(First published in the Manawatu Standard, March 28, and the Nelson Mail, March 29.)
I WAS contacted recently by a primary school teacher. She tracked me down after reading something I had written about a nasty incident in which two Northland school principals bullied a colleague who had dared to speak out in favour of national standards.
I was alarmed by what this teacher told me. A relative newcomer to New Zealand, she had been attracted here because we had a high literacy rate and, in her own words, “seemed to be doing all the right things in education”.
She had 25 years’ teaching experience in her home country, working mainly in schools serving poor urban communities, often with a high ratio of pupils from ethnic minorities. She enjoyed working in that environment so was happy to accept a position in a decile one school with a predominantly Maori roll in a small, economically backward country town. As she explained it to me, she relished being confronted with a class of “challenging” pupils and motivating them to succeed.
After three years, however, she was disillusioned and disheartened – if not with the state of New Zealand education generally, then certainly with the potential for abuse of power by dysfunctional individuals within the system. She was so disquieted by what she encountered that she began a blog, seen by only a few close friends and fellow teachers, in which she catalogued her experiences and impressions.
In this case the school principal was a controlling bully who ran the school as his personal fiefdom, rewarding teachers who were on his side and punishing those who dared to make waves.
Often it was the pupils who ended up being penalised, since the principal exercised control by withdrawing resources and privileges from the classes of teachers who were seen as troublesome.
The principal also had what are euphemistically known as anger management issues. According to my informant, it wasn’t just pupils who were subjected to his rages; parents and staff copped it as well.
She told me of one girl who was so distressed by a tirade in the principal’s office (for the offence of chewing gum) that she wet herself. In another incident, a pupil was grasped by the shirt, lifted to eye-level, slammed against a wall and told never to “f***ing do that again” after overturning a rubbish bin.
On another occasion, three staff felt so intimidated by the principal that they stood outside his house, too scared to wake him and ask him to move his car so that the school vans could be backed out and used for a scheduled field trip.
My informant listed several other incidents, but you get the picture.
The principal’s techniques for managing staff are worth noting, too. Favoured teachers were promoted without vacancies being advertised. Extra payments known as units, which are meant to compensate teachers for taking on special responsibilities, were handed out as rewards, like lollies. Though they were supposed to be allocated transparently after consultation with the staff, no one but the principal knew who had been awarded the units or even how many were available for distribution.
When an Education Review Office team visited the school, the principal warned teachers beforehand that jobs would be lost if the school got a bad report, and that he would insist on knowing the source of any adverse comment made to the ERO reviewers. My informant wrote in her blog: “The [ERO] report came out glowing with plausible explanations given for the high turnover in staff, dropping enrolment and low test scores.”
The teacher concerned has now left the school after being declared surplus, partly due to the school’s steadily declining roll.
In the course of several conversations with her, I concluded she was a dedicated professional who was genuinely distressed by what she saw. This impression was confirmed by a neutral third party who was familiar with the situation at the school.
Now, here’s the bigger issue. If this were just one dysfunctional school with a rogue principal, that would be serious enough. But what if it’s not simply a one-off aberration? Could there be other schools in a similar predicament?
The answer seems to be yes, because my informant’s observations point to a critical deficiency in the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms of 1989, which bestowed autonomy on school boards of trustees, concentrated power in principals’ hands and stripped away a layer of supervision previously provided by district education boards.
In theory the reforms sounded fine. But what happens when the board of trustees is controlled by an alpha-male principal and effectively does what he tells them?
In this case, according to my informant, the man had been a principal for a long time and the board of trustees rubber-stamped everything he proposed. “When he offered me a job I assumed I would have to be interviewed by the board, but he told me: ‘The board does everything I say’. I thought, okay, this is the way they do things in New Zealand. I didn’t want to rock the boat.” It was only later, when she talked to another experienced teacher who had recently joined the school, that she realised it wasn’t the way schools were supposed to be run.
But it was even worse than that, because the principal effectively chose the board himself. He would invite community members to put themselves forward but no elections took place because the number of individuals asked to be on the board always equalled the number of vacant seats.
In her blog, my informant wrote that the several levels of checks and controls she was used to in her home country did not exist in New Zealand to oversee and monitor individual schools.
Education minister Hekia Parata, who is currently overseeing a review of school governance, should take note.
A lot has been said and written in recent years about the inadequacies of the Tomorrow’s Schools model, especially in isolated rural communities such as the one described above, where it’s hard to attract board members with the required skills. It has also been noted that the 1989 reforms greatly enhanced the position and control of the principal.
Combine those two elements – a weak board and a bullying principal – and the consequences, as my informant’s experience shows, can be very damaging.