Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 17 Transcript

Read what David Plotz asked a middle school principal about his workday.

Andrew Rubin, Kipp middle school teacher
Andrew Rubin.

Photo by David Plotz

We’re posting weekly transcripts of David Plotz’s Working podcast for Slate Plus members. This is the transcript for Episode 17, featuring Andrew Rubin, a middle school principal in Houston. To learn more about Working, click here.

You may note some differences between this transcript and the podcast. Additional edits were made to the podcast after we completed this transcript.

David Plotz: What is your name and what do you do?

Andrew Rubin: My name is Andrew Rubin, and I’m the principal of Kipp Academy Middle School in Houston, Texas. It’s a fifth- through eighth-grade middle school with about a hundred kids in every grade level, so there are 400 kids. It’s the kind of corny thing I say to kids and families, but it’s true, that my No. 1 job is to keep them safe, and the then the No. 2, 3, 4 jobs is just to help make sure that they are prepared to be successful in high school and especially successful enough—success in college, completing college. But then also trying to just make sure that they’re becoming good people, and then also trying to make sure that they’re enjoying themselves and are motivated to be coming to school, and kind of having fun while they’re there.

Plotz: I think most of our listeners probably know what Kipp is, but just give us, like, the 15-second summary of Kipp School is and how it’s distinctive from some other kind of school?

Rubin: Kipp is a public charter program. So, all Kipp schools are public schools. I’m paid by the state of Texas. And they’re designed for low-income students, and they’re trying to close an achievement gap by having extra time, longer school days, and a longer school year, and just trying to do whatever else it takes to help these kids who usually don’t go to college, complete college.

Plotz: What is the first thing you do on a typical Monday during the school year?

Rubin: Every day when I get to school, we have a breezeway in our building and it echoes music fantastically. So, the first thing that I do is I play music. I have these awesome Bose portable speakers, and I hook it up to Spotify—which is also revolutionary, because for a little while I was buying music on iTunes, which is not sustainable. So, Spotify is amazing, right, because you can choose literally like any song ever created. And I blast music through the breezeway, and I try to make it thematic, although now that I’m a couple years in, it’s getting tough to come up with new themes and new songs. Sometimes my go-to, the real winner is, like, The Lion King, and then there are a couple of other just go-to things that, like, everyone who walks through the breezeway—

Plotz: So, what would be a theme that you—and the music that went with the theme?

Rubin: One theme might, sort of be like a diva theme, right? So, like, the diva theme, I probably would—I probably would want to start and end on, like, particularly strong notes. Keep in mind, I’m trying to satisfy both teacher and student interest. So on the front end would be Madonna, probably. And then on the back end of that would be Lady Gaga, and somewhere in the middle would be, like, Beyoncé. So, that would be my diva week.

Plotz: How long does that go on, and what’s the purpose of that?

Rubin: Homeroom starts at 7:30, and I try to get the music going on a good day at 7 or maybe even a little earlier. And partly just the feel of that breezeway when that music is playing, it feels a lot different than when it’s not playing. When it is playing, it just has a feeling of, just as an energy which—again, it’s kind of corny to say, but like, it is—it’s an energy that just makes it feel like your day has a little bit more, like—you’ve got a little bit more pep in your step. And it doesn’t feel like you’re kind of on this, like, slow painful march to your first class. It just kind of feels like it’s a more fun place to be. That is one of the reasons why I like to start the day that way for everyone.

Plotz: What generally are your other routines of the early part of the day?

Rubin: I try to schedule all of my parent conferences before or after school. It’s just super—it’s just easier to say, like, anytime anyone says we need a parent conference, it’s like, before or after school. So, that is often right around 7 or 7:15, is when I’d be meeting with parents. Sadly, usually if I’m meeting with them there’s some kind of a problem, either they’ve asked to meet with me for some reason or I’ve asked to meet with them, often for behavioral issues. Their child has just done something, you know, they just said something incredibly mean to another student, or they were cheating on a test, or they’ve kissed someone. That’s a pretty common one, is that they’ve kissed another middle school student, which they’re not allowed to do. Or in some cases they’ve kissed another middle school student, and then kissed another, and then kissed another, and so you can kind of see how—and so, those are the meetings that I often have actually in the morning, and then also in the afternoon right—our day ends at 5. Well, our day ended at 5 p.m., and it will change this upcoming year. But my parent meetings are usually around 7 or at 5.

