A DAY IN THE LIFE

Donna Quan, 
Toronto



By Leanne Miller

"Some days, I canít even get to the washroom." Itís only 7:30 a.m., but Donna Quanís day began three hours ago. This is her fourth year as a principal. For the past two sheís been at Rockford Public School in Toronto. Her day routinely begins at 4:30 with e-mail and walking the dog.
Quan says, "The board conducts business online. This is the best time of day for me to be productive because there are no interruptions."
Rockford is a Kó6 school with 850 students, 40 teachers and two vice-principals. Quan describes it: "Itís a busy place and the demographics give us a fascinating mix. Most students are Russian Jews and many are new to Canada. We also have a large Korean population. Sixty-seven percent of our students need ESL support. With so many students and such a high ESL population, weíre seen as a needy school. In reality, weíre one of the best. The kids want to learn, we have few serious discipline problems and parents are supportive. Itís a wonderful place to work and there isnít a day that I donít learn something new that reminds me how
much I love this job."
In theory, the principalís job is to run the ship: to ensure that the plant runs smoothly and that students are taught solid curriculum by good teachers. It even seems easy compared to dealing with 30 needy and energetic kids in a confined space for six hours every day.
Quanís day consists of endless interruptions. When asked which parts are work and which interruptions, she smiles wryly, "Thereís no distinction. Everything is my job and I have to make fast and important decisions all day long." Her rest time comes when she walks around the schoolyard in the morning and after school and when she visits classrooms. Her lunch remains untouched and she sips cold coffee. "Iíve acquired a taste for it."
She defines her job: "Safety is number one. Next is ensuring that strong program is delivered, with a focus on literacy for our population. Providing strong community leadership and involvement is important and finally, making every teacher a star. The focus of each of these four elements is the students. Whenever I have to make a decision, I ask myself whatís best for student learning; itís always about the kids."
Before she enters the school, Quan quickly tours the yard, looking for the previous nightís garbage, broken glass and the occasional needle. She then finds the caretaker and asks him to clean up the litter. "This is my castle and I look after it well."
Quan has more encounters before she unlocks her office door. A maintenance man is in to replace a window and she wants the area blocked off so the children wonít be in harmís way. Sheís hosting a meeting of administrators from her family of schools in the library that morning and she helps set up chairs and refreshments. As she moves chairs with her secretary, Quan comments, "These cost $3 more than they did in June. Thatís $900 in chairs, thatís a lot of money. We need a better deal."
Next comes her morning walk with one of her vice-principals. They take walkie-talkies and scour the halls and the schoolyard. They greet students and parents as they arrive and soon notice that a basketball hoop is dangling ó another safety issue to be fixed immediately.
Quanís morning is supposed to be devoted to the upcoming meeting. She starts making notes on what sheís going to present, but has no more than a minute before her next interruption, and she never gets back to it.
The meeting unfolds slowly. Presentations are given about the boardís new phone system and about new processes to deal with special needs children. To an outsider, this seems to be frustrating: a busy school day is unfolding and Quan is stuck in a meeting. She is, however, completely focussed on the task, making notes and participating actively.
At break, her colleagues chat, but Quan, walkie-talkie in hand, patrols her castle. She wants to know whatís happening. She visits several classes to see what students are learning.
The meeting resumes and soon itís time for Quan to present. She is on a board committee to co-ordinate implementation of National Quality Initiative, a school improvement initiative. Her comments reflect her strong belief that everything must be done to benefit student learning. She emphasizes that this is not just another bandwagon. She anticipates her colleaguesí reactions ("yet another time-consuming, mandated task") and talks about how it complements work administrators are already doing. She says, "This is congruent with what youíve been doing; it supports the effective schools research and it reflects the Collegeís standards of practice. Itís worthwhile because it will benefit your staff and students."
Quanís presentation was well-prepared and well-received. One colleague comments, "That 10-minute presentation was the best part of the meeting. It was informative, tight and enthusiastic."
Thanks to the meeting, Quan now has an urgent task. Her superintendent needs precise attendance numbers to make final staffing decisions. Rockford is up 33 students and Quan wants a new teacher. Enrolment data must be compiled and assessed, several documents must be completed and a compelling rationale must be written. The submission deadline passes and Quan continues working. She calls her superintendent to relay the information and the documents go electronically, 30 minutes past deadline.
Next comes a meeting with an upset parent. The subject matter is delicate, involving racist attitudes, two teachers and a boy who has just arrived from Russia. He hardly speaks English and his mother translates. In the end, whatís best for the child wins and the parentís unreasonable request is refused, politely, thoughtfully and firmly.
Quan will not be swayed to do something that does not benefit the student or her staff. Near the meetingís end, she asks the student to leave and she takes a different approach. "Iím a mom too and I faced a similar problem once." Itís this personal approach, showing that she understands the situation as a parent, that finally convinces the mother. Quan concludes the meeting by saying, "Be supportive of this decision. Stop showing him that you are apprehensive. He needs to see that you are on side and before you know it, he will be too."
The phone rings as Quan sips cold coffee. Itís a vice-principal from another school who is preparing for the promotion process. Theyíre going to review her readiness statement for her upcoming interview. Quan offers thoughtful and constructive criticism: "Use the referee comments as your rubric and make sure you give them what they are looking for. For exampleÖ" She also praises the strong elements of the document.
Quan is mentoring 11 colleagues and she takes it seriously. "I wouldnít be an administrator today if someone hadnít encouraged me to move forward. I was happy in the classroom, but now I see other ways to help students. I want to encourage others to do the same."
This leads to a discussion of one of her most important roles: mentoring her staff. "Every teacher is a star and itís my job to do what I can to help them shine," she says. "It may be advocating for more resources or extra staff, it may be watching them teach and praising what theyíre doing. Itís not about stickers with adults; itís about giving them opportunities for self-improvement and self-reflection. I need to remind them about accountability, support them when theyíre disappointed and give them opportunities to grow."
Quan is not afraid to offer constructive criticism. During her walks about the school, she notices two problems with teachers. Later, she puts notes in their mailboxes asking them to see her the next day. "Safety violations and behaviours that donít meet the standards of practice will not be ignored."
Rockford, like many schools, believes in the value of partnering with a faculty of education. Today there is a meeting of their OISE partner and several teachers and administrators from neighbouring schools who will host student teachers this year. Quan visits the meeting, staying long enough to get a sense of what will happen this year and to support her teachers who are involved.
Itís nearly 6:00 p.m. when she enters a serious talk with a teacher about the effects of the September 11th attacks, discussing what approach the school should take. Quan points out that board specialists have offered to come and counsel students. She brings up the same topic with another teacher an hour later and they discuss the benefits of individual versus a school-wide response. She decides to get input from her whole staff, and adds this item to her agenda for the upcoming staff meeting.
Itís now 7:00 and Quan sits with her two vice-principals to discuss the day. The talk covers tomorrowís community walk, individual students and teachers, what happened at the administratorsí meeting, school staffing and the myriad of after-school activities going on at Rockford.
When asked about balancing her long working day with her family, she replies, "Sure I work long hours, but I never lose sight of my family. I spoke to my daughters and my husband today and I strongly encourage my staff to strike a balance between family and school." Quanís balance started early this morning as she set the breakfast table with homemade muffins. She usually sees her family for a few minutes at 7 a.m. before she leaves.
Donna Quan gets home at 8:30. She finally reads her mail and prepares for tomorrow. Her working day ends some 16 hours after it began.

Donna Quan
Rockford Public School
Toronto District School Board
Principal
Certified in 1983
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto




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