As a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, 37-year-old principal, I was not aware of how significant community leadership would be.
Managing relationships and stakeholder influence would weigh heavily on me as the principal. It would wear on my energy and resources to engage positively and productively with all the groups in each of my schools.
Just like a community leader in a small town or village, you are associated with the life of your community: on weekends, attending school events and functions, and making social connections. Parents viewed me as a natural authority – they would seek my advice on topics such as raising their children, managing screen time, and reconnecting teenagers to family life.
Principals have considerable influence over the families in their schools. As a principal, you can be asked to be a mediator in family disputes. In one school, a seventeen-year-old lad left his family home to live with a friend’s family. I was brought into that dispute to try and get the lad to return to his home. Eventually, he did. I know of principals who oversee funeral ceremonies of members of their community who have died.
As principal, I knew it was my job to keep the community focused, informed and valued. I couldn’t afford to impair or fracture relationships with any stakeholder. It required significant skill, judgement, and expertise to manage this, abilities I learned on the job.
Being a community leader requires you to value all members of your community, and to be able to connect with all its segments – and many external groups. In all these relationships, a principal must be able to engender confidence in themselves and their school.
Relationships with parents – caring for their collective wellbeing and helping them develop an affinity with the school – were terribly important to me in my work as a principal. I know my colleagues saw the role no differently.
Managing each child’s relationships was challenging. It is the principal’s role to manage the welfare of all students in their school. On reflection, I recognise that children today have far more complex relationships within and outside of school than they did in the early part of my career in the early 2000s.
Schools have always been focused on the needs of the child – their learning, emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual needs. The role of the principal has extended to caring for the child’s family – their parents, grandparents, extended family or carers. Principals may be called on to enter into family disputes, family court matters and handover arrangements; we may need to meet access and residency requirements, and will undoubtedly encounter other complex situations.
I had to physically intervene when an estranged parent tried to forcibly remove a child from our school against the child’s wishes. I have had teenagers come to my office as a refuge when a parent contacted them by text message saying they would be coming to the school to collect them, against their will. I had to find emergency housing for an eighteen-year-old whom their intoxicated father assaulted.
The role has many demands, but I know that principalship in our schools is underscored by human leadership. We support and care for the people in our community, build relationships and engage closely with all while leading with a compassionate heart.