Plotz: If a kid has kissed someone—let’s role-play this. I’m the parent, I’ve come in and my son has been—just kissed a couple of girls. Whether or not they wanted it, I don’t even know, but he wasn’t supposed to do that. So what’s going to happen?

Rubin: “Thank you so much for coming in, Mr. Plotz. I know it’s difficult for you to come here on a workday. As you know, at our school we don’t allow any students to be kissing any other students.” I’ll name, I’ll say—“So, did Marcus tell you—did Marcus tell you why we’re here?”

Plotz: “No.”

Rubin: “OK. Well, yesterday afternoon at 5 after dismissal, one of our teachers saw Marcus kissing another student. You know that kissing doesn’t follow our rules.” So actually, you and I would be talking one-on-one. I would not have the student in the meeting in the first place. Because from here you would usually either be angry at me or you would be embarrassed, and that would start to become clear. And so, kind of depending which one are you—which one do you want to be right now?

Plotz: “I’m angry—he’s just a boy! I mean, what’s wrong with kissing a girl. That’s what boys do. That’s a stupid rule.”

Rubin: “I understand, and as I often tell the students, I was a middle-schooler at one point as well. And so, I know that that is just part of life. At the same time, there are rules that you’ve committed to and that the student has committed to, and those are rules that we follow up consistently with every single time. And so the consequences that we’ve given to students in the past are going to be the same consequences that we’re giving—so, we have to talk about consequences for your child now.”

Plotz: OK, so, you’ve had your parent meetings. Then from what I understand, based on principals of my experience, principals don’t do anything else until you get out of school. But probably as a principal it feels slightly different! So what is it that you’re doing after you’ve had those meetings with parents?

Rubin: I think there are different types of principals, right, who are kind of good at different things. I am a teacher who became a principal somewhat begrudgingly. Like, I would prefer to be teaching in a lot of ways, but I just feel like I’m probably a little bit better at this job than when I was a full-time teacher. But I teach two classes. I teach an eighth-grade science class. So, at 9:20, like, it’s impossible to schedule anything with me at 9:20 because I have a class with eighth-graders every day at 9:20. I was teaching a digital film elective, and that’s from 11:30 to 12:30. So that’s part of my day, is actually just teaching. And again, I’m really fortunate because I’m only able to do that because we have veteran staff who are able to make a lot of the small decisions that principals or assistant principals might be making in other schools.

A decision might be—I mean, partly like what we were saying, when someone—just responding to misbehavior. A student is making some bad choices and instead of saying, “All right, call Mr. Rubin and have him come,” they’re just handling it on the spot. They’re able to get that student from, you know, the point of not being very functional at that moment to being successful, you know, like, and moving on. And so I really can just disappear into a classroom from 9:20 to 10:30 without anyone thinking twice about it or without anyone needing me. And generally they understand and I think value the idea that, like, that’s what I’m doing in that time, which is pretty important. As we make a lot of changes and improvements, we have some pretty developed, you know, assessment systems and just generally, like, we would push for different instructional approaches. It would be hard for me to be able to really ask other people to do these things and never do it myself.

So that’s part of my day. And then a big chunk of the rest of my day is going into other classrooms and seeing other teachers teach, talking to them about their teaching, looking at assessments with them, looking at data from their classes, and trying to figure out, you know, how things are doing.

Plotz: Talk about a particular kind of classroom you might approach. What would you be looking at? What would you be talking to the teacher about? And what would result from that?

Rubin: So when I go into a fifth-grade social studies classroom, I would try to get there toward the beginning of class. Because one thing that we are really looking at now is, like, how are you opening up an instructional experience in a way that is connecting to other relevant things that the students either know about already or care about? And then also just like, kind of giving this kind of smooth on-ramp into the new things that they are going to be learning? And that’s partly just research, right? I mean, just general research on how people learn. You can’t just drop knowledge in people’s heads. Depending on—maybe actually we would have some documents, like, have some shared documents, like, Google documents that both the teacher and I would be able to access, where I would sometimes just be writing down the things that the students are saying they’re learning. Which then we can go back to and look later on, and saying, like, this is great because look at what the kids—look at all these meaningful things the kids were saying when I asked them why they’re learning this? Or, sometimes, like, look at the confusion that the students are showing when you ask them why they are learning something that they are learning? And then we’re able to use that to adjust for the next day or the next class period, depending on when I’m able to talk to the teacher about it.

Plotz: This is something different than a formal assessment of a teacher?

