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Learning to live with democracy

Kate Myers talks Tobayar Laattoe. BAYAR LAATTOE, 44, has been head for three years at Dryden Street Primary in Salt River, Cape Town, South Africa, a state mixed primary for 545 coloured and black pupils aged 5-13

Did you always want to be a head?

No, but I always wanted to be a very good teacher. When I left school I worked for a year as a technical surveyor. However, because of apartheid I was told there was no future in that field for me and so I had to rethink my life.

I spoke to an English woman who had been my biology teacher and she suggested teaching. She kindled a flame that had probably been burning all the time. I did a teaching diploma and then started teaching art at Dryden Street, where my father was also a teacher. After four years I started a BA, and through one particular pupil became interested in remedial teaching and so changed to do a diploma course in remedial education.

When I became a head of department, I enrolled to do a BEd and started to see school management in a different light. I became principal in 1993. I'm currently studying for a masters and trying to discover if there is a link between a well-managed school and the qualifications of the principal.

How would you describe your style of headship?

I would like to think that I have a democratic approach to leadership, though this approach is not easy. It's difficult for teachers who have been used to authoritarianism. It's easy to criticise but a bit more difficult when you have to live with the decisions you make. The threat of accountability is very real when you cannot blame others. Also, democratic decision-making takes a lot of time. It particularly takes time to try to reach a consensus rather than just go for a majority decision.

Teachers have a heavy workload, and so more and more meetings after school are not always popular. Some staff are not familiar with meeting procedures and sometimes they suggest I make the decisions myself. In the old days, when one person made the decisions, you knew where to go to lobby if you did not agree with it. But once decisions are made by the whole staff they cannot be revoked by one person. Far more is expected of teachers now, and some of them don't like that.

What is the most important aspect of a head's job?

Striking a balance between tasks and personal relationships. An emphasis on either one would be to the detriment of the school.

What do you enjoy most?

When pupils from high schools come back and pat us on our backs. When they come back and ask us for advice it shows they still have confidence in us as teachers, even though they left four or five years ago.

What don't you enjoy?

The occasions when I need something urgently and cannot access it because of bureaucracy.

What are the most difficult things you do?

Getting teachers and pupils to believe in themselves and realise they can and do make a difference. Also, convincing them that one does not necessarily measure success through material things such as cars and houses.

What was different from what you expected?

I thought that teachers would welcome playing a role in running their school. I think I underestimated the legacy of apartheid that enslaved so many of us. I thought that with democracy everything would become much easier, but it will take time - for example, for teachers to become confident in meetings.

Who most influenced you?

Every single teacher who taught me, and every techer with whom I have taught.

What keeps you sane?

A supportive wife and good friends.

Who do you admire?

People who have made a difference by making us look at life from a different perspective and left messages for us such as Gandhi, Jesus, Muhammad, Marx, Florence Nightingale and, of course, Mandela.

If you were education minister in South Africa, what changes would you make?

I'd lobby for more funds, though I know the World Bank would say there's enough already. But if we are serious about the importance of education, we need more. I'd also encourage the universities to play a more constructive role in disseminating research in a way that schools could use it.

What would you like to be remembered for?

Making a positive difference in any one student's life.

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