It’s a time to dip into books that you might not always get time for as one of the few good things of lockdown has been the gift of time. DIANE DE BEER reviews one such example:
As I don’t have children, schools have never loomed large in my adult life and, having had my own dose of prestigious same-sex schools in my youth, the traditions etc. don’t factor into my thinking.
But (full disclosure), as Bill Schroder is a family friend and I had listened to him speaking in general and more specifically about schools – also being a Pretoria inhabitant for the past 40 plus years – I was tempted to see what he had to say following his retirement (not that he has ever given up fundraising for his final alma mater).
And thus when starting with A Headmaster’s Story: My Life in Education by Bill Schroder (Jonathan Ball Publishers), it took a few chapters for me to fully engage. But once he grabbed hold of me, it was a fascinating read.
With the current pandemic, most people will have realised how vital frontline or essential workers are to all of our lives. These are the people who are taken for granted, held in little regard and paid extremely badly. With money being power in the world we live in, no wonder the teaching profession is not taken seriously.
And yet all of us go to school and we all know the impact those special teachers in our lives have on our future. They are the people who speak truth to power, who are intent on showing their pupils the things that count and who often steer us in a direction that we never thought was possible.
What we should never forget with these essential workers (and this is exactly what teachers and educators are) is that they are often driven by an overwhelming desire to do the best they can. It is a calling rather than a career and that’s why the good ones always rise to the top.
Once the young Schroder realises that what he wants to do is be a headmaster, to lead, and to do it his way, there’s no stopping him. He paid his dues and proved his mettle at schools that were write-offs in the community but he also learnt valuable lessons right through his teaching career from the day he started.
He is someone who knows and acknowledges when he could possibly have done better (a rare trait) in the competitive world of top schools where it is dog eats dog (as in any of these mini societies that are understood only by those who are part of them). To survive all the in-fighting and the struggle of getting it right is a feat in itself, especially if you are an outsider, which in many instances is what he was.
But this is not where this headmaster lingers. He is much more intent on dealing with the way he did things and why he believes they work.
For the reader, it is clear that he had some blessings – his wife Cherry the most important one. Both of them are their own people but Schroder is very clear on why he could deliver his ideals – his wife supported him in everything he did as a headmaster. When they had to move even in the worst of circumstances, she simply got packing. And often his teaching duties included that of serving as house master at one of the boarding homes, which included the co-operation of the whole family. Irt was never an issue And allows you to focus where it’s necessary.
There are many stories and lessons he imparts but often it is best just to hear what he has to say.
As the book progresses, in his own words, he offers the perfect example of his leadership with this example:
“…I feel strongly that when a principal is involved in major (and not so major) disciplinary and behavioural issues, he or she can frequently defuse them and prevent long, drawn-out disciplinary issues that then end up in the hands of people who are not necessarily skilled or experienced enough to deal with the problem. It is vital their parents to know that the head finds these issues important enough to get involved.
“I know there are procedures that are prescribed for dealing with various disciplinary issues, but in my opinion, these should be a last resort. I am sure that when serious disciplinary issues arise in schools, there has not been visible leadership, getting to the source of the problem immediately and decisively.
“…this underlines the need to surround yourself with good and trustworthy people, and to let them pick up the issues at which you as leader might not be competent, and in so doing also to acknowledge your weaknesses.
“No matter how small or inconsequential a problem that a pupil brings to you may seem, if it is important to him or her, then as a leader you need to respect that importance. Theories of leadership and leadership styles abound; arguments about whether leaders are born or can be made have gone on for centuries; and of course your leadership style is a reflection of many things, and in particular your personality….
The next priority for me was support for my staff. …”
It is this kind of insight that makes this such a fascinating read. For those of us living in Pretoria, many stories swirl around about loved headmasters. There’s a reason for that; they make a difference to lives – more importantly young lives.
And Schroder didn’t only make a difference to the lives directly under his care. As the former headmaster of one of the country’s top schools, a few years after retirement he was approached to consider mentoring a secondary school in Soshanguwe.
He was persuaded by a former member of the governing body of Boys High to assist them. His brief was specifically to mentor the principal and his staff at this particular school. He describes it as a “most interesting, challenging and at times a depressing relationship,” but more importantly he goes on to say, “from which I have learned as much, if not more, than they have.”
Like much of his advice throughout the book, it is often relevant to ordinary lives. He was blessed with a great partner who stood by his side throughout his career and brought her own special magic as the headmaster’s wife. That allowed him to walk and talk his own truth which he imparts in this smart book.
And even for those who don’t have kids at school, it’s good to know that we still have these educators who are in it for all the right reasons. It has always been one of the noblest and most precious professions, but it gets tougher and tougher to make it a choice.
It’s time that we honour these noble warriors who still stand up to be counted. It’s a calling and they can’t help themselves.
We need to salute them.