faculty of talented, hard-working teachers who, like the principal himself, believe it is the school’s job to teach all children. To many of the teachers, the principal seems overbearing; several are afraid of him. But all admire his devotion to the children, his unwavering focus on academics, and his entrepreneurial spirit. He found ways (never spoken of) to obtain a trunk-full of computers for every classroom and a computer lab complete with a part-time instructor. He finagled a well-known Midwestern university to include Buena Vista in a federally funded demonstration project, which resulted in two additional reading teachers. And he staffed an after-school program with employees from the nearby branch of a regional bank, a feat that left his superiors in the district office shaking their heads. A majority of his students’ reading and math scores on the state’s high-stakes test are in the third quartile, an accomplishment deeply appreciated by the community. Indeed, students’ parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles often work without pay to keep the classrooms and hallways freshly painted, the school’s small lawn neatly trimmed, and the sidewalks safe.

The principal loves his job. He relishes the challenge of getting his “disadvantaged” kids to achieve at the same level as the middle-class kids across town. He takes pride in their achievement, and he basks in the gratitude of parents and in the spotlight increasingly given him by the local media. Rumor has it he’s first in line for the district’s assistant superintendent job. Although secretly interested in the position, he enjoys reassuring anxious parents and teachers by saying he’s going to stay put and build a “dynasty” at Buena Vista like the Forty-niners in football and the old- Lakers in basketball.

The principal’s good work caught the attention of a professor of special education at a university 20 miles to the north. The professor, like the principal, is resourceful and shrewd, and has a practical bent. She’s an ardent advocate of full inclusion, a policy calling for all children with disabilities to be placed full time in regular classrooms. The professor’s interest in Buena Vista was piqued not just by what she had read about the principal but also by the fact that the school is really two schools: the elementary school and Sheltering Arms, a center for 40 children with developmental disabilities, run by the district, and taking up half of Buena Vista’s second floor. Because the center is already an important part of the school, at least physically, and because of something she intuited about the principal while watching him on TV, the professor saw in Buena Vista a potentially exemplary full inclusion site, the tangible proof she had been searching for that would make lies of claims that full inclusion is little more than romantic claptrap.

So, one day the professor called the principal. She pitched her idea in reasoned tones, appealing to his values and his vanity. She assured him she wanted to move responsibly and provide his teachers the necessary training. “Can I count on you?” she asked. The principal responded by saying what he believed and what he knew she wanted to hear: “My school opens its doors to all children,” he said. However, in the same breath, he warned that his teachers needed substantial help and that his final support of full inclusion depended on her finding more resources.

Shortly thereafter, the professor was awarded a grant from the federal government permitting her, along with a colleague and two graduate students, to provide training to the 7 (of 30) Buena Vista teachers who volunteered to participate. Each teacher got a full-time paraprofessional supported by grant dollars. The professor and her colleague and students collectively spent about 30 hours per week in the teachers’ classrooms, helping the teachers revise IEPs, implement curricula, deal with disruptive behavior, ensure that medical needs were met, and so forth. After 6 months, 14 students with developmental disabilities had left the center for regular classrooms, where they now spent virtually all their time. Everyone involved agreed that Buena Vista was well on its way to full inclusion.

Fully integrating the children with developmental disabilities was the first step in the professor’s ambitious two-step plan. Step 2 involved an aggressive dissemination of Buena Vista’s special education success story. The professor worked tirelessly to promote the principal and his school. She wrote articles for the media, for practitioners, and for the academic community. She and the principal, separately and together, described their productive collaboration in speeches at countless meetings of professional and parent organizations. And the professor parlayed her contacts in these organizations to ensure that the principal won high-profile awards for his “pioneering work in inclusion.” The professor came to realize that in the principal she had an asset far more valuable than she had initially thought. He proved as skillful an orator and advocate as he was an administrator. And time and again, she saw that because he was the principal of a large urban school, his voice gave full inclusion a legitimacy that few others, including herself, could. As she watched the principal enjoy himself at the podium, she was certain that the publicity she had engineered for him not only promoted full inclusion but also solidified her relationship with him and his connection to the cause.

As part of her spread-the-word campaign, the professor hosted officials from the U.S. Department of Education, administrators from the state and district level, newspaper and TV reporters, and members of the school board and chamber of commerce. These numerous visitations began to grate on the principal. After an unusually large contingent had come and gone, he complained to the professor that the visitors were interfering with the teaching and learning process. She explained that it was important to use the school to promote full inclusion. He shot back that the school’s first responsibility was to his students, all his students, not to the visitors or to full inclusion. Not easily deterred or untracked, the professor continued the tours.

