An Ode to the Principal

I was driving to an appointment with a good friend of mine who used to be a principal.  I was also contemplating asking him to do a presentation at a conference on leadership, culture, and values in April.  As soon as the idea came up in my mind, I also asked myself how I could motivate why I am asking a principal to talk at a leadership conference where businessmen are the target audience.  Some of you who remember the Chris de Burgh song, Patricia, will remember the words: “The facts of the case lie before us – this girl was in her working clothes!”  Similarly, after thinking for a few very short minutes, I realized something that I had never thought of before – these guys (and girls) have a job as far as leadership is concerned that is one of the most difficult to exercise.

First of all, we have the obvious target group – the children.  In the primary school they vary from Grade 1 to Grade 7, while the secondary school deals with Grade 8 to Grade 12 children – age wise very diverse.  You also need to bear in mind they come from all walks of life – from parents who are wealthy and rich, to parents who struggle to make a livelihood.  Again, as far as this factor is concerned, a very diverse group.  In addition, they are representative of all kinds of cultures and value systems.  And so I can go on, but the bottom line is that the principal needs to deal with a very diverse group of children.

Then there are the parents.  I have already referred to them.  There are the rich ones, the ordinary ones, and the poor ones.  A number of these cannot afford to pay for the schooling of their children, and there are a lot who can.  There are those who are participants in the lives of their children, and those who could not really care.  There are those who participate at school, and there are those who do not.  There are those who take responsibility for the growth and development of their children, and there are those who have abdicated this responsibility to the school.  There are those who ensure that their children are well-mannered and disciplined, and there are those that try to be the friends of their children, at the cost of manners and discipline.

Then we have the teachers.  Some of these see their jobs as a calling, while a number see it as something that pays the bills.  They are also the products of the parents I have referred to above – with the result that some are disciplined and well-mannered, while others are not.  I was fortunate as I finished my schooling at a school that had a large number of teachers who loved children – I could have been a career scholar!  But not all schools are like that!

The next stakeholder of the school is the Department of Education – at both the national and the provincial level.  They have their burocratic rules and regulations to follow, and frequently political motives.  School systems come and they go – at the whim of the political masters.  And the principals need to implement these systems – whether they agree or not.

Then we have the community at large.  It requires the school to deliver products that can become stalwarts in the society and business world.  The universities require products that can attend university and be successful. The business community require products that can drive a business and add value to the broader community as well.

And so I can go one.  The bottom line is that this principal has a very broad and diverse group of stakeholders to manage.  Over some of them he/she has a form of control and influence, over others he/she has no control and can only influence, while over others he/she has neither control nor influence.

I started to think about the different roles this principal of mine has to play.  And they were quite diverse as well:

  • First there was the normal leadership role (inasmuch as leadership under these conditions can be normal!) – towards the teacher, the child, the parent.  Given the diverse nature, none of these groupings would be satisfied with a common leadership approach!
  • In this role, the principal also has to build a culture and value system that will lead to the child becoming the best he or she can be.  The values need to be held in a cult-like fashion by teachers and children alike.
  • The principal also has to motivate the children and teachers at school to perform optimally.  Gaining the grades the child is capable of.  Delivering the sport results the parents and children aspire to.  Teachers need to be developed into an engaged force, needed to deliver children that one day will drive the economy and society at large!
  • He/she is also a problem solver of note – problems at school are a dime a dozen – from children being poorly disciplined, to teachers not doing their job, to children being victimised, either at home or at school, or both, and to parents who do not care and who do not pay school fees.
  • The principal also needs to be a financial manager – resource handler, and ensure that the processes, procedures, rules, and regulations of the school are adhered to.  Ensuring that the curricula are followed and implemented.  Ensuring that the facilities are kept in mint condition.
  • Then there is the role of the principal as parent – to the small child in primary school, the child who is the victim of bullying, etc.
  • This principal of ours is also the school’s strategist and planner – ensuring that we strive towards the “right” objectives with ways and means that will deliver the results we all hope for.  Here our principal needs to be a futurist, developing children for jobs that frequently do not yet exist as such!
  • And let’s not forget the role of our principal as psychologist.  Listening to at least 3 stakeholders and helping them to bounce back and stay motivated, i.e. the child, the teacher, and the parent.
  • Linked to the role of psychologist, we have the role of main cheerleader.  Check out the sports fields on a Saturday morning.  Our principals are there routing for their teams, giving a bit of TLC where the team lost, and giving a lot of praise where the team won.
  • Then we require of our principal to be an innovator – coming up with new ways of doing things, of adjusting to new technology and to new curricula, of generating funds outside of the budget and the school fees.
  • And frequently (mostly? always?) our principal also has a subject he/she has to present and stay on top of!

I am sure I can go on and on to expand upon the accountabilities of this principal of ours.  The bottom line is that he/she has a diverse and complex job, where leadership, values, and culture play a gigantic role.

Then I asked myself the million dollar question.  What training does this principal of ours get?  What development does the DoE present to the principal to ensure that he/she is this wonderful, multi-skilled individual who is teacher, parent, psychologist, leader, manager, etc?  And I need to stand corrected, but I am of the opinion that our principal learns by his own experience!  Which is horrific!  Bischmark of Prussia is quoted as having said the following: “Fools learn from their own experience.  I prefer to learn from the experience of others!”

Nice thing to say, but if no one is providing the education and growth required to convert our teachers into principals with such a broad and diverse number of roles, what alternative is there?

So, next time you complain about the principal being a pathetic idiot, a grownup amongst kids but a kid amongst grownups, think again!  This is a job for a very special person, a leader amongst men and women, someone to emulate!  Someone that can teach business men a lot about leadership, culture, and values.  Someone that requires our support!

