I’ve said before that I became a teacher because I loved the vibe of a school and I became a principal because I felt I could influence that vibe and give it, substance, personality, and direction.
We all felt that buzz again on Monday when distance disappeared, and the two alternate schools became one school again after almost two years. One could feel that buzz in the playground, in the corridors and even in the principal’s office. Schools had rallied to move and clean furniture, to fine tune yet another timetable and to stretch a staff establishment to cover a learner roll which had somehow swelled during rotation.
The buzz belies the magnitude of the challenge to minimize the loss of learning and, like any business seriously affected by the pandemic, to heed the international call to build back better.
In the midst of all the optimism I read the media reports of the inaugural gathering of last week’s 2030 Reading Panel which aims to ensure that all Gr4s in South Africa can read with meaning by 2030. You all know the PIRLS 2016 finding that 78% of Gr4s cannot read with meaning in any language.
The panel’s experts explain what needs to be done. I can’t help thinking that all South African primary school principals should immerse themselves in the detail of that report. It’s clear that, over the last few years, so much has been done to understand the issues and so many resources have already been created. A switched-on, proactive principal, armed with an equally inspirational Foundation Phase Head of Department, can find those open-source affordable resources, and fast-track a campaign which can drive a school to hit that 100% Gr4 reading with meaning target long before 2030.
I have included the link to all the panel presentations as well as a media summary. Set yourself the challenge, become an expert, provoke your team, create a school buzz, consult your coach, and put in place a plan which will give your school an edge. Nothing you do as a principal will be more important.
Change in schools often happens because you use the buzz – that excitement and activity – to move quickly and get important things done. Critical changes like a more streamlined and appropriate subject package, Gr12 subject changes in those first weeks, more accountable subject or phase collaboration or a new commitment to subject-specific teacher development usually come about through the creative buzz of an inspired individual who does the research, persuades key role-players, and makes things happen. Don’t waste that buzz.
At the other end of the school spectrum, I witnessed that great excitement that accompanies the celebration of real success. As Chairperson of the Western Cape Education Council, I scored an invitation and a front row seat at the NSC Awards at Leeuwenhof last week. I was just an interested observer, but the marquee was filled with buzz.
The award-winning learners were, after a tough year, all smiles in the company of other top achievers; calm, yet excited at what lies ahead. The parents’ smiles were double the size. They just oozed pride. The principals relished the rarity of the occasion: happy learners, happy parents, happy department.
Like all principals, I have huge respect for realized potential, opportunities fully exploited, personal bests. It’s the consistency of the commitment, the self-taught, now in-built self-discipline, the daily Duracell spark that powers success that really impresses me.
I thought about the wonderful foundation that these achievers, from both advantaged and underserved schools, enjoyed in their early years at school which enabled independent, ambitious learning, especially the foundation phase teachers who taught them to read. I thought about the twenty or thirty teachers whose words and deeds supported each and every top achiever in their journey through school. I thought about the obvious resilience during the last two years of unprecedented disruption.
Gratitude towards the parents and, most significantly, the teachers was a major theme of MEC Debbie Schäfer, Premier Alan Winde and SG Brent Walters’ speeches. The principal in me visualized the proud, yet totally humble faces in smiling, satisfied staffrooms in schools in differing contexts.
When either celebrating or lamenting last year’s results, it’s always useful to remind senior learners that 2022 is a totally new group. All the 21s are gone. Now’s the time to create a whole new school buzz and to start a Gr12 campaign (or any other grade campaign) with energy, consistency and with a stamina that takes group effort to a new level.
Till next time
Keeping in Touch in Tough Times, #5 of 2022, 10 February 2022
School improvement is at the core of any comprehensive plan for 2022. The WCED guides you with the SIP that you construct and compile from various personal evaluation plans, identified areas of school development and responses to systemic analysis and NSC results. But, an often overlooked tool is an annual planning conversation with each teacher. Not all principals are wired for open, direct and sometimes confrontational courageous conversations, but a well-planned, purposeful interaction based on reflection, expectation and team emphasis for 2022, will give your school a collective boost.
In discussing this with the principals I serve, it’s clear that most prefer more informal, on-the-go chats with teachers which are both personal and professional, and which include the usual themes of recognition, gratitude, family news, upcoming events, and general encouragement. The more you do of this the better, but a more structured, inclusive, core business conversation about the available data, plans, targets, and updated responsibilities is an effective way of driving and aligning improvement. I realise that it is an extremely busy time of the year for principals. You could save time by seeing two or three teachers together according to appropriate subject and grade groupings, but that one-on-one is the ideal.
In preparing to write this letter, I discuss what I’m thinking with the four or five principals I coach each week. It’s part of our conversation. We value each other’s contextual insight and experience, and we deepen our understanding and our mutual respect. Your structured conversation with each team member and teacher should underline the same professionalism. When we sit down to chat as principal and teacher, we both learn. My Head-Coach schedules individual meetings with mentors like me on a regular basis. It’s what’s expected of learning organizations.
Start off the conversation, if appropriate, with general thanks and very particular praise for the teacher’s contribution. This needs preparation to be sincere and effective. Remember each one’s family details. With most of your teachers the conversations will be easy. I guarantee you, even the world’s best teachers and principals are always aiming to improve.
