Monday, 22 June 2015

The Evolution of a Primary School Principal

In January 1997, I started my journey as principal at Pinelands North Primary School. I remember my first few days vividly. Before school officially started for the year, I went in to acclimatise to my new position. Sitting at a large brown desk, in the middle of a dark blue and brown room, I realised the enormity of the task facing me. I could make or break this fragile community depending on how I tackled my tasks in the next few weeks. 
Only now do I realise how true that thought was, and how much effort and time has been expended in trying to ensure that this 'fragile' community is no longer fragile but exceptionally robust and hopefully, enduring, long past my tenure.
After about a year I also realised how much faith the Governing Body of this school had in me when they decided to appoint me.......I was, after all, a woman and women did not run co-ed primary schools in 1997, and I was only 37 years old too! So, a young woman.....with spiky hair and short skirts.....many would have seen this as a recipe for disaster! Luckily they didn't!
One of the first things I did was to get my caretaker to paint my office lime green.....this colour has energised me for 18 years, and is also now fashionable, but at that time, my staff were exceptionally rude about the colour - it was too bright, it gave them headaches or blinded them! I then moved my enormous desk into the corner behind the door...another really good decision that has been constant over the years. At that time, that too was rather a radical decision. Principals were figures of authority who needed a big desk placed between them and any visitor. I then scoured the school storage areas for comfortable chairs, bought a coffee table and placed those in my office as preferred places to entertain visitors.

Over the years my office has become very much my home from home. I have lots of bright children's art on the walls, a huge bookshelf filled with teddy bears as I am an arctophile, and my pin boards are dark purple. This is definitely my happy space!

Changing the face of the rest of the school was much harder, as I had to consider other staffs' choices. Intense discussions were held over the colour to paint the classroom doors as they had all been white before.....and some teachers insisted on theirs remaining white! When I look now at the maroon pinboards, the shiny tiled floors and the beautiful children's work displayed outside every room, I am in awe of how far we have come! The foyer was also an important project which took slightly longer as it needed a fair amount of money to there are terracotta tiles, a kelim, beautiful art, freshly upholstered furniture and birds, plants and fish to encourage visitors to relax and feel at home too.

On the first day of school for staff, I was exceptionally apprehensive. At that point I still felt that I had to 'please' my staff so I 'requested', 'asked' and 'encouraged' teachers to start changing their interactions with children from authoritarian to co-operative. Detention and punishment were still very much on the agenda, and most staff felt that if they didn't have the option of this punitive approach, the children would not perform or be respectful. 
One bit of advice I was told by a former mentor was to ensure that my staff called me 'Mrs Morton' as this was a way to ensure that there was a respectful relationship between me and the staff. This advice I ignored completely and luckily I have never had reason to regret this decision!
The way I operate as a leader in this community is very different now. I am never timid, although still at times apprehensive! I believe that I cannot be timid when so much is hinging on the outcome of every single decision we make. I need to be decisive when this school community might be affected adversely by a single incorrect move. Every time we employ a new staff member they attend a year of new staff meetings, to integrate them fully into our society as our values and ways of managing children, parents, volunteers, facilitators and the general public is very specific to Pinelands North. Although we are taught in management courses that democracy is good and autocracy is not, I have felt many times that I have needed to be autocratic for the good of the whole community.

Before I was sure of the way we were going, I was also more pliable when parents came to  complain to me about things happening in the school. I don't now disregard what they say, but because I am so sure that all our staff are teaching, loving, caring human beings who can make mistakes at times, I can diffuse difficult situations because I can see both sides of the story.

After 18 years at the helm of this 'still evolving' society, I am happy that we are on the right path, that we have created a unique society which is obviously very different from any other school society I know, and that is being seen in the education world as something to celebrate and copy as it works. Thank you to all those who continue to have faith in me, and in the greater school community...thank you for believing in us as co-creators of a new future for South Africa!   

Monday, 1 June 2015

The biggest compliment a teacher can pay their own school is to enrol their children

Teacher Chantal Petersen and daughter, Jorja
On returning from Simonsberg campsite in Stellenbosch with grade 5 and 6 pupils, I started to edit the photographs taken while we were away. I suddenly realised how many of our staff have children at our school...... In every few photographs, one of our teachers' children appeared! Contemplating this fact, I realised that every parent is concerned while their children are away from them at some unknown place. Several can't resist the opportunity to call the 'emergency' phone number on the school cellphone, to..... 'just check that my little darling is still fine'. The interesting thing is that we received no calls from staff members who also have children at camp with us....... 
When one is looking for the right school for your most precious possession......your children - you consider very carefully the pros and cons of every school in the vicinity......
Will they provide the best quality teaching?
Will they carefully consider the curriculum and choose the best to teach my child? 
Will they provide emotional or educational support when needed? 
Will the teachers treat my child as if my child is theirs? 
Will my child meet the 'right' kind of child at this school? 
Can I trust the teachers and management staff with my precious possession? 
If a teacher enrols their child at the school they are teaching at, they are actually saying that.....
...... they believe in the curriculum taught
.......they believe in the systems used throughout the school
The Botha twins, sons of Leroy Botha
.......they believe in the 'hidden curriculum' of values which is infused into assemblies and functions
and......that they believe that what they do every day, has value. 
In fact they are saying that the school they teach at, is the school they wish they had been enrolled in themselves!
Maybe, when you are investigating the best school for your child, the one question you should be asking the principal is, " How many of your staff who have children, have their children at this school?" 
Thank you to the teachers of Pinelands North, who have such faith in the school they teach at, that they have 'lent' us their precious children for seven years so that we can pass on the values we hold dear, so they can, in turn, influence the rest of the world they touch in the future....