xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: The changing role of the principal.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

The changing role of the principal.

When teachers and principals were at their various schools preparing for the arrival of students to kick off the new school year, I was at the WACA watching a One Day International cricket match between Australia and the West Indies.
Sitting there, as the game was about to start, I felt totally relaxed, drinking in the ambience of blue skies, the verdant green field, the milling crowd, the colourfully clad cricketers and the noisy anticipation of the contest.
I have to confess that I was also happily drinking in a refreshing amber fluid as I remarked to my companion, Jim Bray, also a retired school principal, “Well, Jim, this is certainly better than getting ready for the children’s first day at school.” 
He agreed and we had a brief conversation about some of the hectic times we had  in days gone by, preparing the staff and ourselves for that busy and exciting time when all of the children turned up on the first day.
I began to think of how much schools had changed since I retired over ten years ago. I felt that principals, many now in charge of Independent Public Schools, would probably be involved in vastly different tasks from those to which I had applied myself.
This in turn led me to think about a speech I had given at a WAPPA Dinner in March, 2000, on the theme of  “The Changing Role of the Principal.”
As usual, I actually spoke about several things during my speech, but here is the bit about the principal’s changing role...
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"As for the changing role of the principal, well I am sure that we will all agree that our roles have changed. We spend less time in our schools with the children and more time out of our schools at meetings, workshops and seminars. At schools we now spend a lot of our time filling in accountability documents. A paper barrier has come down.
I remember on one occasion spending some hours completing an accountability document about what activities I was involved in at the school. At the end of the document, just above my signature, I wrote, “At least this is at I would be doing if I was not so busy filling in accountability documents about what I would be doing if I was not so busy filling in accountability documents.”
Once, as principals, we knew what each class was learning each week of each month of each year. We read through teachers’ monthly Programmes of Work and knew what each teacher was teaching each week of each month of each year. Now we don’t. Unfortunately, neither do some of the teachers.
However, I do not think our roles have changed as much as Registrars’. The old school secretary used to answer the telephone, greet visitors, type a few letters for the principal, count the bus money every now and again, do a bit of duplicating and make sure copies of the newsletter went to each class for distribution. 
Their role is vastly different now. They need computer skills for a whole range of school based activities as well data processing skills for jobs that were once conducted in head office relating to leave of absence, long service leave, relief teaching and so on.
They now also manage the finacial bookwork, keep the school’s accounts in order and do the banking for what have become quite substantial financial enterprises.
I remember that soon after I first became  Primary Principal  at Donnybrook District High School in 1975, I went to an In-Service Course in Bunbury.There I met Geoff Baker, an outstanding educator, who said to me, ‘Noel, if ever  you arrive at your school and find that the secretary is not coming in because of sickness, or some other reason, then get in your car and drive home straight away. Otherwise, you will have people coming up all day asking where things are or how things work and when things happen....and you won’t know...and you’re the principal!'
But it is true; the principals’ role has changed. Last week I was at a Perth District Principals’ Conference. We were in groups and we were asked to list the barriers that stop principals from achieving their goals and what solutions there may be to overcome these barriers.Someone said one of the problems could be that a principal may have reached his or her level of incompetence. I don’t know why she stared straight at me as she said this.
Reaching your level of incompetence is called the Peter Principle, after Professor Peter who said that in structured organisations people gain promotion until eventually some are promoted to a level where they are incompetent.
I thought, well, maybe so, but Edward De Bono, the great lateral thinker, says that the good leader should do nothing. All of the work in the organisation should be delegated to others. Now I really like that one.
The other Peter Principle is that the higher up the structure you are, the less immediately your absence will be noticed.
For instance, a principal in a reasonably sized school could be away from the school for several days but the school will carry on and most staff or students will not be aware of the absence.
On the other hand if the cleaner is away, the doors are locked, the toilets are not open, the bins are full and everyone knows straight awaythat the cleaner is not at school.
So maybe our future role as principals will be to do nothing and stay away from school for longer and longer periods. It would become In Service training for retirement!
In my case, at Doubleview Primary School, I have taken De Bono at his word and tried very hard to get everybody else to do the work.
The other day, Jeff, the Curriculum Development Officer from the District Office telephoned and wanted to make an appointment to see me. (I can hear a lot of present day principals murmuring, “What is a Curriculum Officer?”  Some may even be wondering what a District Office is and whatit has to do with school operations?)
Anyhow, I told Jeff, “Come in whenever you like. I’ll be in the office. I’m the principal. I don’t do anything. Just call in”
He said, “Noel, you can’t be serious? You must do something. You must have to make some decisions.”
“You’re right, Jeff. Each day the biggest decision I have to make is to decide what I am going to eat for lunch and then I have to tell the lady in the canteen before 9-30 am. Talk about pressure.”
Afterwards I thought about this. What would De Bono do? Why should I have to make this daily decision? I mean, when I go to friend’s place for dinner they don’t come to the table with a pen and paper and ask me what I’d like to eat. They bring out the food and I eat it. Same thing at weddings. The waiter doesn’t ask me what I would like. The food arrives and I eat it.
Next morning I went to the canteen. I said to the Canteen Manager, “Sharon, from now on for my lunch I want to have either a ham and salad roll, a tuna and salad roll or a chicken and salad roll. I want it to be a wholemeal roll with no butter. I want to have all three types at least once a week but I do not want to eat the same type of roll two days in a row.”
Now my lunchtime is an adventure into the unknown. I sit down in the staff room and open my mystery lunch. The staff look on. All we know is that if I had chicken and salad yesterday I won’t be having chicken today. It might be tuna. It might be ham. But it won’t be my decision. Edward De bono would be very pleased.
And of course it has focussed staff attention much more fully on the changing ROLL of the principal.”


