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14 Oct An Ode to the Principal

I was driving to an appointment with a good friend of mine who used to be a principal. I was also contemplating asking him to do a presentation at a conference on leadership, culture, and values in April. As soon as the idea came up in my mind, I also asked myself how I could motivate why I am asking a principal to talk at a leadership conference where businessmen are the target audience. Some of you who remember the Chris de Burgh song, Patricia, will remember the words: “The facts of the case lie before us – this girl was in her working clothes!” Similarly, after thinking for a few very short minutes, I realized something that I had never thought of before – these guys (and girls) have a job as far as leadership is concerned that is one of the most difficult to exercise.

First of all, we have the obvious target group – the children. In the primary school they vary from Grade 1 to Grade 7, while the secondary school deals with Grade 8 to Grade 12 children – age wise very diverse. You also need to bear in mind they come from all walks of life – from parents who are wealthy and rich, to parents who struggle to make a livelihood. Again, as far as this factor is concerned, a very diverse group. In addition, they are representative of all kinds of cultures and value systems. And so I can go on, but the bottom line is that the principal needs to deal with a very diverse group of children.

Then there are the parents. I have already referred to them. There are the rich ones, the ordinary ones, and the poor ones. A number of these cannot afford to pay for the schooling of their children, and there are a lot who can. There are those who are participants in the lives of their children, and those who could not really care. There are those who participate at school, and there are those who do not. There are those who take responsibility for the growth and development of their children, and there are those who have abdicated this responsibility to the school. There are those who ensure that their children are well-mannered and disciplined, and there are those that try to be the friends of their children, at the cost of manners and discipline.

Then we have the teachers. Some of these see their jobs as a calling, while a number see it as something that pays the bills. They are also the products of the parents I have referred to above – with the result that some are disciplined and well-mannered, while others are not. I was fortunate as I finished my schooling at a school that had a large number of teachers who loved children – I could have been a career scholar! But not all schools are like that!

The next stakeholder of the school is the Department of Education – at both the national and the provincial level. They have their bureaucratic rules and regulations to follow, and frequently political motives. School systems come and they go – at the whim of the political masters. And the principals need to implement these systems – whether they agree or not.

Then we have the community at large. It requires the school to deliver products that can become stalwarts in the society and business world. The universities require products that can attend university and be successful. The business community require products that can drive a business and add value to the broader community as well.

And so I can go one. The bottom line is that this principal has a very broad and diverse group of stakeholders to manage. Over some of them he/she has a form of control and influence, over others he/she has no control and can only influence, while over others he/she has neither control nor influence.

I started to think about the different roles this principal of mine has to play. And they were quite diverse as well:

  • First there was the normal leadership role (inasmuch as leadership under these conditions can be normal!) – towards the teacher, the child, the parent. Given the diverse nature, none of these groupings would be satisfied with a common leadership approach!
  • In this role, the principal also has to build a culture and value system that will lead to the child becoming the best he or she can be. The values need to be held in a cult-like fashion by teachers and children alike.
  • The principal also has to motivate the children and teachers at school to perform optimally. Gaining the grades the child is capable of. Delivering the sport results the parents and children aspire to. Teachers need to be developed into an engaged force, needed to deliver children that one day will drive the economy and society at large!
  • He/she is also a problem solver of note – problems at school are a dime a dozen – from children being poorly disciplined, to teachers not doing their job, to children being victimised, either at home or at school, or both, and to parents who do not care and who do not pay school fees.
  • The principal also needs to be a financial manager – resource handler, and ensure that the processes, procedures, rules, and regulations of the school are adhered to. Ensuring that the curricula are followed and implemented. Ensuring that the facilities are kept in mint condition.
  • Then there is the role of the principal as parent – to the small child in primary school, the child who is the victim of bullying, etc.
  • This principal of ours is also the school’s strategist and planner – ensuring that we strive towards the “right” objectives with ways and means that will deliver the results we all hope for. Here our principal needs to be a futurist, developing children for jobs that frequently do not yet exist as such!
  • And let’s not forget the role of our principal as psychologist. Listening to at least 3 stakeholders and helping them to bounce back and stay motivated, i.e. the child, the teacher, and the parent.
  • Linked to the role of psychologist, we have the role of main cheerleader. Check out the sports fields on a Saturday morning. Our principals are there routing for their teams, giving a bit of TLC where the team lost, and giving a lot of praise where the team won.
  • Then we require of our principal to be an innovator – coming up with new ways of doing things, of adjusting to new technology and to new curricula, of generating funds outside of the budget and the school fees.
  • And frequently (mostly? always?) our principal also has a subject he/she has to present and stay on top of!

I am sure I can go on and on to expand upon the accountabilities of this principal of ours. The bottom line is that he/she has a diverse and complex job, where leadership, values, and culture play a gigantic role.

Then I asked myself the million dollar question. What training does this principal of ours get? What development does the DoE present to the principal to ensure that he/she is this wonderful, multi-skilled individual who is teacher, parent, psychologist, leader, manager, etc? And I need to stand corrected, but I am of the opinion that our principal learns by his own experience! Which is horrific! Bischmark of Prussia is quoted as having said the following: “Fools learn from their own experience. I prefer to learn from the experience of others!”

Nice thing to say, but if no one is providing the education and growth required to convert our teachers into principals with such a broad and diverse number of roles, what alternative is there?

So, next time you complain about the principal being a pathetic idiot, a grownup amongst kids but a kid amongst grownups, think again! This is a job for a very special person, a leader amongst men and women, someone to emulate! Someone that can teach business men a lot about leadership, culture, and values. Someone that requires our support!

Think about it! Our children’s future depend on it!

Johan Burger

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