There is a famous story about former world heavyweight boxing champion, Mohammed Ali. He was on a flight in the US and was refusing to wear his seat belt. When the flight attendant told him to put on the seatbelt, he replied “Superman don’t need no seat belt”. The flight attendant instantly replied: “Superman don’t need no airplane either”.
Many school principals feel their boards expect them to be like Superman. They also sense that their staff, their students and their school communities think similarly. Few jobs have the range of complex and often competing constituencies that school principals must keep happy – their boards, parents, students, teachers, staff, alumni, government authorities, accreditation organisations, owners of neighbouring properties, the media, the wider community, politicians, bureaucrats, their families (yes!), and so on. The list may not be quite as long as a national leader, but notwithstanding Winston Churchill’s comment that “Headmasters have powers at their disposal with which Prime Ministers have never yet been invested”, it is understandable that fewer and fewer applications are received when principals’ vacancies are advertised these days compared with a decade or two ago.
As expectations of school principals continue to increase, a real risk arises that these expectations reach the point of becoming unrealistic. You may have never heard the German expression “Eierlegende Wollmilchsau”. Literally meaning “egg-laying wool-milk-sow”, it describes a pig covered in fluffy fur that lays eggs and produces milk. It is the perfect farm animal that only has advantages, satisfies all needs, and meets all demands by bringing together the best qualities of a hen (laying eggs), sheep (producing wool), cow (giving milk) and pig (eats rubbish and produces bacon). The only shortcoming of the “Eierlegende Wollmilchsau” is that it doesn’t exist.
I wonder whether the ideal school principal is seen by some school boards as resembling the Eierlegende Wollmilchsau – perfect in every way except that he or she doesn’t really exist.
In the preface to his book Letters from School, the Principal of Westminster School in England from 1970 to 1986, John Rae, wrote feelingly about the scrutiny, often unfair, to which school principals are often subjected by parents, school boards and the general community. He observed that “ours is the one job in society that everyone feels qualified to criticise”. Paraphrasing the critics, he continued:
“We have all been to school. We all know how it’s done. It didn’t strike us then and it doesn't strike us now as a job requiring much in the way of sophisticated expertise. We wouldn’t actually say that any fool could do it, but we think it is largely a case of common sense, an amateur business and not even full-time, given the long holidays and the short working day”.
Rae continued: “Headmasters and headmistresses are insecure, more so than they look. They regard any criticism of the school as criticism of their leadership, as indeed it is”.
On the other hand, he also wrote this reflection on being a school principal: “It must surely be the best job in the world. There is such variety, such unpredictability, and such provocative fascination in dealing with the young”.
I concur with the full range of Rae’s views, contradictory though they may appear. The huge challenge for Principals as they fulfil the duties of “the best job in the world”, of course, is that they must try and meet a daunting array of expectations.
Where do I begin? School principals are expected to:
I doubt even Winston Churchill had to deal with such a diverse range of responsibilities. However, to be fair, he did have to keep Josef Stalin on side in the effort to defeat the Nazis in World War II, which some might argue (tongue-in-cheek) was akin to the challenge of negotiating many staffing issues in schools today.
It is important for school boards to appreciate the complexity of the demands made upon their Principals these days, and to provide unwavering support for the Principal without hesitation. No Principal should ever feel alone as they lead their school, although sadly many do. School leadership is always a team effort.
In this context, I love the words of Faith Abiodun (UWC International Executive Director) from August 2023: “Not a single one of us is going to change the world by ourselves. We always do that in community and you have to learn how to do that. Sometimes those really uncomfortable experiences of having your clear ideas being challenged propel you to become a much more conscious member of society. And that is worth fighting for”.
My concluding message to board members as they work to support the principal is a simple one - we fail as leaders when we expect more from others than we expect from ourselves. If you expect someone to fight for you, you must also fight for them.
-Dr Stephen Codrington
Rae, J (1988) “Letters from School”, London: Fontana Press.
Thank you to 720.ch for the base graphic that was adapted for use in this article.
We help school boards with Principals’ performance reviews and appraisals.
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