Headmaster Or Principal? Pembroke Academy Debates What's In A Name

May 29, 2015

Pembroke Academy
Credit change.org

A battle is brewing at Pembroke Academy, and it’s all over a name.

Hundreds of people, including many staff and students, have signed a petition opposing the local school board’s decision to switch the title of the school’s top job from headmaster to principal.

Nick Reid is a reporter for the Concord Monitor. He joined Morning Edition to talk about his coverage of this issue.

(You can find some of his coverage here).

When did the Pembroke School Board make the decision to make the title change from headmaster to principal?

The decision was made actually way back in the fall, but at the time, the staff and student didn’t realize it had been made. It was sort of a footnote at the end of a meeting. It came up into the public eye in March when it came up sort of inadvertently at a staff meeting. Someone said something about the new principal, and everyone on the staff went to correct them, but they were told the title is principal now. According to a staff member who was in the room, the air went out of the room. People felt the tradition of headmaster was over.

What was the rationale for the change in the first place?

To the school board at the time, it was uncontroversial. They felt they were modernizing it. They were looking to post the job and it seemed to make more sense because public schools had principals, in their mind, and private schools had headmasters. Pembroke Academy is a public school, though it has private school roots.

Pembroke Academy is a public school, but many obviously feel tradition should prevail. Tell us about the reactions around the school. As you said, it really wasn’t a controversial issue until later in March. How did that controversy get started?

It started up pretty quickly once everyone realized the change had been made. I think that they just felt it hadn’t been given a proper chance for argument. They thought maybe the school board didn’t realize how important of an issue it was for them to keep their legacy, their tradition of headmaster. And so they just started to form together. They got a petition out there and within a few weeks, they got more than 550 signatures. They turned it in and everyone sort of felt like the school board would rehear the issue and would come around.

Was there some idea among students and parents that signed this petition that there’s more than just a name and tradition at stake here?

Yes. Some of the students at the first meeting, a senior got up and said he felt the title “headmaster” had a sense of swagger to it that “principal” doesn’t have. Students felt like when they were in middle school and elementary school, they had principals, but they should have a headmaster in high school. They argued recommendations for college, it carries more prestige coming from a headmaster.

So what happens now going forward? Will the board reconsider now that these several hundred signatures have come in?

That’s a good question. At a meeting earlier this month, they voted on whether to reconsider their prior ruling. The answer, in a 3-2 vote, was no, we shouldn’t reconsider. And it seemed like it was kind of over. But then the “Save Our Headmaster” movement, as it’s come to be called at the school, they didn’t give up that easily. Just last week on Wednesday after school got out, they held this demonstration called Honk for Headmaster. 

There were poster boards, air horns, and chalk writing on the sidewalk. People sure were honking. It was noisy. It was a signal that maybe this won’t go as quietly as they thought. Graduation is coming up and they’ve made all of these buttons. They’ve got car decals. Unless they’re forbidden, I think there will be students wearing “Save Our Headmaster” buttons with their graduation outfit.