November 8, 2019

Self- interest is always trying!

The second in Vicki’s blog series “Lessons I learnt during twenty years as a principal that nobody talks about much.”

With the Spring racing carnival in full swing, I’m entering the spirit of things and using a racing analogy as the theme for this blog.

Racing folklore has it that in any particular horse race, not all participants are necessarily racing to win: as they ready themselves for a race later on, there may be all sorts of reasons they don’t perform to their best.

However, when it comes to the human animal and the race called life, I’d like to suggest that self-interest is always trying and that school principals are well-placed to witness this phenomenon.

I recall reading an autobiography by Betty Archdale who was Abbotsleigh principal in Sydney during the 1960s. She wrote of how the final year of her principalship was a most miserable one once the school community became aware of her impending departure: she lamented how the positive attention that she was accustomed to receiving was directed elsewhere in accordance with the general perception that her influence was on the wane.

It was a similar situation with a recently retired principal colleague of mine who referred to his struggle to adjust to his post-principal life as “relevancy deprivation”.

As a principal who has finished tenures of over a decade at each of two schools, I can identify with these sentiments, although I must add that I will be forever grateful to the many staff, students  and parents who went to such great lengths to make my departure from Pymble Ladies’ College a most memorable one.

There is no doubt that schools everywhere rely on the goodwill of many genuine parents and staff who devote boundless time, energy and commitment to supporting their school and I have had the pleasure of being associated with large numbers of this type of person throughout my career.

However, schools, like all organisations and society in general, possess subgroups of self-focussed individuals whose behaviour requires great scrutiny from the discerning principal.

The presence of these self-serving groups requires that principals should never assume that any positive attention directed their way has anything to do with the principal’s outstanding personal attributes.

Undoubtedly, in some cases, the principal may be a rare, fine character who warrants adoring attention. However, from the groups in question, the attention is more likely to be given in the expectation that one day its giving spawns a return favour.

Principals observe this phenomenon in its most extreme form around the times of prefect selection and speech night awards selection. I can recall occasions when, at this time, parents of contenders for award/leadership positions offered donations (sometimes very significant in size) to the school.

Now it may have been coincidence that they chose this particular time to express their altruism but for the record, I declined all such offers on behalf of the school because of the impression that their acceptance may have created in the minds of persons of integrity.

And of course, that’s to say nothing of the furore that principals must handle after award and position recipients are announced as disappointed parents and students lodge their protests. For some, in the race of life, winning is everything!