Think about it!  Our children’s future depend on it!

You may also like...

10 Responses

  1. Jon says:

    Sounds like you are the one who could do the presentation. Interesting thoughts. I think you are right. Did you ask him?

    • johanhburger says:

      Indeed I did. He is one of those who has become a kind of a legend in his own time. Few guys like him!

      • Hannelie Snyman says:

        You show great insight…truly not an easy task. Administration and collection of outstanding course fees at FET Colleges also becomes the responsibility of the principal. Besides knowledge of the NCA, their human skills are put to the test… dealing with needy parents who cannot pay outstanding fees in order to get their childrens results…they rely mostly on government grant. Pregnant gr 10 – 12 students are getting pregnant to add to the income of the family…they are raised and raise their children to rely on government grants…. During the Nov 2010 exam, around 30% of the candidates at our FET Colleges in Limpopo showed signs of being pregnant.
        It is also shocking to see the amount of babies in the waiting line during registration. They cannot pay outstanding fees, and are currently planning to strike and prevent others to enroll. They demand free education, full government bursaries and transport fees. Family planning is not a priority.. it seems. It becomes a vicious circle…. child grant… government dependency… lack of proper education because of the high number of children in classes….low standards.. no jobs … poverty … crime..

        • johanhburger says:

          Thanks for this input. It clearly highlights an aspect we normally do not think of. It complicates the management of schools even more.

        • Larry Lincoln says:

          while one can understand the shortcomings in the FET sector, and there are many,however, I find your comments very disturbing. The way that you relegate your student body to a vague “they” and then go on to focus on the pregancy rate, babies etc. It sounds to me like the old “swart gevaar” nonsense all over again. Surely by now we have moved on from the notions of “the dangerous breeding masses who just demand”? We are one nation and we should all be addressing the problems and overcoming all these fears of the poor and less fortunate being an inferior over-breeding, demanding underclass?
          Why shouldn’t there be free education for all? Since when is it the right of the elites to have access to education? Why tie the inablity to pay fees with babies in a waiting line? Then you claim that 30% show signs of being pregnant? Did you test each female student before the exams to see if they were pregnant or not?
          Yes, we all know the problems you mention, but shouldn’t you and the institutions you represent be part of the solutions?
          Why would these kids enrol for an education if not to try and work their way out of the vicious you so ineloquently describe?
          Yes, the FET sector has many problems, which I don’t deny, but I would have liked to see some spark of empathy/humanity in your comments. Do you not think that your own negative attitude does not possibly contribute to the probelms?

          • johanhburger says:

            Hi Larry, I understand your comments and the hat you put on when you make them. When I read Hannelie’s comments, I read the complexities the principals are facing, not the lack of empathy/humanity you refer to. From a research perspective you are right about testing, etc. Again, I saw the comments from a complexity issue, and not from your angle. So, it is I that need to be addressed about the content of Hannelie’s comment, as I did not look at it from the same angle you did. To blame Hannelie for a negative attitude and a lack of empathy/humanity is maybe a bit strong. In addition, the issue of free education or not is not an issue. I want this to be a blog about life and business in general – not an avenue that degenerates into a political quagmire. We have enough of those. My purpose was to highlight the complex and difficult job our principals have, not create a bunfight about being politically correct or not. And then to give them (the principals) the credit they deserve for doing an undeserving job where everyone else is an expert.

  2. Hannelie Snyman says:

    The needs of these students and their parents are copious. One cannot refrain from feeling an overwhelming sense of empathy…and sadly but mostly, the feeling of helplessness. Our student support services deal with exit level students on a daily basis, trying to assist them to find jobs in the local community. Only a few can be helped. Many 19 year olds are struggling to find jobs in order to feed their two or three children at home. I was merely sharing a personal observation and concern regarding a generation that are raised to rely on government grants. From my experience the past year, (looking at the attendance registers of our College) and the feedback that was received from my colleagues, class attendance is another concern. Students and parents who took responsibility for their tuition fees, attended classes on a regular basis. Student who received government bursaries tend to stay away more often. Mostly because of transport money and children at home.

    Isn’t there another solution to poverty? Instead of a childgrant,
    another way to motivate and assist needy young people to educate themselves before starting a family?.

  3. Philippe Segers says:

    Hi Johannes,

    Thank you for let us learn from your own experience! In France we face the same kind of trouble (diversity at school with all their advantages and challenges), maybe with a scope a litlle bit narrow for the wealth of the parents (here you have less chances to became very poor, or very wealthy). And our Principal are also facing the lack of formation, in leadership as in some basic HR issues.

  4. Hannelie Snyman says:

    See today 24th January 2011 STAR newspaper front page news.
    “Shock: 57 pupils pregnant
    Some as young as 13 at on Limpopo high school are pregnant.
    Meserea Mahungu, the Principcipal of Mavalani High school in Giyani confirmed that two weeks after the school reopened 29 pregnancies were reported (girls 13) bringing the total number to 57 at the school. It is common to see a heavily pregnant minor walking around unashamed in full school uniform or have a minor vomiting or slumbering in class. Rosa Pila one of the parents monitoring pregnant girls blamed child support grants for the scourage………….

    These challenges that are affecting learning and results in many schools accross our country.
    This is a real problem for Principals.

    Joshua Matlou, the mayor of the Mopani district municipality and ANC leader visited the schools and pledged to form partnerships with the Department of Health and Social Development to help pregnant girls who are ophans.

  1. January 15, 2011

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Marinus van den Berg. Marinus van den Berg said: "@johanhburger: An Ode to the Principal […]