Secret Teacher: ‘Staff slovenliness is nurtured by principals afraid to show who’s boss’

The secrets of effective school leadership for dummies

In our school Felix, the principal’s cat, knows everything. File photograph Nick Bradshaw

In our school Felix, the principal’s cat, knows everything. File photograph Nick Bradshaw


Our principal’s cat is called Felix, and he spends his days curled in a basket under the desk in the principal’s office. We call him MI5 as he is privy to all the insider info.

If he could talk he would confirm things we already know: it isn’t mere coincidence that a certain Irish teacher always has a cushy number timetable-wise, and that the principal’s other pet is his lunch buddy who always has the latest news before it is announced to staff.

Incidentally, we already know the latter because the lunch buddy always ensures it “slips” out, presumably so that we know how “well in” he is with the boss. This is of course helpful, as we in turn know not to trust him with anything that we don’t want reported in the other direction.

Another thing that we all know is that our principal is the boss in name only; it’s his secretary in the outer office who really calls the shots. She doesn’t have to deal with any of the fallout when he takes the leap and announces some big, new and unpopular change to how things are done.

Similarly, the lunch buddy can use his one-on-one access to encourage the principal to take a firmer stance on things. Job done. He can then sit back and watch the drama unfold with all the flak for his idea firmly directed at the poor principal.

This “stunt double principal” is extremely common in Irish schools, where newly-appointed principals have to function simultaneously as the boss and the newest member of staff. In order to shine, such a principal needs both a reliable deputy and the school secretary on side, both presenting only factual information and telling a consistent story.

Whether they have a cat or not, principals would do well to remember they are being closely watched and monitored. The stakeholders in any school community look to the principal to set the tone, and nothing a principal says and does (or doesn’t say and doesn’t do) ever goes unnoticed.

Equally, those who truly influence a principal’s modus operandi never do so unobserved; people generally wear their agendas on their sleeve, and a vulnerable and easily-led principal is about as inconspicuous as Conor McGregor in a tutu.

Principals carry out their duties on-site and so their actions must speak louder than their words. It is surely entirely reasonable to expect them to practise what they preach and, put in the simplest terms, to lead by example.

There are a number of critical dos and don’ts of effective school leadership:

Beware of the sorest loser: Never forget there are other people who wanted your job, some of whom didn’t even apply for it. They are the most watchful of all. Those endowed with professionalism will judge fairly, but there will surely be at least one sore loser who will undermine you at every opportunity. Worse still you might see this person as an ally, one who is helpfully up close and using their years of experience in the school to “guide” you; in fact, they are grooming you to their own advantage.

Show them who is boss: Each teacher is different, and while you may have real diversity on staff it is your job to establish a local standard and require it of everyone. No department circular or union directive ties your hands in relation to ensuring that teachers show up to class on time and deliver a lesson. Teacher slovenliness in this country is nurtured by principals who are fearful of showing the staff who is in charge.

When did you last stand at the entrance of your school at the start of the school day so that the teachers who straggle in late know you have seen them? The same subtle presence at the end of the day, and randomly over the course of a month, and you can rest assured only the most brazen staff members will continue to run the risk of encountering you there.

Not making your presence felt is simply lowering the bar in terms of what you expect from your staff and it won’t take long for some of them to use it to their advantage.

All personnel are equal – no exceptions: This is the most important one of all. You may, of course, be privy to the intimate details of a sensitive situation in someone’s personal life but you must draw the line at extending special privileges at work.

There are formal procedures in place to ensure that help and support is available when a staff member’s circumstances are particularly challenging, and they are there for a reason. Entertaining the wrong requests for special favours (timetabling of classes, class allocations, teacher allocations) only guarantees that the floodgates will open once you have set the wrong precedent, and you will then be caught between the equally heinous options of backing down or ploughing on with the widely resented favouritism.

Either way, your credibility will be entirely and irrevocably compromised. At any given time there are almost certainly other members of staff who are just as keen to have changes made in their favour but who have the integrity and professionalism not to bring the request to your door. The only way to reward them and preserve your own reputation is to send the chancers packing. Every. Single. Time.

Any principals reading this and feeling irked may well think I should walk a mile in their shoes before judging them so harshly.

The vast majority of serving principals are in the job because they applied for it. I have consciously never applied. I have no interest in leaving the classroom for a management posting. There is therefore no need for me to ever walk in those shoes.

They are your shoes and only you can make the adjustments if they aren’t a good fit.