Rubin: This is different from that, and I—it is not so much my style to be really—to be getting into a lot of, like, particularly “formal” assessments where I’m trying to give numbers or grades to teachers. So, yeah, this is more of—this is more formative, right? This is more of an ongoing conversation. This is generally what I strive for with every single teacher and every single just adult, you know, in our building, where we’re having ongoing conversations about how things are going, working towards certain goals and priorities that we’ve set. For example, things around literacy and wanting to make sure that—that there are various ways that we can measure literacy.

But ideally there’s a relationship there with a teacher where they kind of know that – they have a sense of what my job is. My job is to generally help them but also to hold them accountable and to give them feedback, but I’m doing it because I care and I’m going to do it in a way that’s generally going to be as helpful as possible, and it’s never going to be a “gotcha” kind of thing, and it’s never going to be used against them somewhere else. And then that’s where just the time is so important of doing that, month after month, year after year, because they’ve seen—well, like, for years there’s never been a “gotcha,” so there’s not going to be a “gotcha” now.

Plotz: So you teach, you go into classrooms, what are other major tasks of the day?

Rubin: That is—going to classrooms and then meeting, right? Meeting with, like, meeting with teachers but also meeting with the social worker and meeting with our office staff, and then just meeting with kids. Like, meeting with kids about—meeting with our—hopefully if I can—I haven’t done this as much. We have a student government. We have a student president. Hopefully a meeting with them, and think to give them as many, like, kicks in the butt as possible to, like, make legislation about changes that they think can be made in the school. Then sometimes just the talking—you know, what’s kind of a level below the parent conversation is just, like, a teacher just mentioned to me that a student had been, you know, making a series of bad choices and describing that student, talking with them for 10 minutes. Just a lot of that will happen, particularly during lunchtime.

Plotz: So, I spend a shameful amount of my time at work checking in with my wife, Web surfing, just generally—I mean, I can call it research for the purpose of Slate, but really it’s, like, personal. Do you get any of that? Or is this a job, which, once you’re in the building you are fully in the building and there’s nothing else?

Rubin: Sometimes I’ll just check the New York Times page. Like, that will be, like, two minutes. So yeah, it’s really not much. And the answer to your question is pretty much, no. I mean, it’s maybe 5 to 10 minutes through the course of the day, but yeah, it’s not—there’s just always a lot of things. There’s just always things to go and—because what’s hard to even quantify here—like, I realize that, oh, I need to do this one thing from this teacher, or I need to just go find out this one thing from one person. I have to go run and do that, and then come back, and then there’s something else, and then someone comes through—like, a visitor comes through. Or, like, our computer lab, which I rewired a year ago because I wasn’t happy with where it was and how it was a wired. And, like, the routers are not working, and, like, it’s probably just because something got unplugged. But, like, that’s 15 minutes of crawling under our computers and plugging it back in. Just those things are constantly happening every day.

And then depending on the school, you know, as you get closer to state tests, like, that much more of my time is spent just, like, grabbing this group of six students and tutoring them. That is something else that happens on a regular basis. That’s part of our whole instruction and assessment is, like, platform—grade book particular is built on the idea of being able to grab kids and tutor, and if they’ve done better in that standard to give them that score and credit for that right away.

Plotz: Let’s go to the tests, actually, because I’m very interested. So do you obsess about the results? Do you spend a lot of time looking at the tests, looking at the results, changing your students’ scores so that they—you know, cheating the system so that your students look better—things like that? How do you relate to it, and how does it affect your daily work?

Rubin: To be clear, I spend zero amount of time cheating the system. But I affects my daily work a lot, but not in a way that’s, like, oh, we have to spend all this time just doing this horrible drilling and killing stuff. I mean, to do it right, you’re getting kids to really deep levels of understanding or really high levels of reading, right? Or just really high levels of just performance in general, and then they can do really well on the tests without really needing to worry about it.

And when I say tests, too, I mean—we do a couple of—yes, we have a state of Texas assessment of academic readiness, like, the new state tests. We also have something called a MAP test, which is a computerized test that’s kind of adaptive to kids, and they take that over the course of four years, and you can really track their growth, like, on an absolute scale, which is pretty cool. And then we just have reading tests we give, fluency tests. So, when I say “tests” I really mean all of those things, that we’re going to be trying to be looking at all of those different data points. And they often correlate.

But we’re not—we at our school are fortunate enough to not be slaves to the state tests. Admittedly though as you get to something like the, you know, the end of year eighth grade science tests or social studies tests, then it comes into the kind of, high school and college, and that’s how we package it. It’s like, look, you’re going to have to cram. This is what you’re going to do in high school. This is what you’re going to do in college. But at the same time, as much as we wish that they would take the initiative on their own, we’re often grabbing them.

