From academic excellence to administrative acumen
I have always been haunted by the phrase “I am just a teacher.” It says that I’m not really so important. The shift in this perspective comes when this teacher takes on the job of leading the school. What factors make this job important and valued?
If there is an index to measure the most complex job profiles, the school principal will be somewhere at the top. That is, if roles and goals are not well articulated and addressed. I have some legitimacy in making this statement, having spent more than a decade in the aforementioned chair and subsequently being engaged in teaching Education Leadership and Management to school leaders.
Let me set the context. I am presenting my experiences with urban, private schools affiliated to the several education boards available in India. It seems to me that a principal’s job has changed dramatically over the last two decades. Why did it move from being that of an academic head to largely an administrative head? A few theories can be put forth for why such a transformation has occurred. These suppositions show compelling reasons why prioritization of time in schools is not necessarily linked to educational goals.
The first one points to the demands of the management. Here I am supposing the management to mean a body that governs the school, usually also owning the school of which the principal is an employee. Managements often expect principals to do everything it takes to keep the school running and admissions soaring. This can include liaison with the Board and its demands, supervising school buses, overseeing the canteen, dealing with vendors, buying furnishings, attending meetings not related to core academics; and can even stretch to getting tube-wells dug, playing fields pounded and levelled and in stray cases, appearing in court for the school. This takes a heavy toll on the Principal’s time and energy.
My second theory deals with the entry of corporates into schools. This can be seen in two ways. One is the entry of several educational “products” into schools, mass marketed by business entrepreneurs, claiming to bring about good learning for every child. These products range from hardware to software, built on the premise that even teachers with the best of qualifications and passion are not adequately resourced or effective in the classroom. Some of these interventions require additional expertise and lead to rising expenses. While this intrusion in the school’s core responsibility started small, by not being nipped in the bud it has escalated to unmanageable levels.
Change began to creep in when the queue of vendors increased in the reception area outside the principal’s office. From simple textbook suppliers and the friendly neighbourhood tailor who dealt with the uniform supply, we now had specialized school bags, water bottles, and just about everything else a child needs “personalized” with names and logos. And if we lost individuality in the race to keep up with other schools, no one noticed. There was a deluge of materials and it did not take long for commercialization to set in, the teacher’s authority and expertise to be challenged through pre-designed, standardized lesson plans and Smartboards, with the burden of rising costs being passed on to parents. Today’s principal thus spends a lot of precious time meeting vendors and suppliers. This results in a distraction from primary responsibilities.
There is also another attraction from the corporates. It comes packaged in the form of seminars and conferences that are largely a marketing effort. These are industry driven events, where business houses inform practice. As teacher educators, we are invited to these events for plenary sessions and also for conducting workshops. We have seen school leaders thronging here in hundreds, turning it into a carnival of sorts. Principals register with the sincere desire to upgrade their skills but the large number of participants in each concurrent workshop makes tracking of individual goals a challenging task for the trainers. It thus spirals into a wasteful expenditure of time for the ardent principals. It’s encouraging when many school leaders I meet through the Educational Leadership courses we run, lament the loss of time at such seminars and conferences because in stating this, their search for meaningful learning and growth is evident.
My third theory is regarding the changing parental expectations. They pay through their nose for a “World class, Universal, Global, International and so on…education” for their child and feel justified in demanding academic results as well as extra-curricular brilliance. Television shows featuring glamourized children also fuel this latter need. This might explain why schools today have become event venues. And the principal an event manager, sacrificing enormous amount of time for these functions.
Are these the qualities of effective school leadership? Are schools mindful of what they are doing? Does it help to host so many fairs, festivals and other fanfare events at the cost of being unable to allocate ample time for transacting core curriculum? A worthwhile exercise we conduct as trainers is to engage school leaders as well as teachers in an academic deliberation on “What is the Purpose of Education” This often leads to a deep reflection which might help teachers and principals question some of their school’s practices.
My experience shows me that schools are absorbed in many trivialities whose purpose is not clear. Principals are not left with much time for academic discussion with teachers who need to plan deep and multiple interactions with the core curriculum. Cognitive psychology tells us that a child needs four to six exposures represented in a variety of ways for a single concept to be understood and stored in the long term memory. Given the complexity of the curriculum, principals need to oversee the planning of units in ways that address this need.
This is a core academic exercise of ensuring that teachers address essential content, and connect it with real life experiences in order to make sense to the child. Most importantly everybody has to ensure that teaching time is protected so that the teacher can teach his planned content.
The main job of the principal is to engage with teachers and provide academic support and guidance for implementing the curriculum. Educational leaders ought to be deeply concerned with academic growth. While I would not like to generalize, I see a majority of principals abdicating this responsibility. Perhaps one reason for a principal’s renouncing of academic leadership is because this is a far more challenging and difficult job. It needs a continuous, dedicated, and interested immersion in the latest cutting-edge research on classroom practices. It means engendering an atmosphere of professional discussions, a space for them, and opportunities for professional growth for yourself and your team. Personal goals need to be focused on self-efficacy by building one’s competencies. This therefore brings us to the question posed at the beginning of this essay. And it will perhaps be apt now to propose possible solutions.
The burning need is training. In our country we do not have a mandatory course to be taken by a candidate aspiring to become a principal. Neither do we have the practice of hiring a principal only for academic responsibilities. I believe that a principal therefore does not go through any training to take on this load of both academic and administrative leadership, and often works in isolation, without delegation. The key lies in empowering principals with rigorous training in the knowledge and skills to be instructional as well as organizational leaders, and empower them as well as teachers to collaboratively plan, implement, and monitor real changes for effective school management.
In conclusion, I want to urge school principals to never relinquish the responsibility of being an academic leader. He or she was chosen to be the principal because she was an excellent teacher in the first place. But currently there is a yawning gap between teaching and principal-ship. Most principals I speak with do not teach any more. The reason given is lack of time for consistent teaching. Those who teach might say, “I take a few GK periods. Value education maybe. Some substitution perhaps.” I am not trivializing these domains but pointing out that in all the examples given above, there is no teaching plan.
And how can one hope for good teaching, without a robust plan? Teachers look up to the principal as a role model and an expert in the field of education and this position needs to be fiercely reclaimed. Delegate all else. There is a need to share the load!
Of course, there are those rare school principals who teach. And set an example of how it ought to be done. They must pave the way for academic excellence. Creative job satisfaction lies here. Ask any teacher.
To quote Ronald Barth, “All teachers can lead. Many teachers want to lead. Schools badly need their ideas, invention, energy – and their leadership.”
The author heads Shikshangan Education Initiatives, Pune, and conducts programs on School Leadership – a course that deals with creating and sustaining leadership in educational organizations. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.