Classroom teachers don’t make the best school principals, anonymous teacher says

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As the school year is wrapping up, this teacher explains why he feels classroom teachers don’t make the best school principals.

As a teacher I feel sorry for the modern school principal. They are in charge of a multi-million-dollar business, typically with around 100 permanent and casual employees, catering to 500-1000 customers. Sadly, they get little to no training in business, human resources, marketing, or leadership. Instead they were once classroom teachers that were then promoted to head of department, then deputy principal and then finally into the “big chair”.

But just as the best football players don’t necessarily make the best coaches, too often teachers are promoted beyond their capabilities. Sometimes this is simply because they have excelled in the job they are currently doing. However, too often it is because they have become adept at speaking the meta-language of educational leadership, and writing resumes and applications that are overflowing with their accomplishments.

Often people fall into higher rolls and end up well outside what they are capable of. Many principals approaching retirement will take extended periods of long service leave, with the deputy relieving in the role. When the position becomes vacant, it’s hard for interview panels to reject someone who may have been doing the job for 6-12 months, albeit with the incumbent principal at the end of a phone/email for advice and guidance. That was the case in my current school, and has led to many unsuccessful systems remaining in place, simply because that was how the prior principal (and mentor of the current one) had done it.

...as a teenage manager in an international fast-food chain, I received far more management training than principals of schools do.

The current exodus of beginning and experienced teachers from the profession is undoubtedly tied to a systemic lack of leadership within schools. In the public system the decentralisation of many of the functions of the Department of Education has put downwards pressure on schools. This combined with the ever-increasing thirst for data, has led to a system at breaking point. The meaningful analysis of data about students, teachers, and schools is obviously a good thing. However, it has gotten to the point where it seems the collection of data has become the primary focus, rather than the understanding of it and its future implications.

Typically it’s in the area of people management that I’ve seen the biggest deficits amongst principals. The sad reality is that as a teenage manager in an international fast-food chain, I received far more management training than principals of schools do.

A prime example is my local high school. The principal there is dealing with an increase in student behaviour management issues and a corresponding fall in staff morale. However, focus has seemingly rested on a battle of the wills with staff over footwear. The principal is trying to make all teachers wear flat, enclosed shoes. Now there are obviously safety requirements when it comes to woodwork, science labs, and cooking, but in my view the choice of shoes makes zero difference to an English teacher’s lesson on Shakespeare or a maths teacher explaining long division! Too often I see leaders micromanage inconsequential stuff, rather than focusing on the big issues.

Part of the problem lies within the promotion system within the education sector. References and panel interviews are relied on heavily, with the expectation that an aspiring leader will have all the skills and tools needed to fulfil their new role. However, once appointed there is little to no support available. Additionally, positions are filled on an individual basis, rather than holistically looking at the needs of a school. This often leads to situations where a school may have an inexperienced principal, deputy principal, and several heads of department. Exacerbating this is the harsh reality that as a principal, or teacher, it is almost impossible to be demoted or sacked simply for under-performing.

Many Independent schools have a business manager that oversees the administrative side of running a school, and then an academic principal in charge of the core business of education. This model seems to make a lot more sense, especially given the increasingly competitive environment that even public schools operate in – largely thanks to the publishing and comparison of Naplan results along with the ability to enrol a student who is “out of zone”.

While running a school obviously has some similarities to running a business, it is clearly not possible to keep a ledger of the positives and negatives of an educational institution. The more we expect principals to act like CEOs, without giving them the training and skills needed, the less likely it is that the individual needs of students will be met, and the more teachers will suffer burnout and leave.

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