The Role of the Principal in Canada – FENNELL (CSS)

FENNELL, Hope-Arlene. The Role of the Principal in Canada. Calgary: Detselig Enterprises Ltd., 2002. 141p. Resenha de: THOMPSON, Caroline J. Canadian Social Studies, v.38, n.3, p., 2004.

In recent years much has been written about the responsibilities of school administrators and how they understand their role. Escalating educational costs and shrinking resources have precipitated demands for more accountability by principals and greater corporate involvement in our schools. The impact on principals has been challenging and may be contributing to the growing shortage of school administrators. It was with great interest that I read Fennell’s book, The Role of the Principal in Canada, in which she presents the research of scholars from Alberta, Nova Scotia and Ontario who looked into the concerns of principals and make recommendations for how they can be better prepared for what lies ahead.

In To Be or Not To Be: Factors Impacting on the Decision of Teachers to Move Into the Principalship, Bnard and Vail surveyed administrators in Ontario to compare their current role perceptions with their motivations for becoming principals in the first place. Although the return rate of surveys was only 41%, a substantial number reported that stress, increased workload and increased accountability (p. 18) made their work less appealing than they had expected it to be. I would have preferred to see elaboration in some of the sample responses under the headings Additional Comments or Feedback Shared, and Obstacles to Accessing Principals’ Qualification Courses because such items as changing role of the principalship (p. 18) and course content (p. 19) are unclear as to whether they are positive or negative factors. However, Bnard and Vail’s interpretation of the findings as they pertain to the leadership crisis in Ontario are useful, and their alternative to the standard principal certification program commendable.

Castle, Mitchell and Gupta’s work highlights the negative effects of restructuring by the Ontario government in 1996 without consulting principals and allowing them time for reflection. In their chapter, Roles of Elementary School Principals in Ontario: Tasks and Tensions, these authors imply that the mandated changes did not take into consideration how individual principals would cope with resulting role ambiguity and the fragmentation of responsibilities. The 1990s vision of principals as transformational leaders is so blurred by managerial tasks that one wonders whether government now believes that schools need principals at all.

Macmillan and Meyer used a survey in Nova Scotia to investigate the impact of external agendas on the instructional leadership role administrators used to perform. In The Principalship: What Comes with Experience, they recommend grant writing training in principal certification programs to reflect the new realities. They list administrative duties under three headings: Instruction, Monitoring and Communication, and Management (p. 42), but one wonders if these categories may be too broad. Also, it is not clear whether principals regard these duties as positive or negative, and the meaning of all the statistics reported on pages 44-48 is unclear. Such broad groupings and numbers may obscure what might have been captured using a qualitative methodology.

The chapter I felt most comfortable with was Fennell’s own, titled Living Leadership: Experiences of Six Women Principals. In her research, Fennell used a narrative inquiry methodology to share the visions of professional commitment, care and respect of her six study participants. While many of her findings are not new in reporting the role perceptions and styles of women principals, her research makes a strong case for studying leadership from a phenomenological perspective. Through conversations with and observations of her respondents, she found their discomfort with authoritarian, hierarchical management styles had led them to their current view of leadership. All six women reported that prior to being principals they had experienced too much management and too little leadership to promote student learning. Furthermore, their desire to create a nurturing school climate of shared decision-making, evolved out of their former feelings of inadequacy when they were involved in power struggles with males. These principals were committed to improving the lives of others within an ethos of dignity and appreciation. Fennell states that each participant in her study felt it was important to build trust and support students and staff to deal with problems in their own way. Consequently, the need for time to reflect cannot be overstated.

Sarbit’s examination of what happens when a principal in Alberta changes schools contributes greatly to our knowledge of educational administration at a time when there is tremendous principal turnover. In Principal Succession: The ‘Reel’ Story, her research shows that while the administrator brings along the qualities and skills possessed at the former school, there are many adjustments required in the new context. Using a narrative inquiry methodology Sarbit cast herself as a movie director and was able to capture multiple layers of meaning through her camera lens. She recommends that succession be a topic in principal certification programs.

The chapter by Goddard, Placing Community Before Efficiency? A Social and Cultural Analysis Concerning the Amalgamation of Rural Schools, on the effects of rural school closures in the name of political expediency shows how an economic efficiency model based in a corporate mentality hurts both students and staff. He applies priorities of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (U.S.A.) for students and teachers to our Canadian educational landscape. Goddard maintains that the forced assimilation of rural students into larger, geographically distant institutions does not yield improvement in student achievement; on the contrary, the closures of small neighbourhood schools reduces student participation in governance and many school activities. While this chapter raises many issues of concern to students, parents and teachers, I wish it had been more explicit in how the pressures of school consolidation affect the principal’s role.

In the final chapter, Inclusive Leadership for Diverse Schools: Initiating and Sustaining Dialogue, Ryan discusses the challenges administrators face in responding to increased diversity in student populations. He uses terms like intelligence assessment, disability and minority culture to advocate for more inclusion and recommends that principals use a reciprocal, participatory stance to encourage dialogue. The author does not acknowledge that schools have historically had diverse populations and that cultural and gender discrimination are not new phenomena in Canadian schools. The relation of dialogue to improving inclusion is hardly a new idea. Inviting principals to come out of the office and walk the halls (Ryan, p. 129) reflects a historically male-centred approach to leadership while concurrently failing to address the current economic and political pressures that are driving them back there. By stating that the principal establishes school climate from a position of power and needs to handle (Ryan,
p. 126) multiculturalism by engaging in dialogue, one wonders what changes really need to be made.

I found this book interesting and informative. The title is a bit misleading, since it suggests to the reader that there will be a cross-section of perspectives from each province and territory. I was unable to apply some of it to my experience as a principal in an Aboriginal community, but related to the challenges of change and bureaucracy. I found it compelling to know that the authors were reporting on the realities of current principals and making recommendations that might help. The comparative aspect of accounts from contributors in such diverse areas leads one to appreciate the commonalities of administrators’ collective experience and their dedication to a cause larger than themselves.

Caroline J. Thompson – Faculty of Education. The University of Western. Ontario. London, Ontario.

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