This Spring, the Relational Schools Project will working with educational thinkers and practitioners in Singapore. In advance of our visit, we have been engaging with former teachers and civil servants to learn about, first hand, the education system and the ways in which Relational Thinking might enhance Singapore’s world renowned secondary provision. Today, a visiting Singaporean teacher writes for our blog…

A Teacher’s Perspective

I once had the pleasure of hearing a then-retiring Principal speak. This occasion is at least a decade ago. Frankly, I could not recall the visage of this lady or the content, simply that she was given the platform to speak because she was recognised as an outstanding contributor to the rich history of her school.

It was the awe of those ten minutes which is unforgettable. From the first word of her carefully enunciated greeting, the ex-principal had my ears. Like a child who had been sharply called to attention, my back had straightened, my eyes were wide. I knew even without being explicitly commanded that I was sitting before an authority.

Later, I discovered that I was not the only one so affected. A friend also in the audience had the same visceral response. This ex-principal had worn her profession like a cloak.

During the length of my career within my country’s teaching system, I had worked with four principals. The first is disliked by his staff for his slave-driver mentality. One is loved and respected for her clarity of vision for education, even-handedness and reliability. The third is feared for her belligerence in executing her personal objectives when managing the school. The last one is distrusted for his favourtism of one teacher over another for purposes secret to his person.

How do you identify a leader?

Someone once told me you can identify a leader easily by whether there is anyone following behind. Assessing the effectiveness and influence of a Principal using a formal checklist or review is only as effective as the reality of what it is like serving under his or her wing. It is the subordinates of the Principals – teachers who need the compass from this director keeping an eagle’s eye on the vision and mission of school and education – who knows if that person is worth his or her salt.

It is not charisma that makes the definitive character of a leader in the Principal, even if it is attractive. The glamour of big speeches and promises falls apart quickly under the tears and grit of the struggle to shape the hearts and minds of the young generation.

Teaching is hard and dirty work (which is what makes success stories so profound). It is a deliberate intervention into the imagination and knowledge of the students and has no space for self-indulgence and politicking – not if one wants to uphold the integrity of the teaching ideal. The Principal whom teachers will give their allegiance to are those who sit with them to work out classroom solutions in a manner true to the teaching mantle and keep to their word of having the teachers’ backs all the way.

Singapore Classroom

Oddly, when a Principal has earned his or her strips, somehow, the charisma develops. An enigmatic confidence in speech comes about because this Principal, having fought in the frontlines with his or her teachers, knows what he or she is talking about. The strength of their relationship is tangible and visible.

Today, my society might be entering a discussion about the potential of a school Principal as a leader in the community. Personally, I feel that this expansion or re-imagining of the Principal role must first be negotiated in the mechanics of daily interaction and connection between teachers and the one they answer to. After all, a leader cannot lead without the followers behind. And tag-alongs might become more hindrance than help when one aspires big to create a school without fences.

It is an admirable goal to think of crafting a relationship with stakeholders from the wider world. However, the sound foundation to this initiative might lie in the bond with the teachers under the Principal’s watch; the people within his or her immediate vicinity.

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