Compiled by Mike Dunphy
At the end of January, Montpelier High School (MHS) Principal Michael McRaith announced he would be stepping down in June to take a new position as assistant executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association (VPA) after a four-year tenure at MHS. McRaith sat down with The Bridge to reflect on his time as principal, what he’s most proud of, what still needs to be accomplished, and the role of principal in today’s world.
The Bridge: What exactly does the new position entail?
Michael McRaith: The Vermont Principals’ Association has been contracting with several people to do pieces of jobs, and they just took all those pieces and put them into one new job of assistant executive director. Those pieces are running the Leadership Academy for principals and any school people who want to come, and any other professional learning opportunities throughout the year that the VPA hosts, or if there’s some new legislation that needs explanation, or bringing speakers in from other places to inspire. It also will be coordinating the mentoring program for new principals and serving as the VPA liaison to the Waddington Leadership Initiative.
What drew you to the position?
McRaith: I’m interested in working from the statewide perspective and just seeing what kind of positive impact I might be able to have. I felt like I’ve had a short tenure as principal, for six years [including his tenure at Enosburg Falls Middle School], but a pretty intense one. Also, I’ve presented a lot in the last few years at workshops both in the state and in the New England region, so I feel relatively plugged into the professional learning network. I thought that I might be able to be of good use. I’m interested in working statewide and being of the most use I can be to the greatest number of students.
As principal, how have you worked with the VPA?
McRaith: I’ve been on their professional learning and support committee for the last two years, which essentially is led by what will be my new role. There is a group of principals that help plan the Leadership Academy, so I’ve been on that team thinking about what kinds of things would be important for us to offer learning on. I’ve gone to the academy six out of the past seven summers. And also, if there’s just something that I bump into that is difficult, I’ve called the executive director a few times and just said, “What you think about this?”
Can you give an example?
McRaith: Two years ago, when the students came to me and said, “We want to raise the Black Lives Matter flag,” that was not something that I knew exactly what to do, or what the legal ramifications were. So I bounced that off of those folks and that was helpful. Sometimes it’s just good to have a talking partner, and the VPA can provide that for principals.
Was accepting the job a no-brainer for you or did you really wrestle with it?
McRaith: I definitely wrestled with it. I had pretty much made the decision by the time they offered the job because when I was applying, I had a long time to think about it. The thing that I wrestled with is leaving a community that I feel connected to.
How did your colleagues and students react to the news?
McRaith: People knew that I was happy here, which I am, so there was an element of surprise for sure, but they have been very kind and generous and supportive of me. I was nervous about telling people because that made it real that I was leaving a place that I feel really good about.
In 2015, The Bridge asked you, “What would you like your legacy as principal of MHS to be one day?” and you responded, “If I left this place… I think that would be something I would be proud of, if people said, ‘well, at Montpelier High School…it’s a place of kindness, it’s a place of respect, and students treat one another that way and staff treat students that way, and the students treat the community that way.’” Do you feel you’ve achieved this?
McRaith: I think if you asked our community, faculty, and students, you’re going to hear that that’s a value of ours. I think that it has gone well as far as relationships go. You know teenagers are going through hard things. They’re going to make mistakes, and sometimes they’re going to be mean to each other. So it’s not perfect. It’s not all holding hands and everybody always getting along. But I do think that overall this is a place of respect and kindness, and certainly that’s a value of ours as a community.
What accomplishments do you leave feeling most proud of?
McRaith: The thing I feel the best about was that the student council presents an award, the Peter Clarke Award for Excellence, and they choose one faculty member each year. Last year they gave it to me, and that was really big for me, because kids don’t mess around. If they didn’t think I was doing a good job, they would let me know. And they certainly wouldn’t give me that award. And there’s so many outstanding educators here that could win that every year. So that to me was a really good moment.
The legacy part of it will be proficiency-based learning. We have a functional system of proficiency-based learning and assessment that wasn’t here when I started and was a major undertaking for us. We’ve had more than 20 schools visit us to see it in action. We’ve been featured by M.I.T. in their online community class, so that’s gonna go global. We’ve also been featured in the Great Schools Partnership.
