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When principals pitch

Matthew D. Farley

When principals pitch

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You are the head! You are up there! They are the students and they are down here. – Retired Justice Frederick Waterman
In spite of all the issues that surfaced at the now historic Alexandra School Commission Of Inquiry, the one that seems to have evoked immediate response from many spheres was a comment by Commissioner Frederick Waterman.
First, let me say that once the report is submitted, managers, practitioners and stakeholders in all educational institutions and at every level would be well advised to take the time to examine the implications of this inquiry for managing, teaching and learning.
While we have had other commissions of inquiry before, this one that focused on the affairs of and developments in a public educational institution peaked the interest of many members of the public. Obviously, it engaged my attention and I followed with keen interest the utterances and views, not evidence, of all those who appeared and shared their feelings.
I await the report and recommendations before I comment on the more substantive issues like leadership styles, the vision and role of the principal, the correlation, if any, between the role of the principal and school academic performance, systems and procedures for communicating within and without the institution, school culture and traditions and their impact on change and renewal within a school, the role of the principal versus the role of the chairman of the board of management, the role of the board versus that of the principal, documentation and record keeping, among other things.
While Commissioner Waterman did not himself take to the witness stand, people attached great significance to anything he said. This was especially so when he chided, if not chastised, Mr Jeff Broomes for admitting before the commission that he has pitched marbles with the first and second form boys.
In fact, he was reported to have said to the embattled principal: “I don’t believe in that. I don’t see a reason for that.
” It was his view as expressed to my colleague that “if something like this continues there is a possibility they [the students] could lose respect for you”.
But the most profound aspect of the commissioner’s admonition was when he said: “You are the head. You are up there!  They are the students and they are down here.” In fact, I am planning to organize a professional development workshop for principals under the theme Pitching And The Principalship: Postures For Progress. I am hoping to have both Mr Waterman and Mr Broomes as facilitators.
Status marker
Over the years, the image of “pitching marbles” with someone has been used as a status marker. The term “I don’t pitch marbles with you” is intended to mean that we are not in the same social bracket. It is almost a rebuff.
That kind of distancing is part of the prudence associated with the judiciary in that judges and magistrates should keep their distance from the accused in the dock. So within the context of jurisprudence, the judges should be and remain “up there”. In this way, the process of justice is not compromised and there is less likelihood that any finger will be pointed at the judge or magistrate.
Now if I could be so presumptuous as to advise the learned retired judge, according to my area of competence, I would say to him: “Muh Lord, while the relationship between you and those persons to whom you mete out justice must of necessity be distant, it is not the same within the context of education.
“Indeed, muh Lord, in 2012, the principal who remains distant and aloof from his charges, whose character and personality he is hoping to shape, assumes that posture to his own peril. While a line of demarcation must be drawn, (and we do draw lines in pitching to indicate the ‘ling’), as principals we are more effective if and when we can make that personal contact with our students.
“We don’t all have to pitch marbles. It may be hopscotch in the corridors, cheerleading at a game or dominoes after school, whatever. Those of us who lack that personal touch have lost both the battle as well as the war.”
Research by Sebring & Byrk (2000) and Barlow (2001) would imply that assuming the “pitching” posture as a leader is about demonstrating personal integrity, showing care and building trust and indicating accessibility.
Against the backdrop of Mr Waterman’s instructive comment, my advice, put simply to my colleagues as we prepare to begin a new school year, is that principals who can’t find any time “to stoop” will remain invisible.
“Pitching” and “stooping” are luxuries that principals should pursue but from which justices should steer clear.
A successful and rewarding year to all involved in the education sector.
• Matthew D. Farley is a secondary school principal, chairman of the National Forum on Education, and social commentator. Email [email protected]