There’s Nothing Easy About Being A Principal

When we get together as PAT mentors (currently of 102 schools) we often highlight the number of principals who find the pressure of leading an underserved school detrimental to their health. And, we all know, that principals not at their best cannot expect to positively influence their school community. We discuss issues such as proactive daily and weekly organisation, effective delegation, better teamwork and accountability of the staff as a whole and improved relationships between key personnel, but, as we all know, there’s nothing easy about being a principal.

There are so many qualities expected of the school principal and I have highlighted them regularly week after week. But, if we look beyond the academic literature and focus on the actual experience of currently serving principals, there must be a few guidelines we can share to make the hot seat just that bit more temperature controlled.

. One needs to accept what becoming a principal requires as a new and different way of life. All of a sudden everything one says at the front of the staffroom, on an assembly platform or even in the office is repeated, even beyond the school. One learns to be more measured, to think carefully before choosing one’s words and to own what one says.

That means there’s only one way; the right way, and only one version; the truth. That consistency underpins one’s effectiveness as a principal. Not everybody appreciates the decisions that have to be made. Today everybody loves the principal, but tomorrow’s decision is vilified. A popular principal should be liked most of the time!

There’s also an assertiveness that’s required when dealing with so many stakeholders. Not just confidence, but the ability to say what needs to be said. There and then. With clarity and respect. I may be wrong, but I don’t think a passive principal can lead teachers and teenagers in the right direction. Everything about the job is motivation, collaboration and action. An assertive principal is always positive but knows when to say ‘No’.

Yes, there is policy and process and transparency; and the school has distributed leadership, but there is only one Leader, and that leader should be taking the lead. The same goes for the deputy-principal; the school day needs to be led.

One often deals with parents on issues like admission, performance, attendance and behaviour. The principal’s office should be a safe space with a tone that invites instant welcome, straight-talking and complete confidentiality. Every school leader knows how his or her sensitivity, interpersonal experience, interview technique and listening style can facilitate all-important understanding in difficult school and family issues. The school community has a right to expect that little office to be a place of wisdom.

Much of the pain and despair of the fatigued principal is the result of the constraints of the community leader whose mantra is energy, enthusiasm and hope. There is only so much one can do to change underlying poverty and unemployment. A principal deals daily with organs of the state like the WCED, Safe Schools, Social Development, SAPS, municipalities, etc. Every single one of these entities is under serious budgetary pressure. All schools should have a team of support specialists, but that’s not our current South African reality. Principals, teachers and volunteers do the best they can, and their interventions alter many lives. The nutrition programme I witness every day is the greatest success story in our system.

But I have so much respect for the principals who forge impressive relationships with SAPS, who nurture their contact in the district office, who rely on the circuit manager who is just a call away, who use their parent at Home Affairs to speed up that permit.

I will never forget District Director, Wendy Horn’s advice to principals at our conference last year, to ‘hustle’. She gave so much meaning and impact to a word which every principal who wears the title ‘community leader’, should take to heart. I know it’s a tall order, but the modern, assertive principal is a ‘hustler’, doing the very best possible for one’s school and its precious learners.

Principals often bemoan the fear and chaos caused by gang violence in many communities. The victims and the perpetrators are invariably the close family of children at local schools. Principals are at the heart of much of this trauma. How does one deal with such senselessness? It’s not for me to say, but the principals I serve see themselves as guardians of their school and its people. They bring a calmness and an authority to the school community. They see their school as a haven, they support their staff, and they demand decent and respectful behaviour.

The outgoing deputy-chairperson of the Provincial Principals Forum, Mark Mosdell (Principal of Knysna High School) says it so well. ‘School is the core that holds communities together. I personally consider our work, what we are doing and producing in our schools, to be one of the most important roles in the country.’ He goes on to say that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and isolated by how daunting it is. ‘Please remember that you are part of a much broader community’, he said, and you do not have to do it on your own’.

Til next time.

The Principals Academy Trust

No: 05/24
18 March 2024