A Principal’s Joy

I must begin this post by giving a brief statement of my philosophy of life and work.  I believe that our purpose in life is to be of service to others and I share the view that work is a form of worship.  Through honest work we help others.  Educating myself and others has always been the main purpose of my professional life, so it is not surprising that I became a teacher and eventually a principal.  Students must be at the centre of every educational initiative.  We have to make sure that they reach their full academic and human potential by providing them with top quality education.  We must seek continuous improvement in teaching and learning and identify the strengths of individual students.  This is the context in which I want to share some of the principal’s joy I experienced during my tenure and I am speaking from the perspective of a retired principal.

I really enjoyed working with young people.  One has to love young people in order to become a caring and effective teacher.  They are so vibrant, funny and full of untried ideas that it is a pleasure to interact with them on a daily basis and help them to navigate the challenges of school and life.  They keep teachers young and open-minded.  Sometimes it is difficult to keep a straight face while dealing with them.

It was a joy to watch the camaraderie among the students, how they helped each other and looked after the few who had physical disabilities.

I loved the fact that each day at the office was very different from any other day.  There was no boredom.  Anything can happen at any time in a school and several things often happen at the same time, which all call for the principal’s intervention.  I enjoyed those challenges.  They caused me to postpone the tasks on my daily to-do lists and made my days longer, but they dispelled monotony.

One of my great Joys as a principal was the ability one has to help students, teachers and parents in many ways.  There was deep satisfaction in helping them to solve problems and develop their own abilities, and in opening various doors of opportunity for them.

Instructional leadership and its outcomes contribute to a principal’s joy.  It was satisfying to chair meetings, visit classes, discuss new ideas and best practices and empower teachers through mentoring, delegation and training.  Working with students and teachers to advance learning and teaching contributed to the development of a real learning community.  Several learning and teaching problems were solved.

A lot of the joy for me, as principal, came from relationships with many students and teachers.  Getting to know them as individuals and discussing schoolwork, life and various issues with them.  Hearing their ideas and inspiring them to work harder and take responsibility for their own progress.  As a result of this many students improved their academic and extra-curricular performance and many teachers furthered their professional development.  Positive relationships with many parents were also beneficial.

Of Course, much of the joy came from seeing the school do well as a result of our efforts.  It was a pleasure to see students do well academically and in extra-curricular activities, winning scholarships of various types and trophies of all descriptions.  It was a joy to see them graduate from school as accomplished young ladies and gentlemen and move on to higher education or the world of work.  This meant that the staff had done well also.

Seeing at-risk students make positive attitudinal and behavioural changes through our character building and social and emotional learning modules was a distinct joy for me as well.

Leading a school involves facing many stern challenges on a daily basis but there are just as many, or more sources of joy for a principal who is willing to rise to these challenges and improve the effectiveness of his school nevertheless.  A principal’s joy, however, is always tempered with humility when successful past students tell him or her that they owe their success in their chosen profession and in life to inspiration from the principal when they were at school.

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School Safety for Parents

School safety is a vitally important issue.  For effective teaching and learning to take place administrators, staff and students must feel safe within the school environment.  This environment extends to school buses and school activities off the campus.

CNSNews.com cites a report published by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) , which states that 1,183,700 violent crimes were committed at American public schools during the 2009 – 2010 school year, but that only 303,900 of them were reported to the police.  The report is entitled “Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2011.”  It includes rape, sexual battery other than rape, physical attacks or fights with or without a weapon, threats of physical attacks, and robbery with or without a weapon among these violent crimes.

Overall, the report says  that 1,876,900 crimes of various types were committed at U.S. public schools during 2009 – 2010, but that only 689,100 of them were reported to the police.

Although the severity of the situation varies from school to school, schools are clearly not always oases of peace and safety.  Many parents and students are worried by this state of affairs.  What can parents do to ensure that their children do not become victims or perpetrators of violence at school?  How can they promote school safety?

  • Parents should teach their children anger management techniques, conflict resolution, compassion and the Golden Rule: “Treat others as you would like to be treated.”
  • Emphasize and model respect for others, kindness and tolerance.
  • Show your children that you fully support all school policies that foster safety and security.
  • Parents must talk regularly with their offspring about what is going on at school.  Question them about their fears and concerns.  Get them to disclose whatever they are uncomfortable or worried about.  Parents must then act on their findings.
  • Report unsettling or threatening events or situations to school authorities.
  • Parents and students should report cases of sexual misconduct and drug or alcohol possession or use by deviant students.  They should likewise report offending students for gambling, stealing, bullying or possession of offensive weapons.
  • Report students who are behaving strangely or threatening to harm themselves, staff or other students.
  • Get your children to report the presence of strangers on the school campus.
  • Ensure that your children avoid name-calling and unwelcome teasing as they often lead to fights.
  • Never ignore threats.  Always report them to school administrators.
  • Vet your children’s friends carefully.
  • If you have firearms at home make sure that they are locked away from your children.
  • Check your children’s rooms and school bags on a regular basis.

