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Inside Job: What It’s Like to Be a Principal

Rachel Bachrach

Three women explain what it’s like to manage it all effectively while being mechanech from the heart — because that’s the principle of the matter

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

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P enina Teitelbaum, 31, is the principal of Atara Girls High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. She’s been working as a principal for four years, following a two-year stint as an assistant principal in Phoenix, Arizona.

When a principal isn’t leading an assembly, she’s sitting at her desk, sipping coffee, and thinking up new draconian rules — what else? Not quite! Principals support everyone — administration, staff, students, and parents. We make sure everyone gets guidance, recognition, and direction.

And lots of meetings. Meetings with teachers to discuss curriculum, pacing, students. Meetings with administrators to discuss school events and policies, struggling students, extracurriculars, and so on. Meetings with students about a classroom concern, a requested schedule change, a difficult social dynamic, whatever they need.

I’m only as good as my teachers, and as the instructional leader of the school, I try to get in classrooms as much as possible. I need to observe both teachers and students so I know if and how to follow up.

It’s best for a principal to be a teacher first: true or false?

Not necessarily. My teaching background was minimal, but I didn’t find that leapfrogging without that experience hindered me. I was lucky, and still am, to receive excellent mentorship. Experienced principals have been so generous with their time. Since I became an assistant principal and then a principal, I’ve always taught 11th- and 12th-graders while functioning as the menaheles. I wouldn’t give it up for the world; it connects me to my students, to my staff as a fellow teacher, and it helps me keep my finger on the school’s pulse.

When a student is sent to me to be disciplined, my goal is

Here’s how I see it: The overall goal of discipline is to maintain structure to preserve a safe and predictable environment where learning can happen. The goal of discipline on an individual level is to maintain said structure without shattering the relationship with the student. I sometimes choose not to discipline. If it’s a small infraction that doesn’t affect other girls and I know the girl will outgrow it, selective blindness and sudden forgetfulness can be very effective.

But yes, sometimes students need disciplinary action. First I try to hear the student out. I ask what happened, why it happened — it’s a conversation, not a lecture. Outside of uniform changes, I can count disciplinary actions taken over these four-plus years on one hand. Jewish girls are good, they want to do right, and a meaningful conversation is normally enough to redirect them.


Uniform is a biggie that kept on coming up. I asked my students what they thought. They suggested a new policy: We don’t ask girls to button up or pull skirts down, we just send them to change into one of the school’s uniforms, with an apologetic smile. The ones we stock are oversized and the button-down shirt is nerdy — it works like a charm.

The best teachers

think the world of their students, are flexible, and are open to feedback and new ideas. The best teacher sees teaching as a calling, not as a job.

Something all teachers should know

I’m here to support you! Don’t be afraid to let me know if you have an issue in your classroom or are nervous about a student’s performance. I think teachers feel like it’s an admission of failure, but it isn’t — each class, curriculum, and student comes with challenges, and my job is to help you address them effectively. So reach out, I have your back! (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 576)

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