The other thing that I’m really proud of is not just the raising of a Black Lives Matter flag, but really a general awakening of our privilege and implicit biases and our need to do better around cultural competency for our students across the district. I’ve seen a lot of good growth for our faculty and students in that area. It was not easy. It has not been easy. There’s a long way to go. We were the eye of the storm for hate and white nationalism for a minute there, and this community and school really stood behind our values and the ideals of equity and having a fair and just education system for all of our students. I am proud of that.
Like teachers, are principals expected to be and do much more than 10‒20 years ago?
McRaith: I don’t know the difference that much because of being a relatively new principal. I’m only in my sixth year. But I have asked the executive assistant here, Val Belanger, who’s been helping principals for at least 20 years, and she says, “definitely.” She feels the demands are higher, that the 24-hour cycle of communication is a lot different than it used to be. I don’t have to respond on the weekends and at nights, but I basically do. And I think that that is very appreciated by our community.
This community in particular has really made it clear to me that they want me to be rested and have a balanced life. But it is very difficult for many principals around the state and beyond to achieve that balance and deliver what people are expecting. I think there’s a little bit of hypocrisy there in trying to encourage our leaders to be sustainable and have a balanced life, but also be available, listening, and responsive around the clock.
Sounds like that could shorten tenures of principals
McRaith: Somebody just asked me if there was too much pressure on the Montpelier High School principal, and that’s why Adam [Bunting] was here for three years and I was here for four. I don’t think that’s unique to Montpelier in any way. The average tenure for a Vermont principal is really short. There are some principals who have been in those roles for a long time, but a lot of principals in Vermont, 23 I think, are first-year principals this year. So there is a very high turnover rate, which is something in my work with the VPA that I want to look closely at and see if I if I can change.
What would be something that could affect that change?
McRaith: I think more communities need to have a reasonable expectation about the number of hours that that school leader is going to put in. The principal can’t be at every game and dance and isn’t going to answer every email at 11 at night or Saturday morning.
How many hours do you put in a given week?
McRaith: Average for me is 70 hours a week. A lot of that is self-inflicted, and I have a hard time leaving work undone.
Is there something else about the role of a principal that the public doesn’t realize?
McRaith: The modern principal is an instructional leader, which means that they’re really in the classroom and a part of curriculum decisions and instructional practices. That’s evolving really quickly—what it means to teach. We are no longer the holders of content. Kids can watch The History Channel and look up anything they want at any given time. So we’re really into this other zone of how to help students be great learners and builders of content, not just consumers of content. That’s a dynamic element of being able to lead teachers in those instructional practices and curriculum choices.
The other piece of it is that a lot of principals are also managers. When you add our custodial staff, our kitchen staff, and all of the coaches, teachers, and everyone else, that’s almost 100 people who think I’m their boss in one way or another. There’s a lot that comes along with that. You are also the public relations person; you’re the head of customer service; name it and you could say, “Well, the principal should’ve known about that,” or “The principal could have done something better,” or, “Where was the principal there?”—anything. But I think that this community and faculty here gets that, and this is why it’s a good job and sustainable.
What is your advice for the next principal of MHS?
McRaith: One of the other things that I think has gone pretty well but will need to continue to have energy is our Flexible Pathways program, connected to Act 76. I think Montpelier High School has done very well by that law, and there will need to be continued energy, as we have more and more students participating in that.
The achievement gap is another issue. That’s the really obvious thing for the district and the school to continue to chip away at. It’s really about our our students of low social and economic status. Just based on the statistics using standardized test scores, our students, particularly our boy students with free and reduced lunch, just do not perform as well as other groups. That’s not OK. We can do better; we will do better; we are doing better. But that’s going to continue to be a challenge for any principal.
The other thing I would tell them is to just enjoy the faculty and staff, and let them lead. They have really good instincts; they know the place; they know the community. There’s a little bit of magic here, and you can just plug into that and utilize it to just make the place better and better.