Now isn’t that a kerfuffle in Nova Scotia? Avis Glaze, superstar school board director from Ontario put the Nova Scotia school system under the microscope and decided that there needed to be some major changes.
No more school boards, for a start, and the setting up a college of teachers much like Ontario has. Now I don’t want to dwell on those two bombshells, but what do either of those two massive changes have to do with student learning? Both seem like pretty big sticks . . . one to whip teachers with and one to beat school boards out of existence. But I digress.
The change that I am most interested in is the removal of principals from their teachers’ union. I was a classroom teacher when that change was imposed here in Ontario. I remember that some stalwart principals resigned their posts while others stayed on vowing to preserve the good relationship between them and their teachers . . . and they did preserve that relationship for a time. They continued to see themselves as defenders and protectors of their staff and they pushed back on many board and ministry intrusions into their schools and classrooms.
For the first few years, not much changed. The role of principals and vice principals certainly became more administrative and, dare I say, bureaucratic, but most schools continued on as usual. And then a funny thing happened . . . as principals began to retire, the usual bullpen of potential replacements, the department heads, refused to step forward. These department heads didn’t only have the experience that would have made them ideal school leaders, but they had gained the respect of the teachers in their departments. But now, they didn’t like how the role of the principal had changed and they didn’t want to leave the security of their union. Some teachers who had never been department heads found themselves being tapped for principal positions. Soon younger and much less experienced teachers found themselves leading schools while their more experienced colleagues stepped back.
Then another funny thing happened. As this newer, younger, less experienced crop of principals became school leaders, they more readily accepted the roles as conduits for their employers. They implemented board and ministry initiatives and they managed their staff much like a business leader might. Many felt that principals were no longer the champion of their teachers; instead they were strictly managers. This new strained relationship between principals and their teachers exacerbated the hiring problem. Even fewer teachers found the position of principal attractive and school boards had to appeal to even younger, less experienced and ambitious teachers. It is now not unusual to find a school principal with a mere 5 years of teaching experience.
As it sits now, the principal hiring situation in Ontario could be called a crisis. The Ministry of Education knows it and school boards know it. Special administrative training programs have been set up to groom potential principals and weed out weaker candidates. Still, they can’t convince experienced teachers to step up.
Before principals were pulled out of their union, they were strong leaders in their schools. They were professional leaders; they were curricular leaders, and they were moral leaders. They could be these things because they were given the autonomy to do so. The term “principal” is the shortened form of “principal teacher” and that is exactly what they were. As teachers, standing with and leading their staff, they formed an education community that worked together for the benefit of the school, its students and their learning.
Nova Scotia, you don’t know how good you have it. Be careful what you wish for.
*On a side note, I hear the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union is planning an “illegal strike” to protest these changes. Our 1997 walkout was labelled an “illegal strike” too, but we were able to push back on many of the changes being imposed on the public school system.