Becoming a Principal
It was an unpredictable move in her career. She remembers walking out onto the schoolyard and looking around with uncertainty, thinking, “All of this is on my shoulders now. If I mess up, that’s it. There goes the 1,200 students and staff.” The Hmong community she represented was an additional weight. A few wondered if she had received the job simply because of her ethnicity.
Finishing her B.A. in Liberal Studies at CSU Fresno, Misty Her went into education with no intentions of becoming an administrator. “I only wanted to be a teacher,” she says, “and then go out and save the world, one student at a time.”
She taught for five years at Burroughs Elementary where she became a Master Teacher. Her motto in education had always been: if it’s not good enough for your own children, then it’s not good for anyone else.
Having observed her work ethics and skills in the classroom, the principal told her she had great leadership aptitude. “Imagine what you could do if you applied that to an entire school,” he advised.
“He kept steering me in that direction,” she recalls. “He saw the potential in me that I was not aware of.”
As a Master Teacher, Misty began to notice how the classrooms of those in her training mirrored her own. “That’s when it dawned on me that if I could do this with an entire staff of fifty to sixty teachers, I could make a big difference in each classroom.”
She went on to complete an M.A. in administration and supervision, and worked as vice-principal for two years. At the age of 29, Misty landed the position of principal at Burroughs Elementary.
“It’s an enormous task,” she now says. “You’re always on call. If there’s a break in at the school and you’re notified in the middle of the night, you have to go and check it out. If a neighborhood house burns down over the weekend, you have to see if any of the occupants were students from the school. Your job doesn’t stop once you leave the campus grounds.”
The responsibilities stem from grass maintenance, broken sprinklers, lockdowns, student and staff supervision, curriculum planning, budgeting, to all personnel issues. On any given day, Misty spends her time from 8:00 am until 2:00 pm in classrooms, working and learning alongside teachers, and engaging with students. Scheduling staff meetings, planning teacher trainings, and all other personal duties of her own are handled during after school hours, usually from four to eight. Work often piles into the weekend.
“It’s a very hard and stressful career,” she says, juggling more than twelve hours a day. “But I truly love what I do. I enjoy working with families and kids. In order to do the job well, you have to see yourself in the kids. I see myself in the kids.”
She recalls, in her childhood years, having followed her parents to work. Both were custodians for the Fresno Unified School District while drudging second jobs on the side. “Look around, this is hard labor,” her father used to say when cleaning toilets.
“My parents made a hard, honest living, but it wasn’t the life they wanted me to lead,” says Misty. “Their suffering motivated me to make the best out of myself.”
Much of her upbringing has impacted her role at Burroughs Elementary where more than half of the students live in poverty. “I deal with a lot of needy kids from dysfunctional families. My greatest challenge is working with adults who don’t put the needs of kids first, who don’t see the potential in children. What I try to do is instill values that aren’t there. I can’t control what goes on at home but I can control the six hours I have with my students. Children will excel if someone believes in them.”
Education is critical to success. Misty poses the question: How many of us have made it simply for the fact that someone in academics believed in us? “There are kids whom most assume will not make it in life, but with some encouragement and intervention, they eventually become somebody. It is our obligation to teach them. As cliche as it may sound, these children are our future – our bankers, lawyers, and surgeons.”
Hmong and Academics
“I see more divorces today in our community,” says Misty. “We have children in foster care, families on drugs, kids raising kids.”
These are social dilemmas we face now that were not prevalent among first generation Hmong families.
“The values carried by first generation Hmong seem to have vanished with the current generation. There’s a big disconnect between our students now and their ethnic culture.” Without the refugee struggle, and living in a “give me, give me society” – as she puts it, many children seem to have lost their motivation in academics, “that competitiveness we had as struggling first generation Hmong.”
She examines her own children in comparison to her own upbringing. “My kids don’t seem to need anything nowadays. They have a home, video games, the influence of TV and entertainment. They forget about the importance of being Hmong and the values that come with it.”
What Misty tells her students is to stay in school, stand tall, and know that they come from a rich culture. “Sometimes I feel like we’re going to lose a whole generation of kids. And it’s a very frightening thought.” She is especially stunned by the amount of Hmong students who refuse a college education after high school. “College will only open doors for you to see beyond your neighborhood and not let the cycle of poverty repeat,” she advises.
To counter these challenges, the preparation of kids for college and career jobs was proposed at Burroughs Elementary. “I think this is such a necessary step,” she says. “It shouldn’t start when our students are in middle school or high school, but at the elementary level, as early as kindergarten and preschool. We need to start asking our children what they want to be and what they like to do. We need to be attentive to their individual strengths and skills.”
Many Hmong students are artistically or musically talented, but such talents go unrecognized, she says. “Sometimes I’ll find a child who exemplifies good writing and tell him or her that they can be a writer. They need to be nurtured in what they’re good at. Too often are the kids in our community expected to become only lawyers and doctors.”
Working as a Team
Over the years, Misty has learned a great deal in her position as principal. “I feel like I’ve grown so much. I’m aware of the fact that in order for a school to function, it takes an entire team, not an individual. I’m learning not to make decisions on the spot and to really listen to what my team is saying.”
She is constantly supervising her expectations. “Leadership either makes or breaks a school.” This is a belief she firmly holds to. “For me, it’s always about my kids and my staff. You have to be the one to go out there and see that everything is happening accordingly. If I’m asking the children to pick up trash, then I better be picking trash with them. If I’m asking the teachers to teach a new concept, then I better be learning right along with them. A leader should always work with the team. I won’t make someone do what I’m not willing to do.”
Impact on the Community
In recent years, following Misty Her’s ascension from teacher to principal, numerous Hmong individuals have moved into high administrative positions in academia.
When asked about her impact as the first Hmong principal in California, Misty says, “We’ve become visible to others. When I go to meetings now, I see our faces. People are more careful about what they say about the Hmong community. When decisions are being made, there is a given attention to Hmong kids because I’m sitting there.”
While growing up, Misty didn’t have career role models to look up to. Now and then Hmong students will walk up to her on the schoolyard and say, I want to be a principal someday. “You can be more than that,” Misty tells them. “You can be a superintendent or the president of the United States. The advice I give is: Wherever you go in life, you must go with your heart.”