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No head-bashing, please: The heart of a good school is all in the head


Michael Workman is a retired educator who was most recently principal of St John’s Preparatory School and before that, principal of Carmel Primary. He has an M.Ed (Curriculum Theory, Planning, Development and Contemporary Issues in Curriculum Evaluation) from the former University of Natal.

The most toxic factor for any school or company is despondency. If you have unhappy teachers, then you will have an unhappy school. A head of a school should be able to read the political landscape. They should be able to discern any underlying tension and distress.

Having served as a head in two schools, for close on 26 years, I have had the privilege of getting to know many teachers – some that taught alongside me and many others as colleagues – from an array of schools. They are wonderful people, who all share a common goal: to serve children in the best possible way.

The perception that teachers end up teaching because they can’t do anything else is just not true. In fact, many teachers who have left teaching are great assets in many different work environments because of their interpersonal skills. I would like to see some of the critics of teachers teaching a Grade 1 class, or more pointedly, preschoolers, for even a day, let alone five days a week.

Being a teacher requires dedication, diligence and the ability to understand and identify with children. What South Africa needs before any form of equality can be achieved, are top class teachers who are in schools because they know they can make a crucial difference to a child’s learning experience – passionate people who have only one thing on their mind: each child’s wellbeing.

I firmly believe it is the head’s attitude and relationship that he or she shares with each and every staff member that ultimately turns a good school into a great school. True heads will show their real worth in difficult circumstances. Great schools have heads who support their staff. They give them every opportunity to study, go on educational courses and further their careers. They relate to their staff the way their teachers relate to the children in their classes, taking a personal and genuine interest in their different circumstances. They value each person as an individual and show appreciation for all that they do.

Such heads designate responsibility rather than delegate. The difference between these two is that the latter relies on responsibility; the former on responsibility, accountability and, above all, total trust.  

The most toxic factor for any school or company is despondency. If you have unhappy teachers, then you will have an unhappy school. A head of a school should be able to read the political landscape. In other words, they should be able to discern any underlying tension and distress.

There is little doubt that Covid-19 has added to the pressure points of schooling. Vaccinations, relentless waves of high infection and children missing out on nearly two years of schooling (never mind the added trepidation caused by the recent insurrection) have added to stress levels at home and at school.

It is the head’s responsibility to lift up the morale of staff, especially now. Teachers must be encouraged and supported. They need to be acknowledged for the work they do, the danger they are in and the anxiety that they feel. The head of a school needs to be principled, fair and empathetic.

Above all, they should have an integrity that is beyond question. Teachers need positive feedback and it’s up to the head to give it and keep the team enthusiastic and ready for when “normal” resumes.

A great head nurtures character, inspires dreams, encourages creativity, builds confidence, instils a love for learning, touches hearts and changes lives forever. DM


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  • As a retired Head I agree with all the aspects. Those who are disparaging about teachers should try a stint at dealing with the challenges of a class of children and then have the energy to respond to the parents as well!! If you can read this….Thank a teacher!

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