Parents should maintain cordial contact with teachers and school administrators.  Joining the PTA is also a good idea.  Having a positive relationship with teachers makes it easier for parents to discuss matters of school safety with them.  Children must be shown that they have a role to play in the maintenance of school safety.  Their role is to be vigilant and report any sign of trouble or deviant behaviour at school to teachers and parents.  The teacher-parent partnership will enhance school safety.

Grade Retention

Grade retention is the practice of making students who have failed repeat the year.  These students are commonly called repeaters.  This is the usual alternative to social promotion which was discussed in my last post.  The rationale for grade retention is the inability of failing students to cope with work at higher grade levels.  In schools in the USA more Black students than Whites are retained, in terms of percentage, and more boys are retained than girls.

There is much controversy surrounding grade retention and whether or not it improves learning in students who have failed to meet promotion criteria.  Although most people agree that promoting students who have failed, on the basis of age rather than academic achievement (social promotion), is not a good idea, they still consider grade retention to be an unsatisfactory though preferable solution.  Because of the many problems and higher financial costs associated with retention, many schools deliberately set promotion criteria at levels that allow the vast majority of students to be promoted.  In some countries grade retention is restricted and other alternatives are utilized.

Setting is one such alternative which is common in the U.K.  It involves grouping students of similar ability together for certain subjects.  A student can be in an advanced set for mathematics, for example and a lower set for geography.

Although retention is widely utilized, practitioners readily agree that it does not solve, on its own, the problem of student underachievement and that it is fraught with challenges.  Grade retention has negative psychological effects on students.  It creates poor attitudes towards school and behavioural problems.  It also causes low self-esteem and is correlated with higher levels of delinquency among repeaters.  Some repeaters do not improve their academic performance and are more likely to drop out of school than students who have been promoted.  They tend to assert themselves in disruptive ways.

Some studies show that there are no significant differences in subsequent attainment between students who have been retained and those who have been socially promoted.  In fact, individual studies can be cited which support either retention or social promotion.  The evidence is unclear.  Alexander et al., 1994 and Thompson, 1999 state that grade retention does not produce significant or lasting gains in student achievement.

For grade retention to be more effective, retained students must be given remedial help.  Just repeating the year is not enough.  Extra tutoring, summer courses or lessons after school can improve and sustain learning.  Repeaters’ weaknesses must be diagnosed and remedied.  Special interventions must be arranged for students with learning disabilities.

Parents and teachers must form a partnership to keep repeaters on task.  Parents need to supervise homework, monitor assignments and maintain contact with teachers.  Schools must make social and emotional learning a priority for these students and keep them focused on learning and good study habits.  In these conditions grade retention can make a positive difference.

Social Promotion

Social Promotion

Social Promotion (Photo credit: tomswift46 ( Hi Res Images for Sale))

Merriam-Webster Online defines social promotion as the practice of promoting a student from one grade level to the next on the basis of age, rather than academic achievement.  In other words, such students are not promoted by merit and they move up from grade to grade with their peers although they have not met the promotion criteria.  Those who support social promotion often claim that it enhances students’ social and psychological wellbeing, resulting in greater self-esteem.

The alternative to social promotion is generally grade retention.  This is the practice of requiring failing students to repeat the grade or year in which they failed to meet the academic promotion criteria.  These two practices are poles apart and each has its supporters and detractors.  There are also a few other alternatives which we will look at in another post along with retention.

I have serious problems with social promotion and I think it does a great disservice to underperforming students.  Unfortunately, it is a widespread problem in many countries.  The American Federation of Teachers (1997) asserted that a majority of teachers reported that they had promoted unprepared students in the past year.  Many states are trying to end social promotion because it does not work.  Research shows that promoting failing students does not increase their achievement levels.

Some school administrators say that they do not have either the resources or the facilities to retain all underperforming students, so they utilize social promotion.  However, they need to comply with the state’s promotion and retention regulations.  It is thought, in some quarters, that some schools use social promotion to lower their retention rates and hide their true failure rates.  Some principals argue that social promotion enables them to get failing students out of the school faster.

There is a consensus that at least 75% of administrators, teachers and parents believe that social promotion is harmful because students who are promoted in this way cannot handle work at the next level.

Students who have undergone social promotion usually fail to improve their study skills.  They do not understand the basics and they are usually lost at the higher grade or year levels.  They continue to fail and some may drop out of school through frustration.  Teachers have to try to find ways to teach those who are academically ready for the class along with the failing students, and this is not easy to do.  There is also a tendency for the struggling students to become disruptive or restless.

One of the worst features of social promotion is that it sends the wrong message to all students in the school.  It sends the message that you do not have to work hard to be promoted.  This message will destroy the culture, climate and work ethic in any school within a short time.

