The Challenges of being a School Principal

(This piece was first published under the title ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’ in the January 2015 issue of Teacher Plus, a lovely magazine for educators.)

Principals are often stereotyped as self-important individuals who sit in a spacious cabin holding meetings, making decisions and signing documents away from the classroom where children and teachers do ‘real’ work.

There must be so much going on inside these individuals beyond the visible power and authority they wield. I am not sure if, as educators, we do enough to understand their messy reality.

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(Source: Principals Email List)

Here are four imaginary scenarios:

  1. A male teacher has been found guilty of molesting a female student. She has complained to her parents as well as the principal. The teacher has been arrested. Parents who send their children to this school are seething with anger. They have threatened not to allow classes to go on as usual unless the principal takes personal responsibility for the sexual and emotional violence suffered by the student.
  2. A high-ranking government official wants his grandson admitted to a school in the middle of the academic year. The child does not meet the requirements laid down by the educational board this school is affiliated to. The principal explains this situation to the official but the latter is unwilling to budge from his demand and has threatened to initiate a legal enquiry into the donations received by the school from various sources.
  3. A parent has sent the principal a strongly worded letter expressing her disappointment at the school for teaching a unit on religion, which involves field trips to shrines of different faiths. The parent does not want her child to step into places of worship that are not connected to their religion. She has accused the principal of trying to mislead children and get them to question their traditions.
  4. The trustees of a school want the principal to increase the number of students in each classroom from 30 to 40. The fees that the students will pay have been earmarked for buying a plot of land adjacent to the school. This will serve as the new playground. Teachers are resisting this move. They think that a bigger class size will affect the quality of learning and also increase their workload.

If you were the principal in each of these instances, what would you do?
How would you respond to the needs expressed by various stakeholders?
What are the skills needed to work effectively in such environments?
How would you reconcile other people’s demands with your own beliefs and values?

I know, these are difficult questions to answer. I don’t even know how to answer them. And that’s a humbling thought. It makes me appreciate a little more the rigour and resilience some principals show when they go to work each day. It urges me to applaud the vision and patience it takes to be a school leader.

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Writer, educator and researcher

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