Eventually, 1. too, got a call and an invitation from the professor. She playfully predicted that seeing Buena Vista would make a believer of me. I said I’d be glad to make the pilgrimage


I arrived on a beautiful spring day. The morning light hit the school’s columned limestone face, making the building shimmer like a desert mirage. The opening bell had just rung, and two small girls were raising the American flag on a pole to the right of the main entrance. A large African American woman in a dark purple tunic was yelling through cupped hands at several boys half a block away, “The day has started, gentlemen. You best get your butts in here!” Several steps inside the door, I was met by another woman in an Oakland Raiders starter jacket; she not-so-politely asked for my name, purpose, and identification. As I fumbled for suitable ID, the professor showed up. She gave me a hug, told the woman in the starter jacket that everything was cool, and escorted me through a busy but orderly hallway to the principal.

His office was off a large, wood-paneled room already crowded with secretaries, teachers, parents with children, a janitor, and two police officers. Everyone seemed to be speaking at once and there was much laughter. The principal’s door was open. From the entrance, I saw the massive back of a man in a dark suit who was talking loudly and gesturing to several others seated around a large round table. Although he didn’t see us, he must have instantly read the faces of his listeners because he stopped, swirled, jumped to his feet, and offered me his huge hand before I could take a step inside. Pumping my hand with near-comic vigor, he introduced himself and the others while pulling up two more chairs. The others were an assistant principal, a man from the State Department, and one of the professor’s students. The principal welcomed me and then, looking only at me, launched into an animated description of his students, his staff, and the school’s instructional programs. As he talked, I noticed on the far wall above his desk a large number of neatly displayed awards. As he finished his overview, he pushed toward me a five-page summary of his students’ scores on the state’s high-stakes test for the past 3 years. He said that as a researcher I’d be impressed by the information. He then clapped his hands and said we’d better start the tour.

During the next 2 hours, we visited with teachers, paraprofessionals, and students in four classrooms. The walls of most of the rooms were a carnival of children’s artwork and posters of cultural icons-mostly entertainers, but also scientists, writers, and politicians. Pictures of minority women and men were everywhere. Most adults and children in the classrooms were hard at work. In one, the teacher was conventionally but patiently explaining long division. In another, teacher and students were collectively constructing a story about a recent robbery in the community, which the teacher was printing on the blackboard. After two or three sentences, she’d ask someone to come up and underline the adjectives and adverbs with red and blue chalk, respectively. At the back of the class, a paraprofessional was leading a group of five low- achieving students in round-robin reading. The small group seemed more interested in the story being created by their classmates than the one in their books.

As for the students with developmental disabilities, one participated in the same activity in which his non disabled classmates were engaged. Two worked with paraprofessionals on parallel activities. Most, however, were not involved in any structured academic or vocational tasks. On the other hand, there were surprisingly frequent, spontaneous, and affectionate interactions between the children with special needs and their peers. The students with developmental disabilities seemed happy. Teachers appeared happy, too. They couldn’t say enough about the paraprofessionals: how they contributed to the education of all students, not just the children with disabilities.

Between the third and last classrooms, something unexpected and odd happened. The principal and I had dropped several paces behind the others. We were walking in silence side-by-side when he elbowed me forcefully in the ribs. The pain was so sharp it nearly took my breath away. My instinctive response was to throttle him with both my hands. But before I could think or do anything, he put his large head so close to mine I felt his nose against my ear. In a raspy whisper that needed practice he said, “I’m with you.” Because of the incongruity of the message and the distracting pain in my side, I failed to understand a word. Looking at what must have been my uncomprehending and angry stare, he whispered again, more emphatically, “I’m with you! I read your stuff. We’re on the same wavelength.” In his normal voice he then said, “Hang around after they leave,” motioning with his head toward the others.

After the tour, the group minus the principal went to the school cafeteria. Over a cup of coffee, the professor asked for my observations and reactions. I complimented both her efforts and those of the teachers. However, I also expressed surprise that more than half the children in Sheltering Arms had yet to move downstairs. With my side still aching, I asked her how she thought full inclusion would play out at Buena Vista and elsewhere. She simply said, “It’ll take decades for it to take hold in most places.” She then segued into a little speech in which she expressed amusement with a view she attributed to me and others that full inclusion was a juggernaut wreaking havoc with conventional forms of service delivery. “Full inclusion,” she declared, “is an evolutionary, not a revolutionary, concept.”

