In the footsteps of ‘Madam’ Principal

Divya Choudary

It was just another day at school. I entered the building and was greeted by classical music and the voices of students gathered in the courtyard for the morning assembly. The school seemed to buzz with energy. When the bell rang, the students rushed to their classrooms. I waited for the teachers to leave before introducing myself to Rama Devi ma’am, the school’s principal. I was to be her shadow for the day and get an unfiltered view of her daily tasks.

For this principal, the day at school began well before the first bell at 8:30 a.m. By the time I had arrived, she had already taken a walk around the school grounds and had greeted the students as they entered the school. “Interacting with students and teachers first thing in the morning helps keep me aware of their feelings,” she says. The assembly is attended by different classes every day. “We found that having smaller groups in the assembly helps increase students’ participation. During assembly, we sing songs and discuss value-based stories. Students also go on stage and perform. The hope is that students who have put in the effort feel appreciated and others are motivated to do the same.”

principal-in-classroom Now back in her office, she attends to calls and messages requiring urgent attention and jots down a to-do list for the day. “Unless there is a meeting, I leave my door open so that students and teachers can stop by anytime and meet me,” she tells me just as someone enters the room. A teacher comes to discuss the plan and budget for the students’ school trips and I take this time to go on a quick tour of the school grounds. “Everyone in the school participates towards recycling and going green,” says Shashank, a student of class 10. Old bus tyres, shoes, and plastic bottles are used as planters. The school has a vegetable and fruit garden and some compost bins. A bio-gas plant has been set up for the kitchen as well. “Rama Devi ma’am loves plants. She even comes in on Sundays to ensure that they are taken care of,” says Sitasree, a teacher.

I make my way back to the principal’s office and find it empty. The principal is in the corridor, talking with a peon. I notice she writes a note on a strip of paper and hands it to him. “I carry these strips with me when I do my rounds of the school. This way if there are any things to be fixed, I can write a note and send it to the concerned person without messages getting forgotten,” she explains. “This plant needs to be put in the sunlight.” As we walk towards the primary school block, Rama Devi ma’am points out the “birthday garden”. “When it’s a student’s birthday, instead of distributing chocolates, the students bring a sapling. It is then their responsibility to water it and take care of it,” she says.

We enter the primary block and see children in their uniforms sitting and listening to their classmate sing Sanskrit shlokas. They see the principal and greet her enthusiastically with a “Namaste Ma’am”. After the shlokas, the principal interacts with students. One little girl walks up to the principal and gives her a hug. The little girl tells me, “Ma’am is like my grandmother.” And apparently Rama Devi ma’am gets a hug from her every day! We walk past each of the classrooms and everywhere we go, we are greeted with a loud and cheerful “namaste”. “I make certain teachers and students know that I am around and that they can approach me at any time,” says the principal. With the day at the primary school coming to an end, the corridors soon fill with students and parents.

princpal-with-students As we head back to the main block, Rama Devi ma’am shows me the animal farm, set up near the playground, with rabbits and birds like geese and guinea fowl. The dog Angel, she tells me, has delivered puppies and has been moved so as not to be disturbed by the students. A student walks past and ma’am gently reminds her to cut her nails.

Back in the office, a circular from the CBSE board and some administration work awaits. The vice-principal Shashikala ma’am comes in to discuss this with her. The CBSE school teachers have an information network and send text messages or emails to share information. Next is a call from a parent and then the press regarding an upcoming school event. Rama Devi ma’am then checks her email and returns phone calls. The co-ordinator enters with papers for her to sign.

