It is said that all new school principals enjoy a honeymoon period. If that is so, then mine may have set a record for its brevity.
I will never forget the first day of first term of my first headship. Less than an hour after I arrived at school, just as the first students began returning after the summer break, I received a phone call from the headmaster at my former school to tell me that a student I had known very well, a member of my tutor group for several years, had taken his own life a couple of days previously. He had received a severe spinal injury in a Rugby match some time before and been rendered quadriplegic, but he had not been able to come to grips with his situation and had driven his wheelchair into a swimming pool.
Within half an hour of receiving that news, one of my Heads of Department (who was also the Board Chair’s brother-in-law) handed me his written letter of resignation over a long-standing issue to do with how his subject was to be taught in the integrated Year 7 Core. I accepted his resignation reluctantly on the principle that written letters reflect a well-considered action. As a result, he became wildly angry, even phoning the Board Chair (who he knew very well, of course!), claiming that he wanted his position returned to him because never expected me to accept his resignation – his (unstated) intention had been for me to refuse to accept his resignation and then back down over the Year 7 Core program.
My initial idealism to transform the world through education was starting to dissipate well before lunch time on that first day. By the time I drove home that afternoon, I was close to being shell-shocked!
In hindsight, I can see that my experiences on that first day were crucially important in my formation as a Principal. That day helped me understand why I was occupying the Principal’s Office – I was there to be the solution to the students’ and the school’s Big Problems. My dependence on God rather than my own resources was thrown sharply into focus that day, and it shaped all my subsequent work as a School Principal.
I spent 25 years as a School Principal. During that period, I came to lead five schools in four different countries. I agree with many of my fellow Principals that leading a school is the best job in the world. It can also be one of the loneliest and most challenging jobs in the world.
Given that background, what general advice might I offer now to a new Principal who is about to commence? Hundreds of thoughts spring to mind, but I think a few stand out as being applicable to almost any school – large or small, primary or secondary, single-sex or co-educational, international or national, faith-based or secular, day or boarding, and so on.
While I hope these few tips may be helpful, it is also important to remember that Murphy’s Law operates strongly in schools – “What can go wrong will go wrong”. (I have often suspected that Murphy was a School Principal).
When things go wrong – and they will – my final piece of advice is to realise that you can’t make everyone happy, not should you try to do so. It’s time to make a rational decision about which people it is better to upset and which people it is most important to satisfy.
The answer to this last dilemma will almost always be “it is most important to keep the Board happy”. This makes sense because the Board has ultimate responsibility for achieving the school’s mission and direction (its ultimate purpose) through its delegated powers, which are delegated to you alone as the Principal. Moreover, you are the sole person accountable to the board to achieve outcomes in response to those delegated powers.
It could be argued that everything you do as a new Principal will be a mere footnote or the means to achieving this central purpose of enhancing the school’s mission and vision.
-Dr Stephen Codrington
This article should be read in conjunction with my related article “The First Hundred Days” at https://optimalschool.com/the-first-hundred-days.html
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