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
You may remember a previous letter entitled, ’How would you like to work for a boss like you?’ Never forget to put yourself in the shoes of others, whether a troubled teenager or a member of your team who is taking strain or hurting or even just captured by a clique. Treat others, especially your team, the way you would want to be treated. Be open. Rather say what needs to be said. Sooner rather than later.
How do you unify a school management team? You lead them with purpose, sincerity, inclusivity and openness. People don’t naturally work together as a team; they have to be led to achieve a collective standard. You’re the principal. You have to have a vision even if it’s as simple as leading teachers and teenagers to achieve their true potential. It can be much more ambitious than that in terms of how systems, technology and data will help you, but your team wants to know where you’re going, why, when, and how. Strive for clarity in articulating what you envision. Only when they buy in and trust you and each other, do you have a team.
In a school sense the principal and deputies often work together as the school’s executive. Again, this can only work in an atmosphere of trust where the rest of the team are only too happy not to attend these daily meetings because they are busy leading their own phase or grade teams. Yes, daily! The very best schools take the business of leading seriously.
I mention inclusivity because team members want to feel part of management by knowing what’s happening. Keep them informed on an on-going basis. They will feel excluded when they are not ‘in the know’. Communication and consistency go hand in hand as the trademark qualities of a functional school. Your management team should be working with you; alongside you, not for you.
One thing that unifies a team is the meaningful contribution by each member. Each one should be able to report regularly on phase or grade issues and assessments. Get the one who is a little shy of committing to assist a hardworking deputy in a particular project. Don’t hesitate to include others from outside the SMT helping to get something done. Looking ahead as a team is also important. Look at the coming week and the coming month.
Remember that to be unified school teams must be led continuously. Stop pushing and they stop moving. The more school specialists actively leading on a daily basis within your school, the more chance there is that teachers and learners will perform better. Make a point of ensuring that teaching and learning feature prominently on the agenda at every meeting. These core function issues are often moved down the list because they involve some serious homework in terms of collaboration, book checks, data collection and learner support. If you want your school to focus on better reading and writing skills, then you need a unified response from teams and teachers. Unified means everyone’s involved in setting achievable goals, sharing resources and reporting progress. Get one grade to show the way and then share insights with all.
An aside or two. Our TV screens have highlighted Tokyo for two weeks. We all wondered how an Olympic atmosphere would be created without spectators. Well, while the stadiums have been empty, we have been captivated by the intimate moments of the individual athletes and their performances, irrespective of medals, and how the emptiness has been filled with the sounds of the athletes urging each other on and celebrating personal bests. Treat your staff as athletes in training each with their professional bests to better. Create that performance enhancing atmosphere in which teachers can share their successful moments. Fill your staffroom with the sound of teachers urging each other on and celebrating personal bests.
The Springboks take on the British and Irish Lions in a decider tomorrow after coming back with such style last Saturday. Siya Kolisi is recognized internationally as a heroic leader and he showed his leadership on the field by making the most tackles including a try-saving, series-deciding one and by just being a huge presence. But, in the post-match interview, he made the point that his was a team of highly respected and experienced leaders, and he named each key leader within the team and thanked them for rising to the occasion and executing their part of the game plan. Stronger together, indeed.
Till next time.
Keeping in Touch in Tough Times, #23 of 2021, 6 August 2021
Tough times. That’s a phrase I use to preface every letter I write because the principal’s office has certainly been a tough space in the last 16 months. The toughest leadership test – is the title of an article by three international McKinsey partners to help CEOs embrace micro-habits which can prove effective in the heat of a crisis. I’m using their insights to support school CEOs, many of whom have already changed their mindsets accordingly. Sadly, many others have been paralyzed by the enormity of the challenge facing schools in underserved communities. Those with ineffective management teams or systems which are not sufficiently functional or poor communication strategies have been the hardest hit by the crisis. There are national rescue initiatives, but they require each school, led by its CEO, to develop its own local response within every classroom.
Developing the right micro-habits – daily routines and ways of working – can help CEOs seize the moment, stay ahead and take care of themselves in these difficult times. Even after more than a year there is much uncertainty.
A primary school with Grade 1s attending on alternate days and making up for months of lost time has a whole new purpose, and the CEO, who simply has no choice but to qualify himself as a foundation phase expert, must articulate that new purpose clearly day after day. And not just articulate, but implement and supervise. CEOs need effective deputies and department heads more than ever, but there is simply a more intense level of direct CEO leadership and communication required right now.
In these times of Covid confusion, teachers wait for principals to take the front-line lead. School CEOs will be remembered for how they acted and reacted in tough times. Be aware of what you say and do. Your community is taking careful notice. And it’s not just your teachers that are watching you lead with an adapted style and with new priorities: the Covid-school CEO’s leadership is carefully scrutinized by wider community, by partnering organizations and by districts.
Furthermore, a CEO’s personal sincerity and physical presence are also monitored. There have been many opportunities for compassionate leadership with so much illness, loss and anxiety.
The best CEOs report that their team’s cohesion has been absolutely critical. Some team members have come to the fore as leaders with initiative and with the ability to stay calm under pressure. Shorter and quicker team meetings with a focus on operational rather than general issues should be happening multiple times per week. CEOs, have hopefully learned to voice and to show their appreciation at every opportunity. Of course, the true leader is looking beyond the daily detail, thinking and planning ahead. Times of crisis are often the opportunity for accelerating change. If your teachers are teaching as before, you are missing a huge chance to move your school forward.
Key to leading in tough times is taking care of yourself. It is fine to admit that you sometimes feel powerless and unprepared. Find new simple ways of replenishing your energy and your spirit. Perhaps an unthreatening and supportive afternoon call to your mentor can help clear your mind. Don’t forget that exercise is a tested way to restore energy. Don’t create your own lockdown. Ensure that you break out of your isolation with a good friend, with another principal with whom you can share and with an unwavering commitment to established routines with your family. And remember, the best way to lead a balanced professional life as a principal is to stay close to the children. Chat to more than a few every day.
In adapting this article I’ve used the title CEO to describe the modern principal, but I can’t help thinking that Headteacher is a more appropriate appellation for a school leader. It’s a value-laden title which connects the community and the office to the classroom in a way which emphasizes the art and craft and science of school leadership.
Last week I was inspired by a principal who, having completed her preparations for the new term, designed her own screensaver as a daily reminder. It read:
Note to self: When things feel overwhelming, remember:
- one thought at a time
- one task at a time
- one day at a time.
In turn she inspired me to share this article with you.
The Toughest Leadership Test, May 28, 2020, Homayoun Hatami, Pal Erik Sjatil and Kevin Sneader (all McKinsey partners)
Keeping in Touch in Tough Times. #22 of 2021. 30 July.