Saturday, August 25, 2018

Ode to high school principals...


Let’s take a look at the self-sabotaging structure that breeds leaders in education in Ontario, and one can extrapolate, also other North American jurisdictions. Under such criteria as “ambitious,” and “responsible,” “politically correct,” and “trustworthy” as well as “personable” and “relates well to many different groups,” we can add, the requisite professional development “courses” that stress the law, school budgeting, curriculum design and scheduling, leadership and “moral purity.”

Of course, these attributes shift and shape in their relative importance given the “crop” of eager applicants, the local culture, including the local political requirements, and the “insider” connections and community family status. Small towns, especially, revert to their “own” as do private schools, preferring their graduates, “because they already know the school culture, the expectations and the specific requirements of that “body” of taxpayers and/or benefactors and tuition-paying parents.

From the perspective of the “upper” administration, the primary determining factor is the potential of the candidate to “keep all issues, problems, controversies and turbulence” inside the school, so that it does not boil over into a major issue that bruises the reputation of the “board”…and its functionaries, all of them extremely highly imbursed with public dollars. In the private school, “connections” to preserve some facsimile of the historic “family compact” still reigns. So, at minimum, a history “inside” the private school system still gives one a “lep up” on other candidates, with the potential exception of a “star” candidate with a high profile who could/would/will? generate millions for the trust account, and any future building prospects. In the private school world, selling “seats” at thousands of dollars is still the name of the game, and this includes scholarships, bursaries, and legacy donations. In the public schools, there is considerable competition between schools within the same board, and between schools between competing boards, (geographically, curricularly and religiously). Schools offering the Baccalaureate, for example, will have a marketing “edge” among a certain demographic, while those offering science and technology specialties, will have an edge among a different demographic. Parents who seek a “morally strong” school system, in some towns, prefer the Roman Catholic Separate School system, whether or not they belong to that religion.

And so, it is easy to see that “politics” both internal and external, both fiscal and curricular, balancing human interests and competencies among staff with the requirements of a timetable that serves usually well over 1000-2000 students, play a highly significant role both in the operation of the school, and in its “social and political standing” in the community. Depending on the size of the community, the very existence of the secondary school, likely only one in many small communities, will attract considerable public notice, interest and potential criticism.

The ability, and the willingness to navigate the “white waters” of the many “rocks” along the stream of a single leader’s tenures, then is paramount in his or her submission of his/her name for consideration. Of course, there will be endless meetings, many of which will be in the evening, memo’s to write and read, legislation and board policy to read, digest and both comply with and apply. And there are the inevitable IED’s (Improvised Explosive Devices) among the parents, board members, and potentially reporters who are all seeking to promote some agenda, even as base at times as a personal resume.

In such a closed environment, (ironically much more closed that the diversity of the student population would suggest on first look) there are cliques, “friends” of the administration, enemies of the administration, free spirits who could care less who occupies the principal’s office, and “shit-disturbers” who are never happy unless and until they have blown waves into another teacup. Also like a small community, however, each wind/wave in each teacup will garner the notice of everyone in the building, including the janitorial staff, who usually have the scuttlebutt about all rumours before many of the “officialdom”. Among students, also, there are cliques of interests, hobbies, activities and social strata including dress, makeup, whether or not to “join” teams, clubs or to resist all “alliances” as a statement of either or both independence or rebellion and ‘anarchy’.

Of course, all of the candidates for “promotion” to school administrator, vice-principal, principal, superintendent and director will have spent time in those “teacher prep” courses, formerly at Ontario College of Education and back when there was a shortage of teachers, many of courses were ‘summer school’ type. So imagine sitting in a classroom at Jarvis Collegiate, without air conditioning, through a hot summer in July and August back in 1968.

Education philosophy at that time touched on Dewey, and on “not smiling until at least the end of the first term” (so that kids will not take advantage of the teacher), and practice teaching, without video-recording at that time. Master teacher and classmates did the ratings, and  mostly I recall the drive from Oakville into the city in traffic that would pale to the volumes of these days.

Of course, while on the job, principals and vice-principals were responsible for student and teacher ‘discipline’….making sure the machine ran on time, without hiccups, hitches or actually walk-outs. Waling the halls was an integral part of the job, casting about looking for “trouble” in order to strike before it became a real problem. And there were always students being “sent to the office” for disrupting some class or other, often from the same teachers, who were attempting to be “buddies” with their students. 
Staff meetings were another occasion for these mostly men to demonstrate their “leadership” although proposals were modest, meek in the extreme and hardly revolutionary. One I recall was called Quest, when it was planned that grade twelve students would be encouraged to spend a day at the workplace of one of their parents, or a close family friend with the hope that they would “discover” whether or not they might like to take up that kind of profession or employment. This was decades prior to the “resume-padding” extracurricular activities that generate actual credits, and highlight a university or college application.

