Behind every great teacher is a transformative school principal

Behind every great teacher is a transformative school principal
Zah’Rah Khan heads up the editorial team at Symphonia for South Africa

The quality and effectiveness of teaching in our schools is the most important determinant of the quality of education our children receive. But are we lending all the support we can to our teachers?

The myriad of challenges teachers face has increased or intensified since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Teachers’ capacity to maintain education quality due to school closures, the transition to remote teaching and the challenges of returning to school have all been markedly impaired by this global health crisis.

The 2020 World Teacher’s Day Fact sheet most recently underscored the plight of teachers. Compiled by the UNESCO Institute of Statistics and the International Task Force on Teachers for Education 2030, the fact sheet, in particular, highlighted the gravity of the situation in sub-Saharan Africa.

Among the findings it was revealed that teacher shortages are most acute in sub-Saharan Africa, where 70% of countries face shortages at primary level and 90% of countries at secondary level. Indicating an overstretched workforce, the data tells us that there is one trained primary teacher per 58 learners in sub-Saharan Africa, and overall learner to trained teacher ratios is at 43:1. In South Africa, the education budget was slashed by R6bn this financial year and could suffer another R9bn cut in 2022. To mitigate the effects of this, the Department of Basic Education has made the tough decision to no longer appoint substitute teachers to fill in for those who have been promoted to principal or deputy principal. This means that a teacher promoted to a position of deputy principal could still be expected to continue teaching, as the department cannot afford to hire substitute teachers to take over their subjects.

Much criticism has been levelled against the decision, with many claiming that classrooms would stay without teachers, and the likely knock-on effect was that there would be an increased burden on the existing teachers, larger classes and less compliance with COVID protocols.

All this is gravely concerning for the stability and progress of the teaching profession, and indeed for our children, the beneficiaries. In the time we attempt to address these challenges through the provision of adequate resources, human capital and expertise, we must consider what else we can do to ensure teachers are able to fulfill their roles to the best of their abilities.

School leadership: a vital cog in the teaching machine?

There is consensus among education experts that teacher quality is the most important in-school factor relating to learner achievement. Quantifying this impact, an analysis by American nonprofit global policy think tank, RAND Corporation, found that 33% of a school’s impact on learner achievement ‘’… is attributable to teacher effectiveness’’.

But herein lies the rub.

Although it is accepted that a single teacher has a profound impact on learning over the course of the academic year, those gains tend to diminish unless the learner’s subsequent teachers are equally effective.

So while school principals seemingly play second fiddle to teachers (they account for 25% of impact on learner achievement according to the same RAND Corporation analysis), the crux of the matter is how to ensure valuable learning gains for our children throughout their schooling careers.

And this is where principals take centre stage. The literature on school improvement supports that confident, capacitated principals are key to creating school environments that lay the foundation for effective teaching in every single classroom year after year. Successful principals are able to inculcate a culture of learning at the school, manage the school’s use of time effectively and demonstrate personal leadership that builds a sustainable school environment geared towards teaching and learning.

Another factor in raising learner achievement is teachers’ motivation, which academics argue is closely linked to the leadership style of the school principal. In research conducted as far back as 1978 and again in 1994, transformational school principals were described as leaders who ‘’…integrate creative insight, persistence and energy with intuition and sensitivity, while inspiring them [teachers] to surpass their self-interests’’. Studies published in the 90s, early 2000s, and most recently in 2020, have found that transformational school principals ‘’… impact teachers’ work performance, job satisfaction, school commitment and student achievement’’, as well as ‘’foster professional growth and intrinsic motivation’’.

Locally, Partners for Possibility, the flagship programme of NPO Symphonia for South Africa, is leading the way in improved school leadership towards teacher effectiveness.  This research-based, award-winning leadership programme pairs principals with business leaders in a collaborative and practical leadership journey. Through these partnerships, principals gain the skills needed to confidently engage and lead relevant stakeholders in order to address the challenges in their respective schools.

The feedback from Principal Colleen Rustin of St Anthony’s RC Primary in Heathfield, Cape Town, illuminates just how the benefits of empowering the head of a school trickles down to its teachers.

‘’I’ve grown in confidence as a person and leader. My staff are more open to discussions and feel that they are heard when they voice their opinions. There’s a sense of ownership at school, with teachers volunteering their time and services. Our children are benefitting because our teachers are more involved. Teachers are now openly engaging with me. I am at ease, and they are too. We share the responsibility of driving initiatives at the school. We are working on improving our curriculum to serve our children’s needs,’’ Rustin said.

As we celebrate World Teacher’s Day, the words of Senior Economist and Teachers Thematic Group Lead for the World Bank, Tara Béteille, hold great meaning. ‘’In all these tasks [to improve teaching], strong school leadership will be key. The post-COVID-19 phase will offer many opportunities to ‘Build Back Better’, that is to strengthen quality and equity in school systems’’.

There may be no better validation that school leaders drive the quality of the education our teachers provide our children.

Our teachers strive to impart knowledge with compassion, enthusiasm, courage and conviction. Governments, business, civil society and active citizens would be well-served to back our teachers by backing our school principals too.

About the author:

Zah’Rah Khan heads up the editorial team at Symphonia for South Africa. Her focus areas are education, social justice, law and research.

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