After saying my good-byes to the professor, who was off to a meeting in another part of town, I went to find the principal. He was sitting in the middle of the auditorium on one of two folding chairs in an otherwise empty space. He sat motionless as the school band played a barely recognizable “Rhapsody in Blue” on a raised stage. He caught me out of the comer of his eye and motioned me over to the chair set up next to his.

“God, I love Gershwin,” he said as he looked approvingly at his band. “You?”

I fought the impulse to ask what made him think of Gershwin. His band was terrible. “Yeah, I like him,” I said.

“How’d your debriefing go?” he asked with a small smile.

“Piece of cake,”’ I replied.

“Did our friend mention my LD classes?”

“What LD classes?”

“The four on the second floor.”

“No,” I said. “Neither did you.”

“Until now,” he added with his small smile.

He paused as the band director gave his fledgling musicians words of encouragement they didn’t deserve. Then they slowly exited stage left, leaving the principal and me alone.

Turning his chair so that it was perpendicular to mine, the principal informed me that the previously unmentioned LD classes were self-contained and served 42 children between 6 and 8 years of age. He said he preferred to think of the classes as “readiness rooms,” rather than special education rooms. “The children can return to the mainstream anytime,” he said.

I remained quiet as I tried to digest this information. Whereas somebody else might have been made uncomfortable by my silence-thinking that maybe it reflected my disapproval-the principal seemed perfectly at ease.

Finally, he said matter-of-factly, “I didn’t mention the LD classes before because, well, it may have embarrassed our friend.”

“How so?”

“Well, you know, it would have been awkward discussing them, what with Buena Vista’s reputation as an inclusion school,” he said solemnly. “Now that I think about it,” he said raising his eyebrows, “I can’t remember the last time she and I spoke about them. For all intents and purposes, I don’t think they exist for her.”

“What do the kids do in those classes all day?” I inquired.

“They’re supposed to get a strong dose of instruction in reading and math-more intensive and individualized than they could ever hope to get in the mainstream.”

“Do they?” I asked.

“In one or two classes, yes; in the others, no. It’s a tough situation. Most of them are very needy academically. Some are what we used to call ‘educables.’ A bunch also are behavior problems. They need expert teachers, and expert teachers are in short supply in this town.”

I wanted to ask him whether the LD kids were part of the state’s high-stakes testing program and whether their scores were reflected in the five-page handout he’d given me earlier in his office. But by now I thought I knew the answer.

I said, “I’ve not had a chance to tell you how impressed I’ve been by much of what I’ve seen and heard this morning.” I went on to share my observations and impressions. He smiled as I spoke and seemed pleased. I continued, “I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but given your apparent attitude toward full inclusion and the self-contained LD classes at Buena-“

“And gifted classes,” he interrupted.

“Really?” I said. “Well, given all that, why do you work so hard to portray Buena Vista as something it really isn’t?”

Still smiling, the principal shrugged. “Well, we is and we isn’t,” he said. “We’ve moved 14 severe children into regular classes, and they’re doing great. Lots of social interactions, lots of friends, lots of parent satisfaction. And my plan is to get all the remaining severe children into regular classes as soon as we get more paraprofessionals. So, you see, there’s some truth to the description of us as an inclusion school.”

“Beyond that, and speaking frankly,” he continued, “being known as an inclusion site gets us attention and resources. It also helps me reduce the size of Sheltering Arms on the second floor.” He stopped but still looked at me.

“What do you mean,” I asked dutifully.

“I need their space,” he said. “I want to serve 100 more community children in classrooms currently occupied by the center.”

I swallowed the question, “You’re kidding, right?” Instead, I said, “It seems like a difference between you and our friend the professor is that for her inclusion is both a means and an end; for you, it’s mostly a means to a different end. Am I right?” This came out sounding a bit snide. I winced.

After a pause, he said, “You could say that.” Then, with a tired look, he added, “Understand something. I’m the principal of 900 students. For all intents and purposes, I run this school’s Title 1, ESL, gifted, and special ed programs, not to mention before-school and after-school care. I’ve got 30 teachers who need direction, motivation, and nurturance. Not monthly, but daily. For 3 years running, referendums calling for more school dollars have been voted down. For me, my teachers, and my students to continue to do well, I’ve got to keep my eye on the big picture. Special Ed is not the big picture. Forty severe kids cannot and will not drive what I do-no matter how much I like them. And neither will our friend, the professor, or anybody else.”

He shook his big head from side to side, looked at me, and then dramatically rolled his eyes upward. “Our friend,”

he said, “can be a real pain in the you know what, let me tell you. I’ve never met an educator more unrealistic, relentless, and pigheaded. She’d have me act as if her kids were the only kids in the school.”

