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Reflections of an "Accidental" Principal

Posted on 30 March 2019
Reflections of an "Accidental" Principal

I had harboured an ambition to be a principal for some time and I looked forward to a trial run. Very quickly I discovered that being a successful teacher, or even an experienced deputy principal, did not prepare one to be a successful principal.

It is an enduring fallacy that principals need no special training or skill sets, beyond what a good teacher or middle-manager might have.

My first day in the role was a disaster. After an adrenalin-pumped morning where I used my AFL coaching experience to whip the staff into a frenzy in preparation for the new school year, we meandered towards the staff room for our traditional start-of-year luncheon.

We discovered the staffroom tables littered with papers and piles of soon to be distributed text- books, with no food in sight. I rushed into the admin area only to be told that they assumed we would not have the traditional lunch because I had not ordered it.

Lesson 1: never rely on anyone or you will be constantly wiping egg off your face.

That might explain why some principals want to micro-manage every aspect of the school's operation. It also highlighted how critical a loyal and capable deputy can be, to watch your back and maybe complement one's deficiencies.

In the first few weeks I found myself sitting at the kitchen-table of a sobbing parent whose husband has been tragically killed in a farm accident. What did I know about grief counselling? What should I say when asked to address the congregation at his funeral? Later that week there were two bomb scares with evacuations, hysterical staff and students, drowned out by a police helicopter landing in the school playground.

The 'bomb' was a hoax, planted by a Year 11 boy whom I suspect had some personal issues which I had no expertise in diagnosing.

The predictable hard-hat posse of outraged teachers stormed into my office demanding the culprit be crucified in the quadrangle.

Seconds later, the touchy-feely contingent begged me to be compassionate and not expel him.

A few days later a teacher, in high dudgeon, resigned on the spot because he had heard a rumour the School Council Chairman had made a disparaging comment about him at a recent council meeting. His wife, also a senior teacher at the school, resigned in sympathy.

Hours later a union representative is demanding a meeting with me and the media want a comment. I have no training in employment law, industrial disputation or dealing with nosy media.

My immediate concern is trying to find teachers to take critical Year 12 classes and staving off panicky parents whose children will apparently fail because of the resignations.

What qualifications and skills did I have in recruiting and interviewing potential staff?

Unlike my previous roles, being a principal was all-encompassing, absorbing every waking moment. The buck truly stops with you and you often found yourself first in and last out the door, securing windows and doors after yet another evening school function. Was this the lot of a school leader: stacking furniture late into the night!

Your whole focus moves from students to adults. It is no accident that many principals treat their staff like they are their students. After all, those are the people skills needed by effective teachers.

What did I know of marketing and selling the school to prospective parents?  Why did I find it hard to fudge the truth when answering parent inquiries? It was taxing to write propaganda-filled school newsletters and carefully self-censuring one's words at school assemblies in case they were taken out of context.

Unlike other roles, it was job that had few completions.

Every day was putting out spot-fires and it was conceivable that you could stay at your desk and work until midnight and never catch up with correspondence, endless bureaucratic demands and trying to plan a week ahead. I wonder how many principals' marriages and families suffer an enormous toll because of the job. I found I could not switch off.

Even a visit to the local supermarket could be extended because parents wanted to get something off their chest.

Dealing with one's immediate employer, the school council, was problematical. Although often well-meaning, many school councilors have no idea about schools or education. Some are transparently there to further their own child's interests. Others have little idea about the role a school council should play and instead want to interfere in the daily running of the school.

"I saw some of our students walking to school without their hats and their shirts untucked. Why aren't you doing something about that?"

Having said that, how unprepared I was to understand and make decisions about school budgets and master plans. How was I to know how to cleverly massage reports and submissions to get inflated government funding?

How could I rely on the advice of a business manner and a business-dominated council whose primary focus was the bottom line regardless of how severely it would impact on teachers and students?

"If we increase class sizes to 32 or fire a few teachers, we could build a new basketball court!"

I know subsequently I was down to the last two candidates for a principal position in two schools. The successful candidates were both MBAs! How naïve I was to have always believed that, above all else, a principal had to be an outstanding educator and a deep thinker about education and schooling.

What then drives a teacher to strive for the top job? Double your salary, a company car, plush office, people fawning over you pushing some barrow, invitations to community events and recognition that you are the alpha male who has smooched and scratched your way to the top.

And here was I thinking that it would be great to have the chance to try new curriculum initiatives and create an environment where every child felt special.

Instead each day's preoccupation was to investigate rumours that a middle school teacher was lacing his morning tea coffee with a shot of whisky or someone had put a compromising comment about the school on a social media website.

Indeed, only a special breed are called to the highest office without even a smidgeon of training. What could go wrong? That so few principals I have known, like Australian prime ministers, end their tenure on a high probably best answers that question.

From: au.educationhq.com/news

About the writer: Greg Cudmore is a retired educator with more than 45 years of experience teaching in Victorian and Queensland schools.

Tags: Leadership

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