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FORUM ON EDUCATION: An effective principal

Anthony Griffith

FORUM ON EDUCATION: An effective principal

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Previously, I referred to what may be considered four of the critical ingredients of effective schooling:
(1) adequate teaching and learning resources – including reading materials and information technology access;
(2) a school climate that stresses opportunities for enhancing learning;
(3) quality instruction through trained and committed teachers; and
(4) effective leadership from the principal.
The latter is very critical to the other three ingredients. School leadership does, in fact, have significant effects on student learning, second only to the quality of instruction.
Good, strong leaders, according to Ken Leithwood (University of Toronto, 2003): (i) help to establish the conditions that enable others to be effective and successful; (ii) help their schools to develop an institutional vision that embodies the best thinking about teaching and learning; (iii) do not impose goals, but rather work with others to create a shared sense of purpose and direction. School leadership is, therefore, more of a function (actions undertaken) than just a role (position occupied).
This type of leadership goes beyond the more commonly mentioned role of “instructional leader” and embraces the concept of the “transformational leader” (Phil Hallinger, 2003).  
Transformational school leadership seeks to (a) enhance the capacity of both teachers and students to excel; (b) “create the future” of the institution by synthesizing and extending the aspirations of its members; and (c) create the conditions under which the members “become more committed and self-motivated to work towards improvement of the school”.
Transformational leadership is about generating and welcoming changes; it is about breaking new ground; it is about group goals and shared leadership; it is more bottom-up rather than top-down; it is about working with (not against) teachers, parents, students and other stakeholders to qualitatively enrich the teaching/learning environment of the institution.
It is clearly the primary responsibility of the principal to provide the opportunities for student learning and to ensure that these conditions are present, provided and prevalent. Research also suggests that students learn best when they are actively and consistently “on task” and with plenty of “academic engaged time”.
At some schools, however, much of this learning and teaching time is compromised through (i) inordinately long morning assemblies, (ii) suspension of regular teaching to facilitate other activities, (iii) overuse of student suspensions. All of these activities are principal-initiated.
With respect to Independence and Black History activities, some schools/principals take as much as one week out of regular class time for each of these activities; while some other principals integrate such activities into lunch breaks and after-school time, or they creatively utilize short-period days in order to minimize the loss of learning time. 
Unfortunately, it is mainly some of the so-called newer secondary schools that appear to suffer the greatest loss of such teaching time – when these students are those that, in reality, can least afford such loss. 
Good principals are also expected to create a strong sense of affiliation and caring; but this is difficult if the principal is hardly seen circulating on the school compound. Principals need to be visible, to establish a presence, to interact informally with students since this serves as an incentive to good student behaviour, orderliness and class attendance.
There is evidence, however, of some school principals who virtually stay confined to their office. This lack of a presence does not represent transformational leadership since it greatly diminishes the principal’s contribution to a positive school atmosphere and to improved student behaviour and performance.
While there are several examples of outstanding principals and strong leaders in our school system; there are also many principals who are not adequately equipped for the task, who are not in the frame of either role models or transformational leaders and who are rather short on people skills.
It may be opportune, therefore, for the stakeholders in education to revisit the selection process with a view to deliberately selecting a greater number of principals who clearly display the characteristics of transformational leadership. 
An interview protocol should be developed to focus on such areas as their educational philosophy and ideas, their vision for the school and students, their views on teacher professional development, their perceptions of the greatest needs of the students, their medium- and long-term proposals for the school, and the expected outcomes. 
The principals should then be appointed on contract for a maximum of five years, with renewal being dependent on, among other things, the quality of leadership shown, achievement of goals, accomplishments, their own professional development, and their rating, anonymously, by staff.
The education and future of our children are far too important and precious for our schools to be run as factory models or as civil service departments. They must be allowed to function as professional organizations headed by quality leaders.
• Anthony Griffith is a former senior lecturer in education at UWI, Cave Hill.  

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