“Does she know how you feel?” I asked.

“We’ve not had any heart-to-heart, if that’s what you mean. But she knows we’re not kindred spirits. She also knows I’ve done a lot for her. As she has for me.” He chuckled softly. “You could say,” he said, “we’ve had a marriage of convenience, not of love.”

Just then a voice shot from the intercom, calling the principal back to the office. He sprang to his feet, shook my hand, and, slapping my back repeatedly, thanked me for coming to see his school. Moving fast across the auditorium floor, he called back, “Get a cab anywhere but Vine and Lombard.”


On the plane back to Nashville, I was feeling depressed. Looking out the window at a gridiron of planted fields below, I traced my unhappiness to the principal, which surprised me because I liked and admired the guy. What bothered me about him, I decided, was his deceitfulness. He had duped the professor at least twice: first, by talking to me behind her back, and second, by hiding from her an important reason-if not his strongest incentive-for supporting the transfer of children from Sheltering Arms to his regular classrooms.

I wondered briefly why he would jeopardize his relationship with the professor by speaking candidly to me. Was it because he was tired of pretending to be a full inclusionist and he saw me as someone in whom he could confide? Maybe the professor was beginning to get under his skin and he needed someone he believed would lend a sympathetic ear.

More important was the principal’s secret motive for facilitating the inclusion of the center’s children. His reason-more classroom space for more non disabled students-reflects his commitment to the big picture, which is not special education. In the final analysis, I thought, you can’t trust this guy, despite his talent, drive, administrative skill, and personality-not if you’re an advocate for children with disabilities. I wondered what would happen to the integrated children from the center after the professor’s grant ran out, she and the paraprofessionals disappeared, and the principal had claimed the center’s space on the second floor? “Five will get you ten,” I muttered to myself, “they’ll find themselves again in a separate program, either in Buena Vista or somewhere else.”’ And he’ll move them out of regular classrooms, I figured, for the same reasons 42 students with LD remain sequestered all day in special education classrooms on the second floor: because he’ll see the move as serving the -greater good, and because there will be nobody in the school or district office sufficiently “relentless and pigheaded” (his words to describe the professor) in their advocacy to oppose him.

This reminded me of something. I leaned forward and pulled my backpack out from under the seat in front of me. Rummaging through it, I found a 6-month-old newspaper column written by Al Shanker, the late president of the American Federation of Teachers, in which he described how districts across the country are decentralizing, or transferring, decision making from the district office to the school building. I reread Shanker’s view that such a devolution of power was ruinous in the New York City public schools and, more recently, in Kentucky. Advocates of special-needs children must be wary of decentralization, I thought, because it often means the principal, not the district’s special education director, is the one presumably ensuring a free and appropriate education for children with disabilities. Although there’s good reason to encourage principals to assume more responsibility for the education of these children, I acknowledged, a question raised by the behavior of the principal at Buena Vista is Will they act as advocates?

I must have dozed because the next thing I knew, one of the Southwest Airlines flight attendants was in the middle of singing “Happy Birthday” to someone named Betty Lee. I looked out the window and was surprised to see that day had become night. Below, the urban sprawl of Nashville glittered like rhinestones. I looked down at the Shanker piece in my lap, and I thought of Ed Martin, who was the first assistant secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitation Services, and who had spoken recently at a conference in Vail, Colorado. Martin said that one of the most important aspects of Title VI of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, passed by Congress in 1966, was the creation of the Bureau of Education for the Handicapped, with an associate commissioner as its director. “This was very significant,” he said, “because the…associate commissioner … had a seat at the table for important discussions related to policy and budget. From being ignored or overlooked to being very visible brought new status and attention to children with disabilities.”

Special educators must try to build closer and more coordinated relationships with regular educators, I thought. But equally important, they must keep their seat at the table. Restated as a question, How does special education safeguard its hard-won power to advocate effectively and share its power in the spirit of cooperation and more effective service delivery? A pretty good question for our time, I thought.

About the Author

DOUGLAS FUCHS, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Special Education and co-director of the John F. Kennedy Center’s Institute on Learning Accommodations and Integration at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University. His teaching and school-based research focus on linking assessment to instruction, Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies, and integration.

Author’s notes

1. 1 would like to thank Matthew Fuchs for his helpful suggestions on an earlier draft.

2. My trip to Buena Vista was supported by the Carnegie Foundation of New York. My views, of course, are not necessarily the Foundation’s.

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