And so, yeah, I get pretty high stress, again, more from, like, the teacher perspective of the classes that I’m owning more, where I just kind of become a little bit obsessive about it. And then, you know, then they take the tests and then you kind of look back on the last three weeks, and you’re like, why did I just obsess that much about it? But then generally our kids do pretty well in it. And so, and we take it seriously but we also take it seriously with the idea of knowing that, like, we focus on the areas that we know overlap with college readiness. Like, I don’t take it seriously with the idea of, like, well, I don’t think this is helpful for them but I’m going to do it because the state tells me. That is not how I operate towards the test. And so, it’s nice to—I feel like it’s effort that we need to put in just to get them ready.

Plotz: So after the academic portion of the school day the kids are going home. What are you doing then?

Rubin: One other part of my day, especially in the last month of school after we had to fire a negligent baseball coach, was coaching baseball. For years I was a soccer coach and I’ve had to kind of step back from that, because those were—like I was saying, they were overlapping so often with parent conferences. Because that’s a big part of the day, is just, like, at 5, bus duty and parent conferences, and sometimes finding the kid that disappeared. Like, it turns out the kid was under the stairs at the high school! But, like, it took 30 minutes to figure that out. I mean, those kinds of things happen.

Plotz: Do you have children?

Rubin: I do not have any children.

Plotz: Do you take work home after you leave at 6:30 or 6:45? What do you have to do at night?

Rubin: Probably the four or five things I do most often, doing—returning parent phone calls. I’m not very good about returning phone calls in general, so I try to return parent phone calls. And then grading papers is very difficult to do in the course of a school day. I think it would be setting a good example if I just sat at my desk in the hallway and graded papers, but it’s very difficult to do that.

Plotz: Do you have any responsibilities as a kind of businessman, where you’re like, oh, I need to control expenses, or, you know, I’m going to pay this teacher more because she’s more valuable? In what sense are you a business leader of your school?

Rubin: Yeah, I do manage our budget. And so, that’s—all spring, kind of March through May, I’m like, manipulating our budget in different ways in anticipation of planning for the following year. And then all throughout the year I’m making decisions about buying stuff for our school. Now, you know, we have about $2 million as a school. Like, I’m managing around $2 million. Like, the huge caveat to that is that over 90 percent of that is in salary. We have been trying to find different ways—as everyone is—just the right way to be doing some bonus pay, but without there being some systems that just put money over everything else. We don’t even have that much money to be able to execute that, like, very well. So, really now we’re just trying to tie some behaviors, some teaching behaviors. It’s really hard to individualize and differentiate lessons, it’s just time. Sometimes it’s twice as much time, because you’re trying to basically repair things for both kids who are at this higher level of readiness and a lower level of readiness. So, if teachers are going to put in twice as much time over the course of a quarter, you know, we want to incentivize that. So, that’s where any kind of extra discretionary money, you know, like, we give them a bonus that we made clear beforehand that they would be getting if they did that work.

That’s really the extent of the kind of, like, personnel decisions, besides the point in the year where I just do everything I can to make sure that we’re giving kind of the best raises possible, and that’s usually just a kind of crude calculation of, like, this is how much I can get away with raising our salaries. Like, I have—I mean, our board will, like, look it over and stamp it, but I have basically 100 percent discretion over all of those decisions. But also, like, can we—do we have the money to buy these other computers or should we be using that toward books? Or are we even buying—you know, like, and just all of those things. Yes, that is—that is a big part of my job, especially towards the end of the year where you’re kind of, like, landing the plane just with a lot of—just like, I guess, most businesses, right? The end of a fiscal year, trying to make sure that you’re getting it just right, and not leaving money on the table is actually part it that can kind of get—that we may not have, you know, for the following year.

Plotz: Do you have a boss?

Rubin: I do. I have a boss. The title is called a head of schools, and he is basically the boss of, like, six principals in my side of Houston.

Plotz: How often do you talk to him?

Rubin: We meet weekly, and then kind of—like, pretty fortunately we don’t often, like, need his help on a lot of things. Like, sometimes people are like, “Well, I’m going to talk to your boss! I’m going to talk to the superintendent!” That’s happened once this past year. And so, we don’t really need him for that backup, although I know he’s there which is a really key part of this job, is just knowing that he’d back me up. And then, you know, our results are pretty strong, and so that’s another area where, I mean, he trusts that he knows what we’re doing—he knows that I, like, kind of over-obsess about some of these things, and so I think he knows he just—he doesn’t have to be coming in and trying to raise the urgency. He knows that I’m on it.

