It was my first year as the principal at an elementary school where Halloween was considered a very big deal. The holiday featured the usual parties, costumes, and candy, as well as a big parade around the school parking lot that community members could attend.
As a brand new principal, I decided that the best thing for me to do was to just go with the flow. After all, this wasn't my first Halloween at school. What could go wrong?
Halloween All Day
The problems started right as the day began. Most teachers tried to use the morning for reading or math, but with all the excitement, it was an uphill battle. We had a large number of substitute teachers that day, most of whom were showing videos.
Parents who were helping out with parties and the parade arrived at school when their kids did, so they were already in the back of the classrooms chatting, unpacking decorations, and setting up snacks for parties that wouldn't happen until the afternoon. Teachers who chose to read Halloween stories aloud to their students had some success, but no one could say they accomplished a lot academically that morning.
Cue the Gorilla
Then the chaos really started. Right before the parade, I heard shrieks coming from a kindergarten classroom. I raced down the hall to find a gorilla leaping from desk to desk, thumping his chest and roaring.
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The little ones were huddled against the back wall, screaming and trying to hide behind their teacher. Out in the hall a couple of local guys were doubled over in laughter.
"Hey!" I yelled, furious that someone would think it was funny to scare little kids. "Get off those desks!" The gorilla stopped. The room fell silent. He crawled down.
My heart was pounding. "Now take that gorilla head off and show the kids that you're not a real gorilla!" I ordered. The gorilla hung his head. Then he lifted it off, and I caught a whiff of alcohol as he revealed his face.
I turned to the kids. "See, girls and boys," I said in the calmest voice I could muster. "It's just a costume. It's not a real gorilla." He looked at the floor. I grabbed the gorilla head from him and hissed, "Now get out of here!" He and his buddies shuffled out the door to the parking lot. It wasn't so funny anymore.
The kids slowly returned to their seats. But the look in their eyes told me they thought their principal was a superhero. While some teachers dressed up for Halloween at school, I wore my usual professional attire. At the beginning of the day, I wondered if I should have worn a costume, but I knew later I made the right choice. I was a lot more effective confronting the gorilla dressed as the principal than I would have been as Moana or a tea bag.
The Halloween Parade
It takes a while for 750 children to get into costumes and parade through the school, out the door, and around the parking lot for a crowd of family, friends, and community members. To make things more complicated, not everyone participated in the parade. Some didn't have costumes. Some didn't celebrate Halloween for various reasons. Some had upset stomachs from all the excitement.
The kids dressed as action figures had to be warned repeatedly not to hit other kids with their swords, lightsabers, or other weapons. Little princesses wobbled in their big sister's high heels, and I hoped they could make it around the parking lot without ending up with skinned knees.
After a lot of wrangling, the parade began and the crowd ooh'd, ahh'd, and clapped as the children passed by. It was a cold and blustery day and some of the kids shivered in their thin costumes, but at least the rain held off until we all got back inside.
Lessons Learned for the Next Year
I learned a lot that year about what not to do on Halloween. The gorilla actually made it easier to make changes for the next year. Nobody wanted to see a replay of that, and it raised a lot of concerns about safety.
The decision to make changes paved the way for several veteran teachers to tell me that Halloween at school seemed to have grown with each passing year, and what was once an hour-long party was now a full-day celebration that not all teachers embraced. That explained the large number of substitute teachers that day.
A small committee of teachers worked with me to set up new guidelines for Halloween. The following year, the custodian made sure that all outside doors were locked before school started (the gorilla had entered through a door to the playground that had been propped open). Visitors to the building were required to sign in at a table in front of the main doors, and adults were not allowed to wear masks.
Students had regular classes until lunch. The parade was moved indoors to the gym, and the community was invited to sit in the bleachers to watch. Kids who did not wish to participate could sit in the bleachers or go to the library. Teachers were reminded that their students wanted to share the day with them and we needed all hands on deck. The following year the number of subs dropped enormously.
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We made a lot of changes, but one thing stayed the same: the kindergartners, now first graders, still thought I was a superhero.