Are we expecting too much from principals? This may sound like an odd question, since a common view held by many people working in colleges is that those in exalted leadership positions – generally out of sight of the masses – must be having an easy time.
Looked at from the outside, such a view of senior managers may not, at first, appear to be devoid of validity.
Lecturers are generally known to be doing something: lecturing. Their whereabouts are known. Most of the week is predetermined and timetabled. Lecturers may liken their activities in the classroom to the stage (“What time are you on?”), but while marking, preparation and electronic communication all appear to be less visible, most of these activities take place in shared offices.
The lives of principals and senior management teams are different. They will typically be located apart. If not in a separate building, they are likely to inhabit larger offices, perhaps with the protection of at least one personal assistant.
Where do these two wings of college life meet? In committees. These are often not favoured by lecturers, possibly because when they are in front of senior colleagues, they lack the influence they usually exert in the classroom. But just as students may judge the quality of teaching in the classroom, it is the senior staff, often chairing meetings, who are most likely to be judged in this environment.
This is merely the beginning of the visible activities of principals. They will also be meeting with students, visitors and others, giving awards and smiling for all those pictures we see in the college prospectus, magazines and on websites.
For all the publicity, however, this is really low-level engagement. Most of the core activities of a principal involve colleagues from outside the college. Are there financial problems to be dealt with? What do local businesses say about the college and why? Long evenings, perhaps following long days, will be spent advancing – or otherwise – links with local businesses.
Additionally, given the relatively small number of colleges compared with schools, the chances of principals being asked to take on additional roles beyond their own institution are high. These may follow community or business lines, but they may also be about educational development, sometimes sitting on a high-profile committee. It’s career enhancing, possibly, and maybe even helps towards earning an MBE, but the work is certainly very visible and often demands travel and evening commitments.
It’s not possible to change the infrastructure of colleges, nor is it feasible to undertake a massive redistribution of offices or overhaul of job titles. So what can principals do to build bridges with their staff?
Four ways to engage staff
Ensure as far as possible that senior managers do not see themselves as a breed apart from other staff.
Make use of opportunities to work alongside lecturers and administrators you may not meet regularly.
Share the spotlight by involving other senior managers in public activities, such as photo opportunities and involvement with outside bodies.
Leaders with hands-on experience of teaching have a natural advantage in building positive relationships with colleagues who work at the chalkface.
For now, colleges may not have trouble in recruiting senior staff in the way that schools do. But if demands on them continue to grow, both visibly and behind the scenes, then this could be about to change.
Graham Fowler is an educational consultant and researcher