Let’s Shine the Light on Deputies

This year I have the privilege of coaching three newly appointed deputy-principals. Our policy is to mentor only those young deputies whose principals have already enjoyed an association with the Principals Academy. Investing in the development of young leaders in their forties makes good sense.

The focus is so firmly on principals, certainly in my writing, so let’s shine the light on the role of the deputy-principal. First and foremost, deputies must be experienced, expert and very successful teachers. Being professional role models in the classroom is, from a core business point of view, the most important part of their job. These days deputies are called upon to be academic heads, curriculum delivery specialists and mentors of the heads of every subject department.

I realise that great teachers don’t necessarily take to the demands and pressure of school leadership, but great teaching is an indispensable requisite for leading other teachers. It’s not just about expecting subject meetings, minutes, control and moderation to be in place; it’s about taking teaching in every classroom to a place which ensures that all learners develop their full potential.

One of the critical weaknesses of our education system is the effectiveness of Heads of Departments who are not simply promoted to post level two but are tasked with actively raising standards of teaching and learning. Deputies have a big role to play in growing that realisation.

Generally, deputies have to find their way. Their roles and responsibilities are dependent on so many factors like:
the respect and trust which characterise their relationship with the principal,

  • their standing in the staffroom,
  • their actual expertise as sound administrators and data handlers,
  • their ability to generate the modern demand for evidence of simply every happening in the school,
  • the compassionate and competent way in which they gain the confidence of the community in dealing with teachers, teenagers, parents and the public,
  • their financial acumen,
  • their feel for ethics and good governance,
  • their ability to manage a school discipline system which is workable, supported, consistent and fair,
  • their skill in the field of conflict resolution involving teachers, teachers and learners, parents and between the learners themselves,
  • their attention to detail in all aspects of running exams and other assessments,
  • their flair for initiating and coordinating a co- and extra-curricular programme,
  • their ability to successfully involve teachers in activities beyond the classroom,
  • their visibility at the gate, in the corridor and at the stairs,
  • their strength in bringing the school together in the quad or in the hall,
  • their practical know-how in managing the maintenance and cleanliness of the campus.

Whereas principals are instructional leaders so much of their day goes to dealing with issues such as safety and security, the wellness of personnel and pupils under pressure, the demands of the district and lengthy procedures involved in appointing and monitoring staff to name but a few.

It is imperative that busy principals empower their deputies to actively become the de facto academic head.

However, our schools are so complex that deputies are just as detached from instructional responsibilities by dealing with student discipline and personnel issues.

We all know how divisive and dysfunctional school staffrooms become when principals and deputies are at loggerheads.

One SA study of deputies indicates that ‘although deputy principals perceived themselves to be leaders and the principals’ right-hand man or woman, their power or authority rested with the principal. There was very little that deputy principals could do without the principal’s approval’.* I can’t say I agree with this sentiment. The truth is that principals and deputies can achieve so much together. That collective impact is based on openness and communication. And, these days, deputies get very real chances to be long term acting-principals. If you are acting for a term or more you are, in effect, the principal.

Principals get to meet one another regularly at a range of meetings. Deputies definitely have fewer such opportunities. One should never wait for someone to get deputies together. Make it happen, but take care to meet with deputies of schools similar to yours in type (primary or high) and size. That interaction will be valuable.

I came across an interesting quote. A Canadian deputy principal espoused the feelings of many when he commented in a survey, ‘I love my job, I love what I do. I just cannot do it.’ ** I can hear you clapping.

Everything possible should be done to ensure a positive and healthy relationship between principal and deputies; positive in that it works through that regular communication and the promotion of a partnership, and healthy in that it is based on the emotional maturity expected of a school’s most senior managers.

Til next time.

The Principals Academy Trust

No: 04/24
28 February 2024

Experience Matters

You can imagine how much experience matters in a police station, a maternity ward or a food processing plant. And no different in a school. Just look around and see how many principals and senior teachers are about to retire in the next few years.

One place literally overflowing with experience is the Principals Academy. Do you know that just the 17 coaches who responded to my online query have 79 years of combined experience as deputy-principal and 323 as principal? That is some serious collective experience. But it doesn’t end there because each coach has considerable in-depth experience of the schools where principals are mentored in their offices about twenty times each year. I literally feel that experience when I attend our fortnightly meetings and I learn so much from the insights and ideas shared.

I think our principals immediately relate to someone who has sat behind that desk, stood at the front of that staffroom, stewarded a governing body and faced a quad full of a thousand or more children. Our coaches have all experienced the anxiety and joy and the adrenalin of leading a school. They have learned the calmness and common sense of principalship, and it shows.

As a new principal you bring energy to an expectant school and freshness to its focus. You grow into the role with every teacher or teenager you engage, family you see and situation you solve. You make your mark from day one but, with experience, you bring a presence and a personal style to leadership.

Principals don’t grow in isolation. Like CEOs they interact with key stakeholders every day. So, experience matters. I’m sure you have felt the undoubted benefit of privately meeting two or three of your colleague principals for some personal and professional interaction. Doing so regularly in an uncompetitive, collaborative and confidential atmosphere makes so much sense. This sort of sharing is valuable because it is based on common concerns, current issues and varied approaches. Nothing impacted my thinking as a principal more than my partnering with key mentors and colleague principals.

Unfortunately, there is a crucial difference between years of service and experience. The latter encapsulates the new things you have learned, the knowledge gained, and the skills developed.

In sharing with a principal who was previously the deputy at the same school I asked, ‘Don’t you miss having a deputy who does all the things you did as deputy to the previous principal?’ That’s why experience matters. Every school needs high quality leadership at all levels of the organogram. Guard against having the school’s expertise in CEMIS or in network administration or in finance being centralised in and protected by one person. Encourage all such experts to be enabling team leaders who build experience.

One of the deputies I coach followed up her BSc by managing a laboratory in the private sector. When she became a high school life science teacher and subject head, she brought a range of skills from an environment where accuracy, attention to detail, stock levels, deadlines and targets were paramount. Her teaching and her leading were directly enriched by that experience.

I have often mentioned how valuable it is for a primary school principal or deputy to have substantial and successful foundation phase experience. If neither has the skills required, the foundation phase HoD must enjoy critical influence at the top decision-making level of the school management team.

If you are in a high school or if you are introducing subject teaching in a primary school, you will know how valuable it is to have experienced time-tabling experts who understand the process, the limitations and the most effective use of the teachers available. The best expert is the one who looks far and wide for workable solutions. Many other schools have tried software options, classroom complexities, different weeks or cycles and have refined these over many years.

I have also often mentioned how much I enjoyed teaching the same lesson four times in the same day. I approached each lesson based on the experience of the one or the ones before. Experience accrues when one is committed to getting better, to responding to particular needs, to trying new ways.

In conclusion, think of a teacher new to your school this year. What has this novice experienced in the last month in terms of the culture of the school, the loyalty it engenders, the work ethic and relationships? What are the chances of the new teacher being positively engaged and thriving from term one.
Experience tells me it’s time to stop here!

Til next time.

The Principals Academy Trust

No: 03/24
14 February 2024