It’s lunch time for the students and some come in to talk with her about events and permissions. “Sometimes the teachers and students have problems they would like to discuss. Other times they just want to vent or share something with me,” she says. The head girl, Swastika enters and talks to the principal about the 11th and 12th grade students’ interaction. She also shares her thoughts on the “Appreciation Tree” and the “Make a difference” activity that had been conducted earlier in the week. It was an activity that the principal had read about online and had decided to try in the school. As part of the activity, students were asked to write a note about people or things they appreciated and were grateful for and hang these notes on the plants in the school. They were also asked to write notes about the problems they were facing and to pin these up. “Most students come in and discuss their problems with me directly. But sometimes activities like these give students a chance to think about and share what they appreciate and what troubles them without any pressure or fear,” she says. Whether it is problem with a classmate or an issue with a teacher, students feel comfortable talking with the principal about it. Rama Devi ma’am has been going through these notes and is taking the time to talk with the students and encourage them to talk with each other as well, so as to address the issues in a manner where everyone involved feels comfortable with the outcome.

Teachers enter and leave and once classes resume, it is lunch time for the principal. After a quick lunch of rice, dal and sabji at her desk, it’s time to do rounds of the senior school. “What does a principal look for during these rounds?” I ask. “It is important that the day runs smoothly for everyone at the school. Are the students engaged in their work? What are they working on? Are they taking care of their surroundings? How are the teachers teaching? Are there any problems with the water filters or the bathrooms? I enjoy watching learning taking place and with these visits to the classrooms I get to observe and speak with the teachers, the support staff and the students in the middle of the day and get their feedback,” she replies. We visit a classroom and Rama Devi ma’am talks with the students about their participation in the ‘Make-a-difference’ week. To address their concerns about name-calling and bullying, she shares with them a short story about putting oneself in another’s shoes. She then asks the students to take a minute to pray for a classmate’s father who is unwell.

On the grounds, a batch of students has their drawing class. Some students want to draw the principal and she indulges them by posing for a few minutes. Laughter fills the air when the drawings are shared. The principal is then called to the courtyard for a photo session with the students who have received sports certificates. We return to the office for the remaining appointments.

old-shoes An inter-school event is being organized as part of the Model United Nations programme and the caterers have come to talk with her about the budget and the menu. While the staff will decide the budget, the principal asks two of the students from the senior class to discuss the menu with the caterers and make the final selection. “In the school, everyone shares tasks and responsibilities. It helps build a sense of ownership and pride,” she says. The vice-principal comes in to discuss the feedback forms on the CCE. After some appointments with parents, a visit from a representative of a children’s hospital, and a cup of tea, some teachers enter to discuss the activity scheduled for the evening. In keeping with the spirit of “Swachh Bharat,” the school had cleared up the outside areas and the teachers are to paint the compound walls after school hours. As they leave, a teacher tells me that she believes it is the principal’s nature and enthusiasm that holds the school together.

The school day is nearly coming to an end. As students leave, the principal stands by the gate saying goodbye. Students talk to her about their day, and share their enthusiasm about the upcoming sports events. This is the time she gets to talk with parents who come to pick up their children. “Keeping the child in mind, it is necessary for teachers and parents to work together and know of what is going on in the child’s life,” she says. On the grounds, the students are running and laughing. Rama Devi ma’am shares, “This is what keeps me going and why I find it hard to stay away from the school.” She tells me how every now and then, she goes out into the parking lot and sees off the children who take buses. That way, she gets to interact with the bus drivers and also remind them to drive carefully!

“What do you do in the evenings?” I ask. “In the evenings, I unwind with a cup of green tea and reflect on the events of the day and also plan for the next. Then it is dinner time with the family.”

“As a principal, I have to constantly keep learning and be aware of what is going on if I want my students and teachers to do the same,” she says. Rama Devi ma’am reads books on motivation, uses pinterest for ideas on school activities, and watches and shares with her teachers and students relevant and inspiring INK and TED talk videos. In a school with over 2000 students, I have to admit that I was amazed at the prinicipal’s observational skills and her ability to know not only the names of a number of students but even be aware of their circumstances.

I wanted to see a normal day in the job of a principal, but I guess there really isn’t one. With all the activities and the various interactions with people of different ages, there’s always something new that happens and as a principal you can be sure that two days are never the same!

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