Talking heads

17th July 1998 at 01:00
Name: Kemp J Rickett

Age: 52

Years of headship: 17

School: DuNdas Public School (second headship)

Type: Elementary, 550 pupils (aged 4 to 10; 60 per cent have Cantonese or Vietnamese as first language; 50 other languages spoken by pupils Location: downtown Toronto, Canada

Did you always want to be a head?

I had an exchange year at Corstorphine primary school in Edinburgh. Being in a school with infants opened my eyes to another way of seeing organisational structure.

In 1982 I became a principal of a French immersion elementary school and very interested in co-operative learning, how small groups work and ethnomethodology, that is how we construct knowledge and work out how to work with each other. I realised that the greatest mistake in in-service training is focusing on the individual teacher as the entity of change - it has to be the school.

How would you describe your style of headship?

One, distributed leadership which involves shared decision-making and giving opportunities for teacher talk. Two, heterogeneity - we must stop trying to homogenise teachers and instead build on the strengths they each bring. Three, mature dependency encouraging staff to acknowledge each other's strengths. Four, social skills, helping teachers develop the skills necessary to communicate with each other, children and parents. Five, group autonomy, allowing decisions taken by a group to take effect which takes us back to the first principle.

What are the most important aspects of a head's job?

Creating a school culture where the weakest member at any given time is being supported, in the recognition that all of us are the weakest member at some point in time.

What do you enjoy?

I love being around young children and find that some of their energy transfers to me. When I'm stressed I head straight for the kindergarten. I enjoy practising the craft of teaching and working with adults to develop an effective school culture.

What don't you enjoy?

Administrative tasks.

What are the most difficult things you do?

Having a sense of where we should go and allowing the staff to go in the direction they want. I never know whether this is right or wrong.

Whowhat most influenced you in your approach?

My mother, who taught me to trust my instinct. Jimmy Britton, the guru on co-operative teaching, and Shlomo, Sharan and Yael from Israel who have written on collaborative learning and democratic leadership. Also James Heap, my supervisor at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and Michael Thrasher, a Native Canadian teacher who teaches about the medicine wheel and the balance between life and work.

What keeps you sane?

Roller blading and Nordic-track ski-ing (exercise machine). I take no work home and have nothing at home that reminds me of work.

If you were education minister?

I would slow down the pace of change. Move away from stringent testing of individual children and ensure a level of autonomy to shape the relationship between the school and its community.

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