Plotz: So is there anything outrageous or unusual that you do to get the kids’ attention or to—I’m not sure what. Just, is there anything outrageous or unusual that you do?

Rubin: I think it’s important to break out of the stereotype as much as possible. You know, if the typical stereotype is, I see the principal when I’m in trouble, I try to again, have as many—just to do as many things, big and small, to make that not be my persona. So, the more outrageous ones recently have involved a chicken suit that I was able to get for free from someone else who worked in Kipp Houston public schools. There was a 5K that they had organized and they were trying to get kids out, and we were supposed to try to get them pumped up. And so I told the kids that they could vote on my costume that I would wear to run the 5K if they came. So the kids who came voted on a chicken suit, so I wore and ran in my chicken suit at the 5K. And then I resurrected the chicken suit—we go ice-skating every year as, like, a reward trip. So you know, we had a couple hundred kids at an ice skating rink nearby, and I—I wasn’t sure if it would work out, but it did. I was able to wear my chicken suit and ice skate around for, like, 20 or 30 minutes in my chicken suit.

Plotz: What does that accomplish when you do that?

Rubin: That’s a good question. It might be accomplishing more in my mind than for them. You know, I think—it depends on their age, too, right? Eighth-graders whom I know a little more, they kind of just think it’s funny. And again, hopefully it breaks out, when they see me it’s not like, “Oh, crap, like, don’t get in trouble, Mr. Rubin is walking by.” Hopefully they see me and they’re like, “That’s the guy in the chicken suit,” or hopefully they’re thinking of a lot of experiences when they see me. But they’re not just thinking about the negative kind of potentially scary things that they might be talking to me about. Yeah, it just allows me to have a wider range of experiences.

With the fifth- and sixth-graders it gets them a little bit more—it’s a little bit easier to kind of, like—they’re, you know, just more playful and more kind of like, fun-loving in general. So with them they really kind of get excited about. They, like, they talk about when they next see me and they’re generally laughing about it. And it really helps to kind of build up a persona among them, where they may not see me often but they think of me in this more kind of, like, positive celebrity light kind of status, as opposed to, like, again, you know, uh-oh, quiet down—like, scary principal is walking by.

And then hopefully when they become the more skeptical and, like, jaded seventh and eighth graders, hopefully I have a little bit more traction then with those kids because I just have built—I have a couple years of them kind of seeing me in these other—you know, doing these other kind of silly things.

Plotz: What do civilians—what do, you know, your parents, your friends—not get about principaling?

Rubin: I went out after and I met up with some friends, like, pretty late. It was after some kind of school thing that I had to do, and I got—and went pretty late to meet up. But I was like, while I was with them I started getting text messages from our social worker, who was going to the hospital because one of our students who had had a lot of psychological issues in the last couple of months—including, like, you know, voices, like hearing—like, some really serious stuff.

And she kind of went to another level. And so, literally, like, I mean, these are friends—friends that are sitting, and laughing, and drinking wine or whatever—and then I’m getting these text messages from this, like, just true blessing of a woman who, like, she’s in the hospital. Like, she’s literally sitting with the parents in the hospital trying to, like, just trying to serve her role.

And she—and I—it doesn’t make sense for me to get up and go, right? There’s no reason why I should do that, but at the same time I’m trying to show that I’m supportive of her, and like, that I’m not just totally, like, well, good luck with that and doing other things. But at the same time, like, it’s 10 at night and it’s time to kind of try to disconnect and have somewhat of a life. And so I think that, even in that moment there’s a moment where I just—because I kept having the texts. And so I felt about that, too, because it looked like I’m just, like, not, you know, committed to being there.

And I think at one point they asked what was going on, and I just quickly told them, and there was look like where it’s like, whoa, you deal with some pretty serious stuff. And it’s like, yeah, like—and I’m not—I mean, that is extreme, but I mean, there’s just some really upsetting things that can happen, right, when you’re working with, like, 400 mostly low-income students. And just kind of realizing the depth of some of those things that I might be kind of coming across on a typical day.

But, like, it’s some pretty heavy stuff that’s going on. And so I think in those kind of moments—I mean, I’m not saying they don’t appreciate it, and certainly my parents and wife and close friends, they all, like, appreciate it—and they also appreciate that I’m just not the kind of person that wants to really talk a lot about it. But at the same time, sometimes I wonder that it’s like—yeah, do people have a clear sense of that from my job?