Great power, greater responsibility
It is always nice to be felicitated on a day that is meant for you alone. Teachers’ Day, alas, has come and gone in India. Fortunately, I haven’t missed the opportunity to pay my annual tribute to teachers. World Teachers’ Day is observed on October 5 each year to commemorate the Unesco/ILO Recommendation (Paris, 1994) concerning the Status of Teachers. This was considered very important for the quality of education.
Having found the right occasion to write about the most fascinating of professions, I hasten to state that this article is not about the de facto status of teachers in our country, or about their rights and responsibilities. It is just that as an ardent and unabashed admirer of the teaching fraternity, I wish to give a loud shout-out to all teachers, working or retired, and remember those who are no more. Heads of schools — please don’t be offended, but you are not included in this celebration. This is because although you proclaim that you are teachers first and administrators afterwards, something strange happens to you the moment you are placed in that hallowed chair. Your status shoots up instantly and your persona is suddenly and radically transformed. Sadly, as you don the mandatory gravitas of the Head of your school, you cease to be the beloved teacher that you once were.
Indeed, the Head has tremendous power over her school but her plight is most unenviable. In present times, she is likely to have multiple bosses — the CEO or secretary, the director, governing body members and officials of the Board to which her school is affiliated. Lastly, let us not forget the parents to whom she is answerable on a daily basis. In order to run a tight ship, the school Head must see that both teachers and students are functioning properly. To be on top of the charts, the Head has to see that her students are fetching laurels for the school regularly in the form of outstanding examination results as well as awards and trophies from various inter-school contests. Not only must her school be favourably and frequently featured in the media, but the Head’s comments on educational matters must be published from time to time. Moreover, she must be seen participating in important webinars and panel discussions on education policy. Her school must keep abreast of the latest technology and be ever-ready to accommodate the incessant changes that the Board keeps inflicting on all schools in terms of curricula, examination formats and even schedules.
This is not all; the Head of a school has a long list of unpleasant routine functions to perform. The paperwork is not only tedious but is of almost Sisyphean proportions. Meanwhile, documents have to be carefully stored and all data properly checked. However, the worst aspect of the Head’s work, I feel, is dealing with people who have an ingrained sense of entitlement. They are influential beings who, either bluntly or in a sophisticated way, attempt to bully school authorities into doing all kinds of unjust things. Hapless principals lament about the manner in which they are made to change marks of certain students or grant admission to undeserving candidates. The worst scenario is when ignorant, but powerful, people tell the Head how to run the school. It is the rare Head who is solidly backed by the school management and is thus able to keep her principles unbent and her ethics intact.
Then there is the delicate matter of ‘difficult’ parents. A Head’s task is hugely facilitated when parents support the school in the right way and stand by it in difficult times. In fact, a school can run smoothly only if parents are true partners. But in almost every school, a handful of parents seem to make it their business to find fault with everything that the school does and everything that the teachers do or say. Such obstructionist parents end up wasting the principal’s time and energy and deterring the school’s progress.
Considering these tricky and unattractive aspects of a principal’s work, one is sure to wonder why people aspire to this thankless position. Moreover, in spite of the mind-boggling work that the Head does to keep her school running smoothly, it is usually the teachers who are lavished with love and affection by students, past and present. Principals receive the veneration and respectful acknowledgement that an exalted position demands. No wonder Mr Chips (immortalized by James Hilton’s novel Goodbye, Mr. Chips) refused the headmaster’s position.
Yet, it is widely accepted that it is the Head who makes or breaks a school. There are famous real-life and fictional headmasters who have been great influencers. Rugby School was single-handedly transformed by Thomas Arnold, who made it a model for all English public schools of the period. Even now, elderly gentlemen talk about their headmasters in worshipful terms. The term, headmistress, however, conjures a forbidding female figure, whose footsteps along the school corridors strike terror in the hearts of all pupils within hearing distance. Roald Dahl’s popular book, Matilda, features the dreadful headmistress, Miss Trunchbull — a compulsive bully with an appearance to match. A real-life tribute that was paid to a much-admired headmistress is strangely familiar to people of my vintage: “Occasionally terrifying, sometimes surprisingly kind, always gracious, she taught me much that I didn’t understand but needed to know until long after I left (school).” This headmistress is certainly a far cry from today’s bright and cheery principal who gets her work done with doses of ‘darling’ and ‘beta’, reminding us of Charlie Brown’s warning, “Never trust a smiling teacher!”
Oddly, but happily, this piece has turned out to be a shout-out to our much-misunderstood Heads. I realize that school principals deserve to be especially saluted for running the schools of our land so bravely, and against all odds. Significantly, World Principals’ Day is observed on May 1, which is also International Workers’ Day.
Devi Kar is director, Modern High School for Girls, Calcutta