It is my considered opinion after 39 years as an educator, that social promotion does far more harm than good in schools.  Each school must have clear performance criteria which determine promotion or retention of students and these criteria must be communicated to staff, students and parents.  Promotion policy should state in detail what students must achieve in order to be promoted and must be enforced.  Social promotion is a luxury we cannot afford if we are to fully develop our students.

Learning Versus Teaching

Learning and teaching are the foundation of education and training.  Most of us tend to place teaching first in the paradigm and say teaching and learning.  It is as though there is a tacit belief that teaching is the more important of the two activities.  Both learning and teaching are extremely important and generally go together but it can be easily argued that learning is more important than teaching.  In fact, learning often occurs  without teachers in situations where students learn by experience or by their own efforts.  Here is a list of generally accepted reasons why learning is more important than teaching.

  • Teaching is not a goal in itself.  One does not teach for the sake of teaching a great lesson.  The purpose of teaching is to bring about learning and one can go as far as to say that teaching that does not increase learning or monitor learning is a waste of time.
  • Teachers do not control the entire learning process.  There are many other factors which determine whether students learn various subjects or not, such as future career goals, parental or peer influence, and how they feel about the teachers.
  • Students have to want to learn.  They must be motivated one way or another.  Teachers cannot teach those who are unwilling to learn.  Remember the old adage “you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink.”
  • Teaching methodologies must be varied by teachers to accommodate the different individual learning styles of students.  There is no one-size-fits-all teaching method.  Student type dictates teaching method.
  • Teaching performance is generally measured by gains in student learning.  Not by the teaching itself.
  • The ultimate goal of teaching is to enable learners to teach themselves, in order to become life-long learners.
  • The best teachers remain perpetual learners.  They update their knowledge and teaching skills on a continuing basis.

It follows from the reasons above, that learning and students are the most important elements in any school.  Teaching should therefore be student and learning centred.  Teachers and school administrators exist because of students or learners.  This is the perspective and priority that schools need to project.  In some schools one can almost get the impression that learning and learners are of secondary importance in comparison with teachers and administrators.  This is not the right focus.  Decisions should be made on the basis of what is best for the learners.

Despite my contention that learning is more important than teaching, the two activities are closely connected and effective teaching is a vital component of education.  This post, Learning Versus Teaching is intended as a closer look at the relationship between the two.

Parents and School Performance

Parents and teachers gather for a meeting at t...

Parents and teachers gather for a meeting at the new school gymnasium (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This post is basically an extract from a newspaper article I wrote, which was published on 16/1/13.

Research from many sources and empirical evidence have repeatedly shown that students learn best when parents are involved in their education.  Their social behaviour at school is also better and they are less likely to engage in high -risk activities.  These findings do not depend on the socio-economic status of the students, as they hold true across all social classes.

Students’ academic achievement is generally higher when parents value education and have high expectations for their children.  Such parents give their children rewards and incentives for good schoolwork and conduct, and they support school rules and policy.  They monitor or help with homework and if necessary, seek assistance for their children through private lessons.  They maintain cordial contact with their children’s teachers, become members of the PTA and take part in various school activities.  Students coming from this kind of environment show respect for teachers and are usually successful in their studies.  It is clear then, that parents can influence the performance of schools to some extent, either positively or negatively.

There is a growing minority of parents, however, who reject the authority of the school and who constitute a serious challenge to the smooth functioning and performance of our schools.  These parents do not support the values, rules and policies of the school.  They display a lack of cooperation, disrespect and hostility towards principals and teachers  and they defend or support their children’s refusal to adhere to school rules and values.  Their constant claim is that the principal and teachers are always “picking on” their children.  One of my standard responses to that claim is that I have never seen a principal or teacher “pick on” a student who was attentive, diligent, polite, well-behaved and compliant with the school rules.

These parents tacitly encourage their children to defy the rules and often fail to monitor schoolwork and homework.  There is serious conflict between their home values and school values.  Sadly, students from these homes never learn to accept responsibility for their own actions or for their own academic progress.  They often end up as underachievers or failures, and make it more difficult for the school to attain its performance goals.  The biggest problem, when dealing with delinquent students of this type, is to get them to understand that they did something wrong.  They see nothing wrong with their behaviour and tend to resent corrective action.

Discipline and school performance depend, to a significant extent, on trust and cooperation among school personnel, students and parents.  Schools function better when parents and teachers respect each other and work towards common academic, extra-curricular and developmental goals for their charges.  In such an environment, PTA meetings, year level meetings and conferences with parents become truly meaningful, and positive change in student conduct, attitudes and performance can be effected.  When teachers and parents work in tandem students can no longer neglect assignments or misbehave, and the principal’s job becomes easier.

It is not hard to see why some of our most successful schools are those which enjoy a high level of parental support, respect and participation.  The opposite is also true.  In short, parents influence school performance.