Getting Better

Every glossy magazine is full of self-help articles aimed at getting you healthier, thinner and fitter. We’ve all tried each of these degrees of comparison and what stands out is just how hard it is to get better at whatever. Getting better as a principal or teacher is just that – hard. It doesn’t just happen automatically with experience. It happens with a plan, a growth mindset and a willingness to do the work.

The first wise move is to take ownership of our own professional development as principal or teacher. Your school, your district, the WCED, the CTLI all provide opportunities for development, but the decision to get better today and tomorrow is ours. Think about it. Surely, we want our child’s teacher and principal to be smart, talented, creative, collegial and wise. Having an unfortunately unmotivated or tired teacher for even just one year will set our children back considerably.

The second move is to find a partner or two. Teachers get better together. Commit together and share your journey, your small wins, your next steps. Peer teachers are, without doubt, the strongest drivers of better teaching in a winning school.

It is generally accepted that to get better, South African teachers need to focus on three key areas. The first is building high quality knowledge of the content. Imagine having a high school Gr9 Mathematics teacher who knows less than the Gr12 Mathematics learners. The challenge is to become an expert in your subject, even if only at school level. There are so many resources to do this. The same applies to the methods and drills to drive successful literacy teaching in Gr1. A careful look at a marker’s report or systemic result will put you on the right track.

Secondly, we need to make better use of the 40 or 45 minutes allocated to you as the teacher. We get better by developing strategies and practices which maximise quality teaching and active and engaged learning time. Less functional schools lose valuable minutes every lesson which add up to hundreds of never to be regained teaching hours. This is the single biggest difference between schools on a functionality index.

Thirdly, most schools need to dramatically increase the number of daily opportunities learners get to express themselves meaningfully in writing and to interact daily with texts which build their capacity in reading and writing proficiency. Just working towards a daily increase in these practices will drive real improvement. Three simple words which schools can use to ensure that we are getting better where it counts: Teachers (strengthening content knowledge and skills), Time and Text.

It makes sense that to get better one has to see what better looks like. Ask to visit a principal you admire or observe in the classroom of a teacher with a reputation for excellent practice. Young sports personalities spend hours online watching the pros in action. They watch frame by frame and isolate a drill which they tackle hundreds of times in a day. In the same way we can watch teachers on YouTube, focus on the resources they use, the methods they apply, and, slowly and intentionally, make their skills our own.

What did I learn from other principals? I remember being motivated by the simple procedures the best principals used in preparing to see parents who had made an appointment with the principal – having all the right data in one place and having practical feedback in advance from teachers.

I learned from the best how important it was to understand that a governing body needed a steward – usually the principal – to have all the information ready, to know the processes necessary, to anticipate actions required to make the right decisions in terms of policies, budgets, appointments and developments. I went to find examples of how principals compiled quarterly reporting and analysis to governors in advance of a meeting and how principals put together an excellent annual report to parents. I copied no one. I learned from many and devised solutions which suited the school and the community I served.

We all searched for the very best initiatives to improve teaching in the STEM subjects, to take our teachers to world class levels of professional practice, to promote entrepreneurship and to lead the way in 21st century skills development. We looked at the best models, adapted them for our individual contexts and tried them out – first with one year group, and, learning from that experience, with the next.

PAT principals have a clear advantage. They lead by example. They commit to a coaching relationship and to modern management and leadership training at UCT’s GSB. They contribute to a positive school culture which stresses lifelong learning and peer to peer collaboration.

Till next time.

The Principals Academy Trust


No: 09/24
06 June 2024

Teachability is an Important Life Skill, especially for Teachers

Do you know what makes me a happy pensioner? I’m teachable. I’m not done learning.

Being a principal meant that learning was my daily currency, but, when that ended, I wanted to use nearly three decades of experience as a head to delve deeper into school leadership and to share insights with leaders past and present in the best interests of South Africa’s super-challenging education landscape. And I’ve learned more since ‘retiring’ than I learned throughout my career. I am one of, hopefully, thousands of retired professionals, in one non-governmental non-profit or another, investing in the future of our young people. Your turn will come.

If you are a PAT principal, you’re teachable, too. You will have been visited by one of our coaches to gauge your willingness to embark on a partnership in learning through mentorship, collaboration and the valuable prospect of a highly rated business school initiative. There’s no doubt that the modern principal is the school’s Leading Learner, and, if that’s not the case, learning at the school will suffer. They say the greatest enemy of learning is knowing. Not just that, but, as a principal reminded me, we learn very little while we are doing all the talking.

One may think that in being teachable one is demonstrating humility, but that’s the whole point; leadership requires us to put ourselves out there, to lead and to learn as much as possible on the way. Teachability is not about competence or capacity; it’s about attitude and a willingness to learn, unlearn, relearn.

As principals we are always on the lookout for professional friends or mentors who stretch us. In a coaching partnership, we strive to grow, we ask for feedback, and we try to respond well to it. We like to visit other principals who inspire us. We like to attend events that prompt us to pursue change and we are always in search of a book that challenges us to think in a new way.

Every principal knows just how valuable is the exceptional teacher. And, usually, that expertise and effectiveness was honed through embracing change, seeking out opportunities, an openness to learning, a deep desire to keep improving and a commitment to keeping abreast of teaching technology.