I recall returning one September from as summer vacation part of which was spent driving through the upper states of New England, where, surprisingly to this small-town kid from Ontario, I found a shoe “factory outlet” and purchased a brand new pair of hiking boots with bright red laces. (Remember this was a half century ago!) Proudly sitting in the staff room wearing the new boots, I recall the vice-principal’s scathing and scornful ridiculing snicker, as he asked, “So where are you intending to go with those?” I was dressed in what apparently was something “too loud” for the conservative ambience desired at least by this VP.

Details on attendance sheets, including all students absent every morning, were to be sent immediately after “home form” so that the office could follow up on whether or not the parents were aware their child did not show up. And, on a master clipboard, such sheets accompanied each class, expecting the teacher to complete the “attendance” for each period taught. Similarly, absentees were noted, and often called in for explanation and detentions. Punishments too often, as I recall, required the writing of an essay by the delinquent, an approach I always found counter-intuitive to keeping English as a positive learning experience.

Schedules for “detention room” monitoring, as well as examination proctoring, dance supervision, and after school advisors were also among the duties of these men as well as following up to assure everyone was in the proper place at the proper time. Details, details, details…..literally “managing” and clearly very little if any time to “wonder” or to “lead” or to develop teaching staff. There was the proverbial “teacher inspection” session in which the principal paid a visit to the classroom to assess the performance of the teacher. Sometimes these were by appointment; occasionally they were impromptu especially if the teacher were already on a short leash.

Time to read, time for relaxation (curling or playing hockey with staff) were both limited. Board meetings, dinners to celebrate some long-serving board member, or a retiring teacher, presentations to board meetings, and of course, meetings with parents especially those whose children were graduating from elementary school and entering high school. And then there were “parents nights” to schedule, announce, organize and host, especially those parents whose child might be having some difficulty with academics or with deportment.

Private offices were the private locus of these “officials” and neither student nor teacher looked forward to a summons to their rooms: that usually meant something had gone awry and needed an explanation and/or some corrective.
Morning announcements over the public address system were the exclusive purview of the principal, or in his absence in the vice-principal, with the occasional student announcement to offer a little variety.

Keeping the lid on, making sure everything ran smoothly, making sure exams were submitted for typing and copying in time for the students to write, and then making sure the marks were submitted in time to prepare reports to parents…..these are just a few more of the “verbals that needed attending.

On a regular, but not often basis, the school leaders would “host” a visit from a superintendent and/or director, the duet making the requisite appearance in the halls between class, and likely in the office to “talk things over” afterwards.
And then there were the Department of Education (Ontario) inspectors who also needed to be scheduled into classrooms, to assess the performance of especially new teachers, on probationary contracts, hoping to morph them into a permanent contract.

Federation meetings were another expected place to attend for principals and vice-principals, partly to keep informed of the issues about which the federation was concerned, and partly to learn how their “staff” were getting along with their colleagues in such meetings. They also needed to know if some labour dispute were brewing, or a strike planned.

Staff parties, graduations, student dances, Christmas and Spring formals all required staff planning and supervision and concurrence from administration.

Do ya’think these were “tight ships” to cite a proverbial colloquial metaphor?

Of course, and the men who ran them were under extreme psychological pressure, from the various audiences scrutinizing them as men, and detailing their every public performance. For their commitment, they were paid handsomely in dollars and pensions. However, one has to wonder whether or not they were allowed to develop past their initial excitement of the first five years. It is often said of teachers: some have a record of teaching for 10 years, but really only repeated their first year, others actually taught differently and developed new strategies and techniques every year, just to keep themselves engaged.

A now retired education professor at Columbia postulated back in the 1970’s that every teacher needed to be schooled in basic research methods, in order to be able to carry out formal scientific learning experiments in the classroom. Such a background would serve both teachers and students admirably, and go a long way to preventing that horrendous development called “teacher burn-out.”

Clearly, since back then computers and digital media have taken a much more central role in the education process. However, principals and educational leaders area still charged with substituting for parents of their most precious family members. And their success, not as readily determined by the number of Ontario scholars, is really to be measured by the growth and development of their former faculty and former students.

Sadly, some of them have appeared a little put off by the lives chosen by the men and women of their former staffs. However, having been asked to submit an application for the first step in the long process of becoming a high school vice-principal and then principal, I never put a letter on the application, and certainly never submitted it for consideration. I have never once, not for a single moment, regretted saying “NO” to the application and to the encouragement of a spouse to begin the process. Something inside told me it was not “for me” and the last half century would concur.

And, two decades after leaving teaching when I visited a former colleague who had become the new occupant of the principal’s office, I asked him what he would do with his life if he had a choice. He looked at me blankly, said he had no clue, and uttered something about being chained to a management role, and certainly not a leadership role. His response was not a surprise although he had been a member of the marching band at a Toronto school noted for the precision of its band.

I actually believe that education is less a “conserving” activity and more of a releasing and liberating and exploratory activity….and will leave it to the “conservers” to provide the energy for that kind of learning ambience. A little turbulence, a little colouring outside the lines, a little less compliant deference to the establishment and the status quo (that seeks primarily its own success and reputation) seem not to revolutionary to dream. I wonder if there are still dreamers submitting to the classroom rigours today?

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