Wednesday, 23 August 2006

The principle of being principal

Are our principals adequately trained for their jobs, and is the job the same now as it was 20, 50, or 100 years ago?

These are key questions and it is a task to get key people in education to think objectively and analytically about an issue that invariably evokes mainly a sentimental and emotional response.

The basic issue that needs to be realised in the early years of the 21st century is that the role of the head teacher as experienced in the 19th century and largely maintained throughout the 20th - is dead. Being a principal is not being a teacher.

And behind that premise is the underlying truth that being a good teacher is no guarantee of being s good principal. They are different professional roles.

It is likely that the research will find some quantum of data to substantiate the position many traditionalists want to maintain, and that is that being a principal is being an educational leader and that really means being the head teacher.

Too many principals say how they enjoy getting back to the classroom. Sometimes this may be to avoid the role of principal and to retreat to what was familiar and safe. Sometimes it is a requirement because the system does not yet fully recognise the responsibilities of being a principal and in smaller schools requires a teaching load on the part of the principal. But after many years of not teaching, or teaching very little, can a principal be more than the equivalent of a visiting teacher which isn’t necessarily to the students’ benefit.

Many years ago the former head of the Strathclyde education service in Scotland (at the time a system roughly equal in numbers to SA’s) said without equivocation, that when he became a principal, he STOPPED being a teacher.

He explained this very unambiguously. He said that as a teacher his job was to create the best learning environment for his students.

But as a principal the job was different. It was to create the working and organisational environment in which good learning and teaching could occur.

And as he climbed the career ladder, he indicated clearly that each job was a move from the previous, and with a substantially different, although connected responsibility to the one he has previously.

Until principals or aspirants to the position realise that their role IS to manage an organisation, some of which are large and complex, and that they are not a teacher with a part time administrative load we won’t witness the confidence and boldness which should be the hallmark of an inspirational leader and manager.

Certainly, administrivia should not be part of the principal’s load. Under local governance and management the principal’s job is to manage the resources, attract more, and to ensure the smooth running of the organisation.

Unfortunately, what for many public service managers and directors is de rigueur, is very new to many principals, and that is to run the organisation. For a 100 years the public education system has been founded on a dependency model that saw many management responsibilities handled by central clerks and administrative officers. Now those responsibilities are part of the principal’s role, and those of his/her management team, as they should be. But some seem ill prepared for this shift in responsibilities.

The problem is that principals are manifestly untrained and some even unprepared to do the job required. There is no training of any integrated or coherent nature to which aspirants to the position of principal can turn to ensure they are suitably qualified and acknowledged as having the skills and attributes to lead and manage a school.

Nor is there any systematic exposure of existing principals to contemporary management and organisational leadership professional development, or to have the opportunity to be partnered with senior managers from other areas of work.

Principalship is the keystone to great schooling, and to ensure the public confidence they deserve, we must recognise the role of principal needs people prepared, confident and bold to take on the responsibilities.

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