It was Albert Einstein who said, ‘I have no talent. I am only passionately curious.’

Teachability is one of the main criteria we look for in the novice teacher. A seasoned grade or subject head has such a big role to play in developing required standards of professionalism, subject specific competence and classroom dynamics. Highly functional schools foster many such communities of practice which take teaching to the same level internship takes the novice medical doctor. From day one a young teacher or doctor serves a child or a patient in need of high quality ‘treatment’.

The same is true in the sporting world. A footballer may be very talented but may never make it because of not being coachable – an aptitude which makes one a key component in a complex and technically proficient game plan.

One of the interventions the Principals Academy uses is the deployment of Teacher Support Professionals (TSP) in either Foundation Phase or in English or Mathematics in particular primary schools. Catherine Meier, the TSP, in one of the schools I serve, received a message at the end of last term from a Gr R practitioner at Zerilda Park Primary which gratefully recognised the support received with phrases like ‘absolute pleasure’, ‘bringing us back to basics’, ‘taking us beyond our own imaginations’, ‘helping our learners to understand a concept’, ‘you were meant to help us’, ‘you bring us hope’ and ‘thank you for coming into our school’. How nice is that?

Teachability really is an important life skill. One blog I read, Fresh Horizons by South African performance coach, Mandy Russell, was entitled ‘Teachability – To Keep Leading, keep Learning’. She quoted Basketball coach, John Wooden, ‘It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.’

Till next time.

The Principals Academy Trust


No: 07/24
02 May 2024

Keeping in Touch – My Motivational Purpose

After a holiday break it’s time to get myself into writing mode which, I can assure you, is far from easy. The big question is to find a topic worthy of a letter to principals which suits my motivational purpose.

My letter-writing emerged from the forced lockdown of March 2020 in a simple attempt to keep in touch with isolated principals in those unprecedented times. Then my notes morphed into an experienced former principal’s weekly and then, after 60 letters, fortnightly mentor’s musings.

My purpose is to support principals either with solid advice on an issue or with useful content for introductory use at a briefing, team meeting or parents evening. The 30 principals I have coached receive a Sunday evening topical message for weekly inspiration. It is often adapted and contextualised and distributed to teachers, later that evening, who definitely need all the positive support they can get. So, let me share a few things I’ve read and pondered recently.

‘Cost Containment’ is a nightmare for schools and districts. National Treasury is forced to shrink budgets by billions and particular portfolios by hundreds of millions. Decisions on freezing vacancies and ending temporary contracts are taken by number-crunchers who simply delete whole columns and leave bureaucrats to implement the cuts. That a class will have no teacher or no school that day doesn’t hit the headlines till months later.

My advice to principals is to, firstly, have a group of colleague principals at hand to share actual daily developments, to discuss tactics in designing motivations, to identify the right contacts within districts, to consider copying to district directors and, all failing, to get governing body to approach the MEC directly. You can’t take a cut of six or eight substantive posts lying down. You have to ‘hustle’ like a community leader fighting for running water. Just use all the right channels in writing and within the law. I’m sure sanity will prevail.

Secondly, do your best to shield your staff from all the negativity. Communicate daily and gain the confidence of your teachers. They must see you fighting for them and for their school as if your own children were losing their class teachers. You can’t allow the loss of that indispensable Mathematics or Foundation Phase specialist. Make a plan. Yes, you are the principal. Make a plan.

In times of negativity divorce your school from the chaos and noise of an issue and adopt an island mentality – an island of excellence focused on getting on with the daily business of education.

I respected Prof Jonathan Jansen’s direct and insightful analysis in his latest Life Lessons weekly column entitled ‘Instructional time unnecessarily lost in schools’. He used phrases like ‘inbuilt tardiness’, exploiting ‘the slightest calamity or opportunity to waste more time’, ‘routinised absence from school and classroom’. “This is not about one school,” he says, “I have found this in most of the schools I work with.”

He makes the point that 80% of public resources for education goes into teacher salaries. That’s the single most important instrument available to improve results: how teachers use their time in the classroom.

Objectively examine your own school for ‘inbuilt tardiness’ and ‘routinised absence from school and classroom’. There are numerous national studies on this very real phenomenon. Is your school different? Apply your systems thinking tools.

I’ve been glued to DSTv’s age-restricted Chasing the Sun 2 which allows us to re-live all the tension of last October’s Rugby World Cup triumph with behind-the-scenes footage in the changing-room, inside the homes of players’ parents and in clubs and pubs throughout diverse South Africa.

At a press conference last week, Jacques Nienaber, who now coaches Leinster, explains what it takes:

“You have to have INTENT, you’ve got to have ENERGY and you need to be PHYSICAL, and you need to be ALIGNED and ACCURATE in your PLAN.”

Surely that applies in both the staffroom and the classroom. It just boggles the mind to see the level of data and detail invested in coaching a rugby team. We have the human resources to invest the same alignment and accuracy in planning our teaching. Perhaps, in an education setting, we should change PHYSICAL to STAMINA, which has become such a key ingredient in our post-Covid teaching and learning reality. We can dwell on each of the emphasised words with a little contextual input or explanation. Try it with your team or with a subject or grade committee.

That’s my musing for now. Till next time.

The Principals Academy Trust


No: 06/24
16 April 2024

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

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