Always give your teachers a chance to have their say. Their insights are valuable in that you get to understand your school from another perspective and to adapt your communication strategy accordingly. Ask about their most stressful tasks. Make a point of ascertaining any professional development requests.
This is your chance to provoke change, to drive it with specifics like the depth of teacher collaboration you are trying to introduce as a school wide strength. You are not urging teachers in the staffroom; you are ‘signing’ an upgraded individual ‘contract’, personally developing your teachers, fulfilling your role as an instructional leader. Actually, too many heads regard this as the HoD’s responsibility. I can hear a principal say, ‘That’s not my job’. It’s 100% your responsibility to ensure that there’s a working structure in place. One you can vouch for. Make it happen, one interview at a time.
Ask the teacher to talk about involvement beyond the classroom and to share observations and highlights. If it’s obvious there is little involvement, discuss one or two possibilities and let the teacher choose. Follow up with the head of the chosen activity or administrative task. Add to the organogram. Being added to a committee is meaningless; being assigned a responsibility is progress.
When speaking to teachers who need to improve particular aspects of their work, address, if necessary, the elephant in the room – punctuality, irregular attendance, leaving a class unattended, insufficient evidence of written work or marking, insufficient support for subject head, etc. Get it said calmly and discuss steps and deadlines for immediate improvement.
If you are VERY lucky, you may have an outstanding deputy who buys in to what you are driving, sits in with you to observe and then undertakes the same with other teachers. It’s not a job you can delegate to someone not on the same page. There’s loads of joint commitment, loyalty and maturity required.
Remember, as principal, you build strong and successful relationships with your teachers by being respectful, caring, and supportive. And always sincere. When you trust teachers as professionals you are more likely to get buy-in, especially in trying new things.
Chatting to teachers about their year, their strengths and challenges, can be invaluable and motivating. It’s real leadership. Don’t shy away from it because it’s time-consuming or unpredictable. You’ll be glad you put in the extra time.
Till next time.
Keeping in Touch in Tough Times, #32 of 2021, 23 October 2021
Although the pandemic has seriously affected communities in general and schools in particular, we’re still learning about its huge impact on so many aspects of our roles as principals. What has become a vital part of the principal’s responsibility is the mental health of the school’s stakeholders.
The country’s health resources have been prioritised for fighting the pandemic. Mental Health, which, earlier commanded only 5% of the health budget, has, like other disciplines, been severely affected by the crisis. I’m not qualified to comment on any medical issue, but I simply want to support principals in raising awareness and making classrooms and staff-rooms warm, welcoming, and caring spaces which provide learners and teachers with some solace, sensitivity and understanding.
And it’s not just the pandemic. Principals will testify to the textbook case of chronic stress which is best described as a weight which children carry with them and can’t put down. It’s the unemployment and poverty, the daily hardships, and the neighbourhood gangsterism – the significant suffering which seriously affects schools in underserved areas. The mental health of learners, teachers and principals has become a local school issue – a huge one. And as always, like the Mom in the Family, the principals are the lead-solvers in this crisis.
Medical professionals should be treating depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder – so prevalent among us all – but many hospitals and clinics have very limited or no mental health practitioners. In any event, fearful people stay away from health services at this time.
What can schools do? They can make their staff fully aware of these challenges and work to foster meaningful relationships between staff and learners. The current alternate day attendance reality is an opportunity for teachers to better interact with learners as individuals and to teach coping strategies. Schools can work closely with the WCED’s existing social services; they can try to access any official free care available and develop public private partnerships with hospitals, doctors, and psychologist practices. They can consult the many government and institutional websites which offer resource toolkits for teachers and parents.
All over the world we’re learning that the Covid-19 pandemic has made it harder for learners to learn. They’re often distracted by anxiety and have trouble concentrating or retaining new information or just remembering things. They feel tired. One high school Mathematics teacher, preparing learners for prelims, told me this week that ‘it feels that in some way they have got lazy’. These are critical issues, but they are best handled in the schools of principals who lead and in the classrooms of teachers who care.
In pre-pandemic times we would talk about a school being a haven for vulnerable learners where they could be safe as well as feeling that they belong, that they and their context are known, and that their efforts are recognised. Today principals are using a similar vocabulary in describing the caring climate they need to create for their teachers. Given the inequalities, the declining resources and the longstanding early backlogs in basic literacy and numeracy, teaching is a stressful profession. We need to accept that many employees in other sectors have been much more adversely affected. Principals who are changemakers know that wellness, openness, and gratitude work, but the very best medicine for teachers’ mental health is the development of a growth mindset towards teaching and learning. Those small wins crop up again and again.
Obviously, if the principal is responsible for the health of the school community, it would help if the principal were healthy. That’s challenge number one. You’ve certainly had enough practice in uncertainty, stress and trauma. The principal’s role is so complex right now. Perhaps it’s best to remember the age-old phrase ‘many hands make light work’. A fully functional leadership team – my colleague, coach Keith Richardson would add ‘with a very detailed organogram’ – makes for a good school and a healthy principal.
If you want further frightening detail and reason for developing a local school response, read:
‘Mental Health and Covid-19 in South Africa’, Siphelele Ngusi and Douglas Wassenaar, May 2021 in South African Journal of Psychology
Till next time.
Keeping in Touch in Tough Times, #24 of 2021, 12 August 2021