When your principal isn’t your pal…Day -7
When I was a student in elementary school, the way I was taught to remember the tricky difference between the spellings of ‘principle’ and ‘principal’ was, “Always remember, your principal is your pal”. Maybe that was overstating things a bit, but it certainly beats making principals into “management”, as the Glaze report recommends.
According to many international comparison studies, some of the attributes of schools that best predict student success are trust and collaboration among teachers and leaders. As PISA and other studies have demonstrated, “When students, teachers, parents and the school principals know and trust each other, work together and share information, ideas and goals, students – particularly disadvantaged students – benefit.”*
Those international research findings fit entirely with my own practical experience. I was Headteacher at Halifax Independent School for 15 years. This school would be called a “democratic” school here in Britain, where I am temporarily living. Here it is a blanket name for all schools loosely based on the philosophy of John Dewey, who said that, “…the development of such a democratic society is dependent to a large degree on the democratization of schools and schooling.”
As a Headteacher, I also taught, and was considered a “leader among equals”. I wouldn’t have dreamed of walking into a staff meeting and announcing, “I (or the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development) have decided that starting on Monday, we are all going to use this new computer program to keep track of our students. If I don’t see everyone doing it by the end of next week there will be consequences”. I would have (quite rightly) been laughed out of the room. We implemented many changes while I was Head Teacher, but because of lots of collaboration, they were implemented effectively.
My school’s program was enriched by constantly hearing teachers’ and parents’ voices who were looking for ways to improve it. Every new initiative was discussed and if consensus wasn’t reached, voted on (yes, sometimes by the children too). In fact it was the epitome of the “shared responsibility” for school improvement that Pasi Sahlberg talks about in his book “Finnish Lessons”. It is one of the reasons Finland does so well on international comparative tests.
I considered my role as a supporter of the teachers, as the person who would smooth the way so that they could do their jobs without too much distraction. As someone who was often the public face of the school, I would occasionally have to do difficult things like tell an employee that they were no longer needed. I gave teachers the autonomy to do what they were trained to do in the classroom, the time to collaborate with me and the other teachers, and then I respected and trusted their judgement and their voices.
The type of collaboration between teachers and principals that many schools in NS enjoy today actually contributes to the wellbeing of their students, as well as academic success. Taking Principals and Vice Principals out of the bargaining unit and making them into “management” will prevent much of this collaboration, if it doesn’t finish it entirely. In Ontario, it is well documented that since principals and VPs were considered management, the number of grievances escalated dramatically – this indicates that collaboration is not happening to the same extent.
Picture this: In a collaborative school, a newish teacher is having difficulty with one particular student. Nothing the teacher tries seems to work with her, and it is starting to affect other children in the class. The teacher comes to me, the principal, for help, and we decide to bring it up at a meeting with other teachers who have dealt with that child. Everyone at the meeting shares ideas about what has worked for them with that child. Later, I go and observe her class, and we mutually decide that the child can come and spend a few minutes with me next time there are difficulties. Soon the situation resolves itself, but whenever there is a relapse, the teacher knows that she has my support and I am not far away.
Now, how could that sort of collaboration work in a top-down, authoritarian school? If I was “management” would that teacher feel free to come to me and admit that they are being less than perfect? Knowing that failure might mean discipline, might she not keep her head down and continue struggling on her own (to the detriment of the other students in her class)? And with a “College of Educators” looming over her head, would it not be even less likely that this teacher would come forward?
In Britain, where teachers and principals aren’t in the same union, the government brings in supposed “super-heads” to turn around failing schools (translation: make their scores on standardized tests go up). These people are paid enormous amounts of money, money which is not benefiting children. Jenn Doyle, a NS teacher who taught for 10 years in Britain, describes the process: “My school (in Britain) wasn’t an academy when I left, but when our Headteacher retired he got replaced by one of the ‘super-heads’ that was more like a manager than a head teacher. He never took the time to get to know the kids. The respect was not there like we were used to. He had more assistant heads and two deputy heads to manage behaviour and other issues. He was a data cruncher. And more into finances than we were used to. All of the children’s progress was tracked and we were expected to explain why children didn’t progress at the expected rate. He brought in performance related pay alongside appraisals and if your kids didn’t progress your pay wouldn’t go up. There has been a complete turnover of staff. Some even left teaching.”
I know the government is trying to spin this as, “The NSTU is only against this issue because they will lose members and their membership dues.” If this is true, why did the union turn down the government’s offer of $800,000 “compensation” for the loss? Teachers know that collaboration and co-operation work better, and there is a wealth of evidence that collaboration between teachers and principals is central to a school system that really helps students. Making principals into “management” is NOT the way to go.
* “Collaborative schools, collaborative students” PISA 2015 results, Volume 5