  1. Noel, an old mate (an ex-GTC bloke) is the boss at a smallish school outside Perth. He gets to spend a great deal of his time driving - driving to and from various towns for various meetings that are 'vital' for him to attend. He sits in the meeting, hears absolutely nothing new, relevant or important, if he;'s really lucky he gets fed something good for lunch (sausage rolls are a favourite)and then drives away again, whereupon he calls me on his hands-free phone (talk about flash - didn't have THEM in TS when I drove to Branch Union meetings!) to regale me with tales of his day and how it was a massive waste of his time and taxpayer funds. Funny how the apparatus responsible for providing education for our children think that is educationally valid to have the best, most qualified and experienced educator in the school absent from that place of learning for so many hours each week, thus removing the oppotunity for him to SHARE his abilities with people who could benefit from it the most!

    1. Peter, I make no comments about your friend's abilities or attitudes and I agree that principals are being held more and more accountable with less and less help from the DoE.
      However, regarding attending PD sessions, I can only relate my own experiences. During my career I was often charged with organising and even presenting many professional development sessions for teachers and principals at district and even state conferences. After each PD session, participants were asked to complete an evaluation form.Participants were asked to rank each session from You know the type of thing.
      A."This was the greatest PD I have eve attended. I cannot wait to get back to my class to try out the great ideas I learned here today" to
      E. "This was a huge waste of time.I would have been better staying in my classroom doing something useful with my students".
      On evaluating the responses, what I found out was that those who ticked the D or E unfavourable)boxes, generally, were teachers or principals who had been teaching for ten years or more.
      Those who ticked the A or B(favourable) boxes were graduate teachers and teachers/principals who had been teaching for ten years or more.
      I used to say to my student teachers, when I was working as a Practice Supervisor for ECU, was that when you graduate you will spend the first three years in a classroom learning how to be a teacher. You will develop survival skills and teaching techniques. After about three years will be a confident and competent teacher.
      What happens in the following years is up to you. You can plateau out and spend the next thirty years doing what you were doing as a third year out teacher. Or you can continue to develop and improve, because teaching is a lifelong journey.
      I think those who ticked the Waste of Time boxes were, in the main, plateaued out. They had reached a level of competence(maybe twenty years ago) and were not interested in learning anything that would cause them to change.
      Those who ticked the favourable boxes were graduate teachers still keen to learn survival skills and improved teaching techniques AND experienced teachers/princpals who were always seeking ways to improve their teaching performance.
      Of course there is PD and there is PD.It needs to be relevant and well presented. For me, some of the best PD I ever had was in meetings, interacting and talking about my job(and theirs) with fellow principals.
      Nobody should haver to attend dull meeting, but relevant PD and interactive discussions by colleagues talking about their jobs is always worthwhile. As is being at school, visiting classrooms and being interested in and talking about teacher with fellow teachers.


I would love to hear your opinion! If for some technical reason it won't let you leave a comment, please email me at bourke@iinet.net.au